The Sciences

11 Space Missions That Will Make Headlines in 2011

This year, space exploration will bring news of expeditions to distant planets, the quest for life-friendly star systems, and the bold efforts of commercial space companies. Here's a preview of what to look forward to.

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Photo Credits: Image: NASA / JPL

It's usually impossible to predict science headlines for the year ahead: Small labs could come out of nowhere with amazing discoveries, long-expected findings might fail to materialize, and "settled science" may be thrown into turmoil. But one field--maybe more than any other--gives us strong hints on what to expect. Thanks to heavy legislation, complicated engineering, and astronomical distances travelled, we can see into the future of space exploration with some confidence.

A JAUNT TOWARD JUPITER

Kicking off our list of space missions that are likely to make headlines in 2011 are three journeys that are just getting started. The first is the launch of NASA's Juno orbiter, scheduled to head toward Jupiter in August. Juno will study the gas giant's atmosphere and search for evidence of a solid core to provide insight into Jupiter's formation and structure; by extension, it will also give us a more complete picture of how massive planets may form in other solar systems. Juno will fly for five years and drop into orbit in July 2016.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA

Another important mission, blasting off in late February, will help resolve some of the biggest uncertainties in our understanding of climate change. NASA's Glory satellite will add to over thirty years of high-precision measurements of solar energy output, and will help keep track of any small changes in solar irradiance. Glory will also try to sort out how aerosols, floating particles in the atmosphere that absorb and reflect energy, affect the Earth's energy budget. Clearing up these uncertainties will be invaluable for accurately predicting the fate of our warming world.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA / JSC

This year will see the retirement of the Space Shuttle. The shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to blast off from the Kennedy Space Center on April 1 for the program's final official mission, STS-134. Even if NASA decides to add one more flight--STS-135, which is currently caught in fiscal limbo--2011 will cap off 30 years of the Shuttle program, which began with STS-1 and the liftoff of space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981. It's been quite a ride.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA / JPL

The new year will also see the liftoff of the biggest, heaviest, and most equipment-laden Mars rover yet. The Mars Science Laboratory, otherwise known as Curiosity, will act as a rolling geologist, careening across the surface at a brisk 200 yards per day before stopping to take rock samples and conduct on-board chemical analyses. The rover's goal: to find out whether Mars was ever hospitable for microbial life.

Curiosity isn't expected to launch until late in the year, but if you're *ahem* curious, or if you just can't wait that long, there is a webcam that allows you to watch the rover's construction and testing.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA / JPL

While watching a rocket launch is plenty of fun, 2011 will also see a number of missions finally arrive at their destinations. July will mark the end of Dawn's four-year journey to the asteroid belt which cuts between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Dawn will investigate the icy dwarf planet Ceres and the rocky asteroid 4 Vesta to help researchers better understand conditions during the original formation of the solar system. This Hubble image of Ceres is one of the best we have, so you can see why researchers want to take a closer look.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA /JPL / UMD

In a bold example of astronomical recycling, NASA decided to give the Stardust probe a new purpose in life. Stardust gained its fame for capturing material from the tail of the comet Wild 2 back in 2004 and dropping its sample capsule to Earth in 2006. But the probe itself remained in space, and in February its detectors will be turned toward a new target.

The new subject, the comet Tempel 1 (pictured), was itself part of a previous investigation. In 2005, the Deep Impact mission set out to characterize the inside of the comet by smashing into it with an 800-pound chunk of copper. Stardust will give us an important, and cheap, second look at the crater formed by Deep Impact when it flies by Tempel 1. This will be particularly useful because the hit by Deep Impact tossed up a cloud of dust that prevented that spacecraft from getting a good look at the damage.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA / JPL

Unlike Juno, which will take the first steps into its life as a planet inspector in 2011, the Mercury orbiter Messenger is reaching the climax of its career. Mercury is small, dense, hot, and relatively unexplored--and on March 18 Messenger will drop into orbit around the planet for a year-long investigation. Messenger has already completed three fly-bys of our solar system's innermost planet, taking high resolution images of the planet and identifying areas of interest. Once in orbit, Messenger will map the planet's the magnetic field and topography, characterize its atmosphere, and search for ice at the permanently shaded polar regions.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA

A satellite doesn't have to be brand new to count among the best and brightest of 2011. In fact, it's hard to think of a mission brighter than the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Marking its one-year anniversary on February 11, SDO is helping us understand the magnetic tempest that is our sun. SDO provides a close look at sunspots, as well as the massive solar eruptions that lie at the heart of some silly civilization-destroying apocalypse scenarios. Researchers are hoping to unlock the secrets of the sun's 11-year activity cycle, and sort out clues that might give advanced warning of solar activity like flares and coronal mass ejections.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA / Ames / JPL

Another ongoing mission that's likely to have a big year is the Kepler telescope, which is busy hunting for Earth-sized exoplanets (planets outside our solar system). Kepler tries to spot distant planets by watching for a dip in a star's light as a planet passes in front of it, and it has been very successful since it was first switched on in April 2009. Kepler researchers have already announced the discovery of eight exoplanets and have identified more than 700 hopefuls. But last June Kepler scientists declared that they wouldn't be releasing information on the most exciting planet candidates until they'd thoroughly checked them out. The date they announced for the revelation of the hoarded data: February 2011.

Photo Credits: Image: SpaceX

After making headlines in December with the successful test launch of its Dragon capsule, SpaceX may represent the biggest space story of 2011--the continuing privatization of space flight. The new year will see the completion of testing for the Dragon capsule, which is intended to carry cargo or crew to the International Space Station, and the large Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX's first paid mission for the Falcon 9 will be to deliver CASSIOPE, a research and communications satellite, into orbit. Soon after, the Falcon 9/Dragon combo will start running supply delivery missions to the International Space Station.

Photo Credits: Image: flickr /Jeff Foust

Not to be wholly outdone, Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceship-for-tourists, seen here being carried by its mothership WhiteKnightTwo, is expected to finish testing over the course of the year. The two-vehicle package will take off from a runway at Spaceport America and climb to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. The mothership will then release SpaceShipTwo, and the ship's engines will kick in to send it throttling into space. The launch sequence is reminiscent of the X-15, the first winged aircraft to achieve sub-orbital flight.

A ticket will set you back $200,000 (but the company only requires a $20,000 deposit). Virgin Galactic refuses to set a date for when it will begin flying its paying customers to the edge of space, but some are hoping to see flights start as early as the end of 2011.

In addition to what it means symbolically, the rise of private spaceflight will be particularly important, because...

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