The year 2023 has been exceptional in many regards, from the avalanche of JWST scientific papers covering many fields of astronomy to the continued exploration of Jezero crater by Perseverance and its trusty sidekick Ingenuity; from the launch of ESA’s JUICE mission to Jupiter to Euclid and its hunt for dark matter, many missions have been in the spotlight. Looking at what lies ahead, 2024 will not disappoint as well.
The most important event of the year will of course be the launch in October of the long-awaited Europa Clipper, NASA’s mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, the most promising habitable environment outside of Earth. Ever since the Galileo spacecraft explored this icy moon thirty years ago, there have been many calls to revisit Europa with advanced instruments designed to scrutinize its surface, atmosphere, and subsurface ocean. We will finally see this becoming a reality.
An important mission also planned for 2024 will be China’s Chang’e 6. China has launched a string of successful lunar missions over the decades, culminating in May this year as Chang’e 6 will aim to collect materials from the South Pole Aitkin Basin and bring them back to Earth. Given the presence of frozen water and rich geological sites within the basin, this will be a scientific mission of great significance.
Another sample return mission I am looking forward to seeing launch in 2024 is the Japanese Space Agency’s Martian Moon Exploration (MMX) mission to Phobos. Currently scheduled for September 2024, the mission is designed to return back to Earth material from the Martian moon in 2029. Given the difficulties encountered by NASA and ESA’s Mars Sample Return mission, MMX might bring back the only sample from the Martian system for decades to come.
On a smaller scale, ESA’s Hera mission is planned to launch in October to visit the two asteroids, Didymos and Dimorphos, which had already been explored in 2022 by NASA’s Dart mission. The objective of Hera’s mission is to study Dart’s impact site on Dimorphos by 2026 which is key for designing planetary protection initiatives in the future.
Of course, there will also be plenty of exciting news as the Artemis program shifts gear and starts sending multiple robotic missions to the moon, culminating with a potential human lunar orbit mission (Artemis II) by November. This year, we should also witness Ariane 6’s maiden flight and Starship’s continued developments. The audacious close approach of the Parker Solar Probe to our Sun by the end of the year is also worth highlighting. Many more noteworthy missions are on the agenda for 2024, serving as a reminder that we are living in a truly exciting era.
Wishing you all a great start to the year! Bernard