NASA's plans for the 2020s include landing humans on the Moon, detecting quakes on Mars, and defending Earth from deadly asteroids

Business Insider US
This artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars.
  • NASA has big plans for the next decade of space exploration.
  • In the last year, the agency has announced plans to send humans back to the moon and search for life near Saturn.
  • NASA's 10-year plan also includes missions to probe the metal of a dead planet, photograph the Big Bang, and scan for aliens in a hidden ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

NASA's plan for the next decade involves billions of dollars and spans millions of miles. And much like the universe, it's only expanding.

One year ago, NASA announced plans to send astronauts back to the moon. The agency said it would eventually build a lunar base, and springboard to Mars in the years after that.

Since that announcement, NASA has planned an explosion of new space exploration projects. In September, NASA administrators shared a new plan to launch a telescope into Earth's orbit that will hunt for deadly asteroids. In June, the agency introduced a mission to fly a nuclear-powered helicopter over the surface of Titan, an icy moon of Saturn, to scan for alien life.

Meanwhile, four new telescopes will try to photograph our entire cosmic history and map the dark matter that governs our universe.

Here are some of NASA's biggest and most ambitious plans for the coming decade.

Several groundbreaking NASA missions are already in progress, including a probe that will rocket past the sun a total of 24 times.

Launched: August 12, 2018

Arrived: November 5, 2018

The Parker Solar Probe is traveling closer to the sun than anything from Earth before it. The mission aims to investigate the forces behind solar wind, which could inform efforts to protect technology on Earth from the sun's flare-ups.

Parker slingshots around the sun at record speeds of up to 213,200 mph; it finished its third close encounter in September. A powerful heat shield keeps the spacecraft's equipment cool.

Now it's heading towards Venus for its second pass around the planet.

Far from the sun, New Horizons is exploring the Kuiper Belt, a region of millions of chunks of ice left over from the solar system's birth.

Launched: January 19, 2006

Arrived at Arrokoth: January 1, 2019

The New Horizons spacecraft visited Pluto and the ice dwarfs surrounding it in 2015. In January, the spacecraft reached the farthest object anything human-made has ever visited: a snowman-shaped space rock called Arrokoth. (Before November, Arrokoth was informally named "Ultima Thule.")

The spacecraft sent back the following video of Arrokoth, though it will likely take until late 2020 for scientists to receive and download all the data from New Horizons' flyby.

So far, we've learned that the primordial object contains methanol, water ice, and organic molecules.

On the surface of Mars, the InSight lander is listening for quakes.


Launched: May 5, 2018

Arrived: November 26, 2018

Since the InSight lander touched down on the surface of the red planet, it has detected more than 20 Mars quakes. The early data is giving scientists new insight into the planet's internal structure.

A new Mars rover is expected to join InSight in 2021. NASA is building the vehicle in its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Planned launch: July 2020

Anticipated arrival: February 2021

The Mars 2020 rover will search for signs of ancient microbial alien life on the red planet, collect and stash rock samples, and test out technology that could pave the way for humans to walk the Martian surface.

You can tune in to NASA's live broadcast of the rover's construction anytime, and watch the $2.1 billion mission take shape.

Researchers hope a future mission to Mars could pack up the rock samples that the rover collects and send them back to Earth.

Planned launch: Unknown

Anticipated arrival: Unknown

Until NASA sends another robot to Mars that could launch the stored samples to Earth, the 2020 rover will store the samples in its belly and search for a place on Mars where it can stash them for pickup.

NASA eventually hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars. But before that, the agency plans to return astronauts to the moon and build a lunar base.

Planned launch: Unknown

Anticipated arrival: 2024

NASA wants to send humans to the moon again by 2024. Those would be the first boots on the lunar surface since the Apollo program ended over 45 years ago. This time, however, NASA wants to build a moon-orbiting space station with a reusable lunar-landing system.

The idea is that the lunar base could allow for more in-depth scientific research of the moon. It could even enable us to mine resources there that could be converted to fuel for further space travel.

The agency plans to pave the way with a lunar rover that will create the first map of all the moon's water ice.

Planned launch: Unknown

Anticipated arrival: December 2022

Astronauts will likely need to harvest water ice from the moon so they can break it down into oxygen (for breathing) and hydrogen (for fuel). Nobody has yet mapped the ice on the moon's south pole, where NASA wants to set up its astronauts' base.

That's where it plans to send the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover.

If successful, the machine would be the first to ever land on the moon's south pole without crashing.

From the lunar surface, astronauts could make jet fuel to springboard to Mars.

Planned launch: 2030s

Anticipated arrival: 2030s

The next moon mission will test deep-space exploration systems, which NASA hopes will carry humans on to Mars.

NASA is already designing future astronauts' gear. They're sending spacesuit material on the Mars 2020 rover to test how it holds up in the planet's harsh atmosphere.

Astronauts traveling to Mars would have to spend about three years away from Earth. They would probably need to use resources from the lunar and Martian surfaces in the meantime. A deep-space habitat competition this year yielded a 3D-printable pod that could be constructed using materials found on Mars.

NASA also plans to investigate our solar system's past by exploring an ancient asteroid belt that surrounds Jupiter.

Planned launch: October 2021

Anticipated arrival: 2027

A mysterious swarm of Trojan asteroids - the term for space rocks that follow planets - trail Jupiter's orbit around the sun. NASA's Lucy mission plans to visit six of them.

"We know very little about these objects," Jim Green, the leader of NASA's planetary science program, said in a NASA video. "They may be captured asteroids, comets, or even Kuiper Belt objects."

What we do know is that the objects are as old as the sun, so they can serve as a kind of fossil record of the solar system.

Relatively nearby, a spacecraft will scan for alien life in the saltwater ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa.

Planned launch: 2020s

Anticipated arrival: Unknown

When Galileo Galilei first looked at Jupiter through his homemade telescope in 1610, he spotted four moons circling the planet. Just over 400 years later, NASA's Galileo mission found evidence that one of those moons, Europa, conceals a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust.

NASA is planning to visit that ocean with the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft that will fly by the moon 45 times, getting as close as 16 miles (25 kilometres) above the moon's surface.

Clipper plans to fly through water vapour plumes that shoot out from Europa's surface (as seen in the NASA visual above) to analyze what might be in the ocean. Radar tools should also measure the thickness of the ice and scan for subsurface water.

That investigation could help scientists prepare to land a future spacecraft on Europa's surface and punch through the ice.

Anticipated launch and arrival: Unknown

The future lander would search for signs of life in the ocean, digging 4 inches below the surface to extract samples for analysis in a mini, on-the-go laboratory.

A nuclear-powered helicopter called Dragonfly is scheduled to take the search for alien life one planet further, to Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

Planned launch: 2026

Anticipated arrival: 2034

Titan is a world with water ice, liquid methane pools, and a thick nitrogen atmosphere. It somewhat resembles early Earth, since it has carbon-rich organic materials like methane and ethane. Scientists suspect that an ocean of liquid water might lurk 60 miles (96 kilometres) below the ice.

All that makes Titan a contender for alien life.

But getting to the distant, cold moon is not easy - Saturn only gets about 1% of the sunlight that bathes Earth, so a spacecraft can't rely on solar energy. Instead, Dragonfly will propel itself using the heat of decaying plutonium.

Another NASA team is developing a spacecraft to probe the metal core of a dead planet called Psyche.

Planned launch: 2022

Anticipated arrival: 2026

Most of the asteroids in our solar system are made of rock or ice, but Psyche is composed of iron and nickel. That's similar to the makeup of Earth's core, so scientists think Psyche could be a remnant of an early planet that was decimated by violent collisions billions of years ago.

NASA is sending a probe to find out.

"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world - not one of rock or ice, but of metal," Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who's leading the mission, said in a press release. "This is the only way humans will ever visit a core."

If Psyche really is the exposed core of a dead planet, it could reveal clues about the solar system's early years.

The probe would be the first spacecraft to use light, rather than radio waves, to transmit information back to Earth. NASA gave the team the green light to start the final design and early assembly process in June.

NASA also has 176 missions in the works that use CubeSats: 4-by-4-inch nanotechnology satellites.

NASA is partnering with 93 organisations across the US on these CubeSat projects. Such satellites have already been built and sent to space by an elementary school, a high school, and the Salish Kootenai College of the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

The first CubeSats sent to deep space trailed behind the InSight Mars lander last year. They successfully sent data from the InSight lander back to Earth as it landed on the Martian surface.

One planned mission with the CubeSats will use lasers to search for ice on the moon's shadowy south pole.

It's expected to launch in November 2020. Another CubeSat mission, also set to launch in 2020, will fly past an asteroid near Earth - the first exploration of an asteroid less than 100 meters in diameter.

The data the satellite sends back could help scientists plan for future human missions to asteroids, where astronauts might mine resources as they explore deep space.

Closer to home, the European Space Agency's Euclid telescope will study dark matter and dark energy.

Planned launch and arrival: 2022

Dark matter makes up 85% of the universe, but nobody is sure what it is. Part of the problem is that we can't see it, because it doesn't interact with light.

Dark matter's gravity holds the entire universe together, while an unknown force called dark energy pushes everything apart.

Dark energy is winning, and that's why the universe is expanding. As Euclid orbits Earth, the space telescope will measure the universe's expansion and attempt to map the mysterious geometry of dark matter and energy.

NASA is working with the ESA on imaging and infrared equipment for the telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope will scan the universe for life-hosting planets and attempt to look back in time to photograph the Big Bang.

Planned launch and arrival: 2021

It's been almost 30 years since the Hubble Space Telescope launched. The JWST is its planned replacement, and it packs new infrared technology to detect light beyond what the human eye can see.

The telescope will be able to capture extremely faint signals. Its goal is to study every phase of the universe's history.


That could reveal how the first stars and galaxies formed, how planets are born, and where there might be life in the universe.

A 21-foot-wide folding beryllium mirror will help the telescope observe faraway galaxies in detail. A five-layer, tennis court-size shield protects it from the sun's heat and blocks sunlight that could interfere with the images.

The farther JWST looks out into space, the more it will look back in time. It could even detect the first glows of the Big Bang.

With new infrared technology, it could help answer questions about how the galaxy and its black hole formed.

"Does the black hole come first and stars form around it? Do stars gather together and collide to form the black hole? These are questions we want to answer," Jay Anderson, a JWST scientist, said in an October press release.

With the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, NASA plans to detect thousands of new planets.

Planned launch and arrival: mid-2020s

WFIRST's field of view will be 100 times greater than Hubble's. Over its five-year lifetime, the space telescope will measure light from a billion galaxies and survey the inner Milky Way with the hope of finding about 2,600 exoplanets.

It will also test theories of general relativity and dark energy.

In September, NASA added a new Earth-orbiting telescope to its agenda. Its infrared cameras will be designed to detect near-Earth objects — one of the greatest threats to life on Earth.

Planned launch and arrival: Unknown - 2025 at the earliest

"This is a great step forward for thinking about human destiny, because the dinosaurs certainly did not have an asteroid-survey program to protect themselves," Richard Binzel, an asteroid researcher and professor of planetary sciences at MIT, told Business Insider. "Having knowledge of what's out there is something that the planetary science community has been advocating for for nearly 30 years. So this is a breakthrough decades in the making."

The mission will be based on previous plans for a similar telescope, NEOCam, which was never fully funded.

Eventually, an asteroid-hunting telescope could help us avoid surprises like the "city-killer" asteroid that flew within 45,000 miles (7,000 kilometres) of Earth in July and went unnoticed until it was just days away.

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