The only thing boundless is human curiosity and the universe. Scientists still argue about the latter. In order to satisfy our eternal curiosity we have taken to launch spacecraft, robots, and also humans to space. These missions are aimed to increase out knowledge, and answer unanswered questions, introduce better questions and help us understand the universe better. Every passing year, our knowledge increases, and the technology in our arsenal also advances, giving us better missions with better opportunities. This blog post is dedicated to understanding the future missions that scientists plan to execute in order to keep the growth of knowledge increasing. These missions will be our eyes and ears out there, and we better know them well !
While all stars are a source of curiosity, the star closest to us deserves some special attention. Sun, our host star, has been a source of light, and heat for billions of years. But the Sun is as unpredictable as it is hot. There is a lot going on inside and on its surface. From solar flares to coronal mass ejections, the Sun is very active, and quite frankly, very dangerous. Understanding the Sun is a major goal of human curiosity, and to achieve this a lot many missions have been launched. Following the trend, India is set to launch its first mission to space focused on studying the Sun in the next couple years.
Called Aditya L-1, the mission will be the nation’s first spacecraft to focus on Sun. Aditya translates to Sun, and L-1 is a short form for ‘Lagrangian 1’ which is a point between the Sun, and Earth, where the gravity of the two balance out and any object here is in equilibrium under the influence of their gravities. Hence no resultant force acts at L-1 point. This means the Spacecraft will stay in the same orientation in respect to the Sun and the Earth. This position offers it front row seat to observe the Sun, without any eclipses or blocks.
Earlier the mission was planned to carry just one payload ( a coronagraph) at low-Earth altitude of 800km, but now it has been revised to carry seven payloads and cruise at a height of 1.5 million km above Earth. These payloads have been designed by some premier astronomy institutions of the country. The Visible Emission Line Coronagraph (VELC, IIA) made by Indian Institute of Astronomy is the original payload and is going to study the dynamics of the Corona (a layer of solar atmosphere). It aims to solve the mystery of the unusually high temperature of the corona i.e. 3 million kelvins-compared to the temperature of the surface disc, photosphere (6000 kelvins). Apart from that, the high altitude allows it to incorporate a magnetometer that will study the changes of the solar magnetic field around L-1 point. The spacecraft will also carry SUIT(Solar Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope, IUCAA)- a camera to capture the Sun in near-UV, PAPA (Plasma Analyzer Package for Aditya, ISRO) to study the composition of solar flares and its heating mechanisms, and other payloads to study the distribution of energy, and composition of solar winds.The spacecraft will launch aboard the PSLV-XL rocket, one of the most successful rockets of ISRO.
James Webb Space Telescope
After Hubble Space Telescope’s groundbreaking success, it only seems logical to send another better space telescope up there to carry its legacy ahead. It has been 29 years since the Hubble was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1990. Hubble is getting old and needs a replacement.
James Webb Space Telescope is exactly that. Earlier named Next Generation Space Telescope, it was renamed to James Webb Space Telescope after the ex-administrator of NASA, who was pivotal in the Apollo missions. The space telescope is scheduled for launch aboard the rocket Ariane 5 in 2021. While HST (Hubble Space Telescope) was majorly operating in visible, near-UV and near-IR wavelength, JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) operates majorly in infrared. Compared to the 2.5 m big primary mirror of Hubble, JWST boasts a primary mirror of 6.5m, made by joining 18 segments of gold plated, ultralight Beryllium in a honeycomb fashion. The mirror is so big, that to fit it in the rocket it has a special folding mechanism. JWST will reach its destination 30 days after launch. This point is called the Lagrange-2 point and is one of then five locations where the gravities of Earth and the Sun balance out and no effective force acts over there. Hence any object in the Lagrange’s point stays in the same orientation with respect to the Earth and the Sun. Unlike its predecessor, JWST doesn’t revolve around the Earth, but the Sun. The JWST has in its payload, among many things, a Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) which will be studying infrared rays from galaxies and nebulae to peer through the layers of dust and get the hidden details. Amongst the many things, JWST aims to study the epoch of Big Bang, formation of galaxies, supermassive black holes in galactic centers, exoplanets discovered by Kepler Space Telescope, and follow up on research done by ground-based observations.
One of the proudest moments in history of Indian space exploration would be the flight of Indian born cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma, to space aboard the Russian Soyuz T-11 rocket. India since then has climbed up the staircase. Till now only three countries have been able to send manned missions to space: USSR, USA, and China. Now, its India’s turn. After the successful development of GSLV MK-III (Geo-Stationary Launch Vehicle Mark-3) rocket in 2017, India’s dream since 2004 to send a indigenous manned mission to space finally has set into motion. Last Independence day, the Prime Minister announced that the central government has allotted Rs 10,000 Crores to the mission, named Gaganyaan (translation: Orbiter vehicle). This mission aims to launch a crew of 3 Indians to space, in the low-Earth orbit for a period of a week. The crew will carry on experiments in micro-gravity at a height of 300-400kms. The mission will use GSLV MK-III, the three staged rocket, for the launch. This is the best rocket ISRO has till now, which is capable of launching 4 tons of payload to Geo-synchronous orbit, or 10 tons to low-Earth orbit. Powered by two indigenously developed cryogenic engines, that use cooled liquified gases as fuel in subzero temperatures, which are more effective. As of now, the organization has already tested the crew escape system, and life support systems with success. The crew bailout system, which would come to use in case of any malfunction during launch, and allow the vyomnauts (Indians to space) to escape safely. The Gaganyaan module will be powered by 2 liquid engines, and is actually smaller than Russia’s Soyuz, and NASA’s planned Orion spacecrafts. ISRO stands against using animals for tests, and will be using a humanoid to test the pre-mission launches, that will be more ethical, and contribute to further understanding of effects of space and flight on human body. Before launching in 2022, the mission will have 2 unmanned launches in order to test and gain confidence on the systems at work. This surely will open doors to opportunities for further space exploration by India. Denmark is also planning to launch its own manned mission to space in 2022.
After the success of India’s first mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan 1, India aims to achieve higher with its next mission of the series, Chandrayaan 2. While Chandrayaan-1 detected water near the South pole of Moon for the first time, the contact with it was lost. Though NASA’s LRO did spot the orbiter around the moon a couple years ago. Chandrayaan-2 hosts a lander and rover too, along with the orbiter. The lander, designed and manufactured by ROSCOSMOS, is named Vikram after the great scientist Vikram Sarabhai. The rover was planned to be designed by Russia, but due to certain problems, the rover is being designed by India itself at IIT Kanpur. The mission plans to study in depth the presence of water on lunar surface and the lunar geology, among other things. The probable landing site of the mission will be the craters Manzius C or Simpelius N. The mission is set to launch on January 31, 2019, aboard the rocket GSLV MK-III.
Mars 2020 is NASA’s next step to understanding Mars. Using the same successful landing system of its previous rover, Curiosity, NASA’s Mars 2020 is scheduled to land on the Martian surface in February 2021. The rover would be launched in 2020, around July or August, when the Earth and Mars are so oriented that the journey to the red planet is economical. This mission hosts a lot of new and advanced technology and instruments that aim to study Martian environment further. As part of Mars Exploration program, the main objectives of Mars 2020 is to 1) Find signs of past life on Mars 2) Study Martian climate 3) Study Martian geology and, 4) Contribute to the development of future missions to Mars. This rovers hosts many instruments that were selected from 1000s of application, and on such is MOXIE which will convert the Carbon Dioxide, a main constituent in Mssssartian atmosphere, into Oxygen, an element necessary for survival. This oxygen hopefully can be used by a future mission to fill an empty oxygen tank and use as a fuel to return back to Earth. The rover will land in the Jezero crater, which is thought to have been a delta in the ancient past of the planet based on the geology formed by water flowing through the area into a large lake. The mission is first of its kind in that it will be storing samples in a cache or storage unit, so that future missions can carry them back to Earth. This hence is a very optimistic and important mission in the humanity’s journey to the red planet!
ExoMars rover, named after an orbiter of similar name launched a couple years ago, will be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) somewhere in 2021. This rover is the first of its kind in that it will conduct both surface, and in-depth tests and analyses itself. Till now, a rover, or lander, could do one of these tasks but not both. The rover flaunts a robotic arm with a drill that can dig 2m into the Martian soil, and collect samples. The hole can also be studied using infrared lasers housed in the rover. The ExoMars mission will be using the ExoMars orbiter to set up communications with the home planet. Future looks very bright indeed for Martian exploration.
This is a mission whose detail is released much recently and only few details have been announced. The mission is a joint venture by ESA and Ariane Group, to bring back lunar soil or regolith using the Ariane 64 rocket, a four stage version of the Ariane 6. They plan to extract water and oxygen from the regolith, which is known to be rich in the two substances. This is more of a commercial mission, that aims to use the regolith for industrial purposes and manufacture of green fuel, and sustenance of humans in space.
IndIGO or India-LIGO
Indian Initiative in Gravitational wave Observation (IndIGO) or India-LIGO is the name given to the mission that aims to build the world’s fourth gravitational wave LIGO detector in India. Gravitational waves are trembles in the very fabric of space and time, caused by immensely powerful cosmic events like black hole mergers and neutron star mergers. These waves help us to understand gravity much better and along with that our Universe. LIGO detectors are two perpendicular tunnels that use interference of light beams to detect the waves in space fabric. They are so sensitive that they can detect a thunderstorm in Africa from America. The mission to build one LIGO detector in India as a part of global network has received its in-principle approval.
Shantanu Ashima Gaur