Here’s why 2024 could be the year of lunar exploration


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The year ahead promises to deliver some spectacular pursuits, pushing human and scientific exploration of the cosmos further than it’s gone in decades.

The visions are grand: NASA plans to send astronauts on a lunar fly-by mission that will travel deeper into the solar system than anyone has ventured in more than 50 years.

The US space agency and its allies are mapping out ways to establish a permanent settlement, while countries including Russia and China are chasing similar dreams. And some of the world’s richest people continue to chase their extraterrestrial ambitions.

Meanwhile, science-focused missions are enhancing the collective understanding of our universe faster than ever before as we enter a golden age of academic research.

Missions intended to explore the potential habitability for life on ice-covered ocean worlds in our solar system and to survey the aftermath of a spacecraft intentionally ramming into an asteroid are expected to launch this year. And one research team even wants to test the feasibility of biological materials used in space exploration and launch a wooden satellite.

Here’s a look at the exciting moments ahead in 2024.

Return to the moon

A portrait of the Artemis II crew provided by NASA. The astronauts are, from left, NASA Astronauts Christina Koch, Victor Glover, Reid Wiseman, and Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Jeremy Hansen. - Josh Valcarcel/NASA

A portrait of the Artemis II crew provided by NASA. The astronauts are, from left, NASA Astronauts Christina Koch, Victor Glover, Reid Wiseman, and Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Jeremy Hansen. – Josh Valcarcel/NASA

NASA is planning to carry out its most complex and high-risk endeavor in decades with Artemis II — a mission slated to launch in November that will carry four astronauts on a trip around the moon.

It will mark a historic feat, since no human has traveled beyond the area of space in Earth’s immediate orbit since the Cold War-era space race of the 20th century.

This mission will circumnavigate the moon, brushing by its surface but never touching down. It will build on a successful uncrewed test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft in late 2022.

The four astronauts on board will be NASA’s Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover and Christina Koch, and the Canadian Space Agency’s Jeremy Hansen. Koch will be the first woman to join a lunar mission.

If successful, Artemis II will pave the way for the launch of Artemis III, which aims to land humans on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Starship test launches

SpaceX's Starship rocket and spacecraft system launched from the company's Starbase facilities in South Texas on November 18, 2023, marking the second test flight of the rocket, the largest rocket ever built. The test mission came after a first attempt to fly the spaceship in its fully-stacked configuration in April ended in a spectacular explosion over the Gulf of Mexico. - Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesSpaceX's Starship rocket and spacecraft system launched from the company's Starbase facilities in South Texas on November 18, 2023, marking the second test flight of the rocket, the largest rocket ever built. The test mission came after a first attempt to fly the spaceship in its fully-stacked configuration in April ended in a spectacular explosion over the Gulf of Mexico. - Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

As NASA gears up for Artemis II, SpaceX — the Elon Musk-run venture — will be racing to spur development of Starship, the largest rocket and spacecraft system ever developed.

SpaceX has grand plans for Starship, which conducted two test launches in 2023, both of which ended in explosions over the ocean.

Though Musk and SpaceX have grand visions for Starship, including sending the first humans to Mars, NASA also plans to use the rocket system alongside its own SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft for the Artemis III mission, slated to launch as early as 2025.

Starship will carry the astronauts from the Orion spacecraft as it orbits the moon and ferry them down to the lunar surface. There’s a long way to go beforehand, with SpaceX needing to figure out how to launch Starship safely into orbit, land and reuse both the rocket booster and spacecraft — as well as figure out how to refuel the gargantuan vehicle while it’s in orbit.

SpaceX will be looking to make significant progress on those fronts in 2024 with additional test flights. (Details about the timing of those tests have not been released.)

Investigating an ocean world

NASA's Europa Clipper will investigate the potential habitability of one of Jupiter's ice-covered ocean world moons. - NASANASA's Europa Clipper will investigate the potential habitability of one of Jupiter's ice-covered ocean world moons. - NASA

NASA’s Europa Clipper will investigate the potential habitability of one of Jupiter’s ice-covered ocean world moons. – NASA

Europa Clipper, the largest spacecraft NASA has developed for a planetary mission, is set to launch in October. The orbiter will carry nine instruments to determine whether Jupiter’s moon Europa can support life within the ocean beneath its icy crust. With its massive solar arrays deployed, Europa Clipper will be more than 100 feet (30.5 meters) across and stand 16 feet (5 meters) tall.

Europa, one of the ocean world moons in our solar system, is considered to be one of the best places to search for life beyond Earth. After arriving in orbit in April 2030, Europa Clipper is set to make nearly 50 flybys of Europa, eventually coming within 16 miles (25.7 kilometers) above its thick ice crust to survey nearly the entirety of that moon.

Europa Clipper will use its cameras and spectrometers to gather high-resolution images and create maps of the moon’s surface and atmosphere. It also carries an ice-penetrating radar to study the subsurface ocean and a thermal instrument to determine weak, warmer areas where water rises through cracks in the ice shell.

If Clipper is lucky, it may fly through one of the moon’s plumes that release particles into space, creating a chance to study the composition of the internal ocean.

The mission aims to help scientists understand how the moon formed and if it’s possible for life to exist on icy ocean worlds.

NASA’s robots on the moon

Crewed trips to the moon aside, NASA and other countries also have extensive plans for the robotic exploration of our moon.

This past year saw several nations and companies racing to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon.

So far, only India has succeeded.

China is the only other country to complete such a feat in the 21st century. Russia failed in its attempt, and the United States hasn’t tried to return a vehicle to the moon’s surface in five decades.

But American lunar ambitions could change quickly in 2023.

NASA has plans to send as many as four spacecraft to land on the moon in 2024 as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS program. Essentially, the space agency paid a few private companies a lump sum to develop lunar landers.

Those missions are set to kick off with the launch of a spacecraft built by Pennsylvania-based company Astrobotic Technology. The group’s Peregrine lander is expected to take flight aboard a new — and massively powerful rocket — called Vulcan Centaur, developed by the joint Boeing and Lockheed Martin venture called United Launch Alliance.

Various scientific payloads will be on board Peregrine, including a radiation monitor that will inspect how dangerous the lunar surface can be for astronaut health.

The Peregrine mission is slated to launch in January, while three other lunar landers from companies, including Texas-based ventures Firefly and Intuitive Machines, could take off later in 2024.

Japan’s moon landing

An artist's depiction shows what the "Moon Sniper" mission will look like after landing on the lunar surface. - JAXAAn artist's depiction shows what the "Moon Sniper" mission will look like after landing on the lunar surface. - JAXA

An artist’s depiction shows what the “Moon Sniper” mission will look like after landing on the lunar surface. – JAXA

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, is expected to touch down on the lunar surface in January.

The lander, nicknamed the “Moon Sniper” for its precision technology, launched in September 2023 alongside the XRISM satellite (pronounced “crism”), also called the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, a joint mission between JAXA and NASA. Following the launch, SLIM used its own propulsion system to head toward the moon.

After going into orbit around the moon on December 25, SLIM is expected to land on the lunar surface at 10:20 p.m. ET on January 19, or 12:20 a.m. Japan Standard Time on January 20. If SLIM misses this window, it has another opportunity to land on February 16.

The small-scale exploration lander is designed to demonstrate a “pinpoint” landing at a specific location within 100 meters (328 feet), rather than the typical kilometer range, by relying on high-precision landing technology.

If the lander touches down successfully, it will briefly study the lunar surface just south of the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 landed near the moon’s equator in 1969.

Achieving precise landings on the moon is a key target for JAXA and other space agencies, especially as they look to explore hazardous but resource-rich parts of the moon. SLIM’s lightweight design could also be favorable as agencies plan more frequent missions and explore moons around other planets such as Mars.

Flying by a cosmic collision

In September 2022, the world watched as NASA intentionally crashed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos. The DART collision successfully changed the trajectory of the space rock, which orbits a larger parent asteroid called Didymos.

While neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth, the mission marked the first full-scale test of asteroid deflection technology, and the first time humanity intentionally changed the motion of a celestial object in space.

In October 2024, the European Space Agency plans to launch a follow-up mission named Hera to fly by the asteroid system in December 2026, arriving just over four years after the initial collision to survey the aftermath and catch details that ground-based observations were unable to detect.

Two briefcase-size CubeSats called APEX and Juventas will accompany Hera to capture additional details about the asteroids.

Hera will study the surfaces of both asteroids, measure physical properties of Dimorphos and examine the DART impact crater and the moon’s orbit. Together, this data will help space agencies establish an effective planetary defense strategy.

Polaris Dawn pushes to new heights

Jared Isaacman, founder and chief executive officer of Shift4 Payments, stands for a portrait in front of the recovered first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California on February 2, 2021. - Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty ImagesJared Isaacman, founder and chief executive officer of Shift4 Payments, stands for a portrait in front of the recovered first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California on February 2, 2021. - Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Jared Isaacman, founder and chief executive officer of Shift4 Payments, stands for a portrait in front of the recovered first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California on February 2, 2021. – Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Last year may have marked one of the first in which space tourism — both orbital and suborbital — kicked off with regularity.

But it could reach new heights in 2024. Literally.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of the payment services company Shift4, is paying SpaceX for a series of private missions to space.

The first is expected to launch as soon as 2024, and it will see members of the mission — called Polaris Dawn — attempt to conduct the first spacewalk carried out by a private citizen.

Polaris Dawn is expected to travel out to the Van Allen radiation belt, which has an inner band that stretches from about 400 to 6,000 miles above Earth, in part to help the crew research how radiation in space affects the human body. It will also be farther than any human has traveled in space since the Apollo era — if Polaris Dawn does indeed launch before NASA’s Artemis II flight.

Isaacman will be joined on the mission by Scott Poteet, a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel, as well as two SpaceX employees: lead operations engineers Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon.

Space tourism forges ahead

Billionaire Richard Branson took off aboard Virgin Galaactic's SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, on July 11, 2021, reaching the edge of space. Virgin Galactic has since begun conducting routine flights for high-paying customers. - Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty ImagesBillionaire Richard Branson took off aboard Virgin Galaactic's SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, on July 11, 2021, reaching the edge of space. Virgin Galactic has since begun conducting routine flights for high-paying customers. - Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Billionaire Richard Branson took off aboard Virgin Galaactic’s SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, on July 11, 2021, reaching the edge of space. Virgin Galactic has since begun conducting routine flights for high-paying customers. – Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

While Polaris Dawn attempts to break barriers, NASA, SpaceX and Houston-based company Axiom will continue to offer regular flights to the International Space Station for customers.

Axiom-3 will mark the third private mission to the orbiting outpost, slated to launch no earlier than January.

While earlier Axiom missions have offered rides to wealthy thrill seekers, this trip will include only military professionals and former or active government astronauts: European Space Agency astronaut Marcus Wandt, former NASA astronaut and Axiom flight leader Michael López-Alegría, Turkish fighter pilot Alper Gezeravci and Italian air force Col. Walter Villadei.

They’ll spend about 14 days on the space station, working alongside the crew of government astronauts that make up its official staff.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are expected to continue offering rides to the edge of space. Both companies provide brief trips to suborbital space that give passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.

Virgin Galactic is expected to launch its sixth customer mission in January, though the company likely will pause operations at some point in 2024 to focus on developing a larger line of rocket-powered space planes.

Blue Origin just returned to flying its New Shepard space tourism rocket after an uncrewed version of the rocket failed during a science mission in 2022. The company is expected to continue flying customers at some point in 2024 following a successful uncrewed science mission on December 18.

New ferries to the space station for cargo and crew

If all goes according to plan, the International Space Station will get two new vehicles capable of docking with the orbiting outpost — one that can deliver supplies and another capable of ferrying astronauts — in 2024.

The Boeing-built Starliner spacecraft is expected to launch its first crew after years of delays. (The vehicle suffered setbacks related to software and hardware issues during testing.)

But a pristine launch of four astronauts on a flight slated no earlier than March 2024 could pave the way for Starliner to begin conducting regular astronaut flights. It’s expected to work alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — which has been operational since 2020 — to keep the space station fully staffed.

Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada Corp. is expected to introduce the Dream Chaser, a cargo ship that looks much like a miniature NASA space shuttle. It’s slated to take off for its inaugural flight as soon as April 2024.

Keeping an eye on Earth

An illustration depicts PACE in orbit above Earth after launch. - NASAAn illustration depicts PACE in orbit above Earth after launch. - NASA

An illustration depicts PACE in orbit above Earth after launch. – NASA

Monitoring Earth from space can yield valuable insights into changes the planet is experiencing amid the climate crisis. NASA plans to launch new Earth-monitoring missions in 2024 that track ocean, land and ice activity.

PACE, or the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem mission, is expected to launch in February to assess air quality and the health of our oceans. The mission will map phytoplankton, or tiny plants and algae that form the foundation of the marine food chain, as well as track tiny particles suspended in the atmosphere called aerosols. The mission’s instruments will allow scientists to study how the atmosphere and ocean interact.

Also launching this year is NASA’s first collaborative Earth-observing mission with the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO. The NISAR satellite, short for the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar, will launch from India and track land and ice-based surfaces over the next three years.

In addition to providing insights into Earth’s crust, the mission is designed to aid scientists in monitoring how our ecosystems are reacting to the climate crisis. NISAR will capture data about sea-level rise and other natural hazards that shed light on the pace and effects of climate change.

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