Discussing the state of space mission planning recently with Centauri Dreams contributor Ashley Baldwin, I mentioned my concerns about follow-up missions to the outer planets once New Horizons has done its job at Pluto/Charon. No one is as plugged into mission concepts as Dr. Baldwin, and as he discussed what’s coming up both in exoplanet research as well as future planetary missions, I realized we needed to pull it all together in a single place. What follows is Ashley’s look at what’s coming down the road in exoplanetary research as well as planetary investigation in our own Solar System, an overview I hope you’ll find as useful as I have. Dr. Baldwin is a consultant psychiatrist at the 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Trust (Warrington, UK) and a former lecturer at Liverpool and Manchester Universities. He is also, as his latest essay makes clear, a man with a passion for what we can do in space.
by Ashley Baldwin
We’ve come a long way since the discovery of the first “conventional” exoplanets in 1995 ( of course, “pulsar” orbiting planets had been discovered several years earlier). Since then ground based RV and Transit surveys have discovered several hundreds of planets, supplemented by a thousand confirmed finds plus many more “candidates” by the miracle that is Kepler — the original and K2, aided and abetted ably by Corot and re modeled Hubble and Spitzer. Between these several dozen larger examples have been “characterised ” by a combination of RV,transit and transit spectroscopy. We are at a crossroads and stand at the edge of the beginning of a golden age, this despite the austere times in which we live. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and the innovation arising from lack of funds has led to a versatility in hardware use unimaginable twenty years ago (along with 1800 plus exoplanets!).
So what next? Lots of things. Before talking about obvious things like space telescopes and spectroscopy I feel I must make space for asteroseismology. A new science and still little known, but without it hardly any of the recent exoplanet advances would have been possible. It is the process by which kinetic energy or pulsations inside stars is converted into vibrations. In effect sound waves. Originating in the Sun with helioseismology, asteroseismology is basically the same process by which seismic waves of earthquakes are used to inform us about the details of the Earth’s interior.
Vibrations from different parts of stellar interiors expand outwards to the star’s surface where their nature and origin can be determined with increasing accuracy. There are three types of these vibrations:
- Gravity or ‘g’ waves originate from stellar cores and have been implicated in the movement of stellar material into other areas as well as contributing to the uniform rotation of the core, linking thus with the outer convective zone of stellar-mass stars. These waves only reach the surface in special circumstances.
- Pressure or ‘p’ waves, arise from the outer convective zone and are the main source of information on this crucial area of a star’s interior as they reach the surface.
- Finally, “f” waves are surface “ripples”. These vibrations help astronomers accurately calculate the mass, age, diameter and temperature of a star, with age in particular being crucially determined to an accuracy of 10%. Why so important? Well, apart from determining the nature of stars themselves, they also underpin the description of orbiting exoplanets.
Understand the star and you understand the planet. The more stars that are subject to this analysis, the more precise it becomes. This is a little known but crucial element of Kepler (and CoRoT) and will also be central to PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) in the 2020s. TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), sadly, is too small and its pointing times per star too brief to add a lot to the process despite its huge capabilities for such a low budget. Kepler has a dedicated committee that oversees the correlation of all asteroseismological data as will PLATO, and the huge amounts of stellar information collected will provide precision detail on exoplanets by the end of the next decade (and indeed before).
Things start hotting up from next year with “first Light” on the revolutionary RV spectrograph ESPRESSO (Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations) at the VLT in Chile. This device is an order of magnitude more powerful than previous devices like HARPS, and in combination with the large telescopes of the VLT can discover planets the same size as Earth in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars. The first of its kind to do so. Apart from positioning such planets for potential direct imaging and spectroscopic characterisation, it will also provide mass estimates with varying degrees of accuracy.
Meanwhile, nearby ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) will provide unprecedented images and detail on the all-important protoplanetary disks from which planets form, and which inform the nature of our own system’s evolutionary history. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), due to become operational next decade in South Africa and Australia, will also do this in longer, radio wavelengths, and its enormous collecting area (quite literally a square kilometer) with moveable unit telescopes (as with ALMA too) will create a synthetic “filled” aperture on a par with a solid telescope of similar dimensions and consequent exquisite resolution.
Image: ALMA antennae on the Chajnantor Plateau. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), O. Dessibourg.
Submillimetre astronomy is often referred to as molecular imaging, as the wavelengths used are perfect, given their low energy and related cool temperatures, for picking up chemical molecules in the interstellar medium, and have been instrumental in showing the ubiquity of many of the materials needed for life, like amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and PAHs (poly aromatic hydrocarbons) which are key constituents of cell membranes as well as the long chain amines in the goo on Titan. ALMA has identified hydrogen cyanide and methyl cyanide , poisonous elements on Earth, but critical progenitor molecules for protein and life building amino acids. No one has discovered life off Earth to date, but the commonest elements created by stars, carbon, hydrogen,oxygen and nitrogen (CHON), are amongst the main constituents of life and in conjunction with molecules like amino acids and PAHs suggest that the key components of life are ubiquitous.
Even greater accuracy can be achieved by combining all the radio telescopes dotted across the Earth and even in space to create a “diluted ” aperture (not completely filled in but with equivalent width of its most remote elements) wider than the Earth itself. It isn’t difficult to guess the extent of such a device’s resolution! The SKA and ALMA, as with any new and sophisticated astronomical hardware, have a planned-out mission itinerary, but given their extreme capabilities have the added ability to make unexpected and exciting discoveries.
Returning to shorter wavelengths, ground based telescopes are being equipped with increasingly sophisticated adaptive optics (AO), in conjunction with high altitude sites, allowing them to image with increasing detail in wavelengths from optical to mid-infrared and bring to bear their large light gathering capacity without the huge expense of launch to and maintenance in space. This will culminate in the completion of the three extremely large telescopes (ELTs) between 2020 and 2024. Work is underway on 25-40 m apertures that will capture sufficient light in combination with AO to discover, image and characterise planets down even to Earth size.
In the shorter term, hot on the heels of ESPRESSO and reliant on its discoveries is TESS, a small satellite with multiple telescope/cameras and sensors, due for launch to a specially designed widely elliptical orbit to maximise imaging of exoplanet transits round “bright” nearby stars, largely M dwarfs. These small stars’ planets orbit close in and their transits eclipse a larger portion of the star, creating so- called “deep transits” on a regular basis (including in the habitable zones which are only 0.25 AU for even the largest M-class stars) that can be added together, or “binned”, to produce a potent signal.
Better still, TESS will work in concert with the James Webb Space Telescope following its launch a year later. JWST is largely an infrared telescope designed to look at extragalactic objects and cosmological concepts. Although, sadly, not an exoplanet imager, it has been optimised to spectroscopically analyse exoplanets, and with a 6.5m aperture it should do very well. It will image a transit and analyse the small amount of starlight passing through the outer atmosphere of the transiting planet in order to characterise it: A “transmission” spectrum. Alternatively, as the transit times can be calculated precisely, a spectrum of the combined planet and star light can be taken when they are next to each other and by subtracting the spectrum of the star alone whilst the planet is eclipsed behind it, a net planetary spectrum can be calculated.
Image: The principal goal of the TESS mission is to detect small planets with bright host stars in the solar neighborhood, so that detailed characterizations of the planets and their atmospheres can be performed. Credit: MIT.
It’s likely that given the huge workload of JWST, its exoplanetary characterisation work will be limited to premier targets. Smaller mission funding pools will be utilised to produce small but dedicated exoplanet transit spectroscopy telescopes to characterise larger exoplanets, as suggested in the previously unsuccessful ESA and NASA concepts EChO and FINESSE.
TESS itself will look at half a billion stars across the whole sky over a two year period and if it holds together, should get a much longer mission expansion. Parts of its field of imaging around the ecliptic poles are designed to overlap with the JWST’s area of operation to maximise their synergy. The longest periods of “staring” also occur there to allow analysis of planets with the longest orbital periods in the habitable zones of the largest possible (most Sun-like) stars. Ordinarily three proven transits are required for proof of discovery but given the nearby target stars any discoveries can be followed up by ESPRESSO for proof, reducing required transits to just two. There is growing optimism that with JWST, TESS might make the ultimate discovery!
Launched in a similar timeframe as TESS, the small ESA telescope CHEOPs will look for transits predicted by RV discoveries, allowing accurate mass and density calculations of up to 500 planets of gas giant to mini-Neptune size to add to the growing list of planets characterised this way, thus helping build up a picture of planetary nature and distribution. At present, planets in this category have been grouped by Marcy et al and the data suggests that Earth like planets (rocky with a thin atmosphere) exist up to about 1.6 R Earth or 5M Earth with larger objects more likely to have a thick atmosphere and be more akin to “mini Neptunes”. The larger the sample, the greater the accuracy, hence CHEOPs, TESS and ESPRESSO’s wider importance in characterisation, which will also,inform efficient future imaging searches.
Image: CHEOPS – CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite – is the first mission dedicated to searching for exoplanetary transits by performing ultra-high precision photometry on bright stars already known to host planets. Credit: ESA.
Into the Next Decade
Crunch time arrives in the 2020s. The beginning of the decade is the time of the routine Decadal survey that lays out NASA’s plans and priorities over the following ten years. It will determine the priority that exoplanets (and Solar System planets) are given. The JWST has left a huge hole in the budget that must be balanced and at a time when manned space flight, never cheap, is reappearing after its post Space Shuttle hiatus. There is room for plenty of optimism, though.
Unlike my dear old National Health Service here in Britain, year on year funding can be stored to be used at a later date. Any ATLAST (Advanced Technology Large Aperture Space Telescope), Terrestrial Planet Finder telescope or High Definition Space Telescope in the proportions necessary for detailed exoplanetary characterisation will cost upward of $15 billion. Huge, but not insurmountable, if funds are hoarded over 15 years ahead of a 2035 launch. Imagining a 16m monster like that! Quite a supposition.
Image: The Advanced Technology Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST) is a NASA strategic mission concept study for the next generation of UVOIR [near-UV to far-infrared] space observatory. ATLAST will have a primary mirror diameter in the 8m to 16m range that will allow us to perform some of the most challenging observations to answer some of our most compelling astrophysical questions. Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute.
What is more definite is the Wide-field Infrared Survey telescope, WFIRST, due for launch circa 2024, maybe a bit earlier. Originally planned as a dark energy mission, it has grown enormously thanks to the NRO donation of a Hubble dimension, high-quality wide-field mirror. At the same time, Princeton’s David Spergel made a compelling and successful case for inclusion of an internal starlight occulter or coronagraph at about half a billion dollars extra (much of which was covered by partner space agencies). This would be a “technological demonstrator ” instrument. Large funds were released for advancing this largely theoretical technology to a useable level through experimental “Probe” concepts which also developed an external occulter technology.
The coronagraph has already massively exceeded all expectation of success and has at least 5 years more development time before the telescope development begins. That’s a lot of useful time. It’s aim is to allow direct imaging of Jupiter-Neptune mass planets about as far out from a star as Mars. The coronagraph blocks out the much brighter starlight that swamps the feeble planet light. Already the technology has improved to the point where a few Super Earths or even smaller planets might be visualised. Sadly, not quite in the habitable zone, but the wider orbits will allow more accurate categorisation of the planetary cohort thus telling us what to look for in the future. The final orbit of this telescope is yet to be decided and is crucial.
Given the long gap until ATLAST (envisioned as a flagship mission of the 2025 – 2035 period) and the finite life expectancy of Hubble and JWST, WFIRST is obviously intended to bridge the gap, and thus will need servicing like Hubble. To this effect it was felt necessary to keep it near to Earth (for convenience of data download too), but rapid advances in robotic servicing mean it could now be stationed as far afield as the ideal viewing spot, the Sun/Earth Lagrange point L2. It could possibly even be moved nearer to the moon for servicing. Thus locale would allow the addition of an external occulter if funding was available. This technology allows closer imaging to the star than the coronagraph, even into the habitable zone. Whether WFIRST ends up with both internal and external occulters remains to be seen and will likely to be decided by the 2020 Decadal study according to the political and financial climate of the day. Meantime, it’s great to know that such a useful planet hunter will be operational for a long time post 2024.
WFIRST does other useful exoplanetary work. It too will discover exoplanets by the transit method and also by the often forgotten microlensing principle. This involves a nearby star sitting in front of a further out star and effectively focusing its light via gravity, as described by Einstein in his relativity work. Exoplanets orbiting the nearer star stand out during this process and can have their radius and mass determined accurately. As this method works for further out planets, it provides a way of populating the full range of planetary orbits and characteristics, which we have seen is critical to establishing the nature of alien star system architecture. The downside of microlensing is that it is a one-off experience and can’t be revisited. Direct imaging, transiting, and microlensing makes WFIRST one potent exoplanet observatory. What more can it do? The answer is a lot.
Image: The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is a NASA observatory designed to perform wide-field imaging and slitless spectroscopic surveys of the near infrared (NIR) sky for the community. The current Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) design of the mission makes use of an existing 2.4m telescope to enhance sensitivity and imaging performance. Credit: NASA.
Consider astrometry. Like asteroseismology it is a little known science but rapidly expanding, and like asteroseismology is the shape of things to come. Astrometry measures sidewards movement of a star due to the gravitational effects of orbiting stars. A bit similar to the R.V method, but better in that it accurately determines mass of planets and also their location with pinpoint accuracy. Meanwhile, the ESA telescope Gaia (is currently in the process of staring for extended periods at over a billion Milky Way stars in order to determine their position to within 1% error. In the process, as with Kepler and PLATO, it will carry out detailed asteroseismology, which will advance this critical field even further. Know the star and you know the planet.
Astrometry will allow Gaia the added benefit of single-handedly accurately positioning several thousand gas giant planets. However, combining its results with WFIRST should allow accurate positioning and mass/radius of nearby planets down to Earth size, including planets in the habitable zone, helping develop an effective search strategy for the WFIRST direct imaging technology whether by internal or external occulter or both. Critically, astrometry helps discover and characterise planets around M-dwarfs which form the large part of the stellar neighbourhood. As the habitable zone for even the largest of these stars (and many of the next class up, K-class stars) is inside 0.4AU, it is unlikely that even an advanced internal or external occulting device would allow direct imaging so close to the star, so any orbiting planets could only be classified by astrometry and transit spectroscopy if they transit the star.
Image: Gaia is an ambitious mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, in the process revealing the composition, formation and evolution of the Galaxy. Gaia will provide unprecedented positional and radial velocity measurements with the accuracies needed to produce a stereoscopic and kinematic census of about one billion stars in our Galaxy and throughout the Local Group. This amounts to about 1 per cent of the Galactic stellar population. Credit: ESA.
Generally, the closer a planet is to a star, the greater the likelihood of a transit, and the nature of planetary formation around M dwarfs also leads to protoplanetary disks that form in such a position as to create transiting planets. This, ironically, was the proposed for the now defunct TPF-I. If Gaia goes beyond its initial 5 year mission, WFIRST should be able to find and characterise up to 20,000 Jupiter or Neptune sized planets! All that for just $2.5 billion means that WFIRST will likely be one of the greatest observatories, anywhere, of all time.
PLATO is a cross between Kepler and TESS. Like Kepler, it is designed to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars, and as with TESS, these stars will be close enough to characterise and confirm from ground-based telescopes and spectroscopes. PLATO, too, will carry out extensive asteroseismology, which along with Kepler and Gaia will give unprecedented knowledge of most star types by 2030.
Image: PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) is the third medium-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme. Its objective is to find and study a large number of extrasolar planetary systems, with emphasis on the properties of terrestrial planets in the habitable zone around solar-like stars. PLATO has also been designed to investigate seismic activity in stars, enabling the precise characterisation of the planet host star, including its age. Credit: ESA.
Meanwhile, Hubble has been given a clean bill of health until at least 2020. The aim is for as much overlap with JWST as possible, bridging the gap to WFIRST. Spitzer will likely be phased out once JWST is up. WFIRST, if serviced and upgraded regularly like Hubble, could also last twenty years plus, certainly until the ATLAST telescope is operational and well after the Extremely Large Telescopes are fully functional on the ground. Given the huge cost of building, launching and maintaining space telescopes (not least $8.5 billion for JWST), NASA have now made it clear that future designs will be multi-purpose and modular for ease of service/upgrade.
Imaging an Exoplanet
In terms of resolving and imaging an exoplanet, we move into the realm of science fiction for now. To produce even a ten-pixel spatial image of a nearby planet would require a space telescope with an aperture equivalent to 200 miles. Clearly impossible for one telescope, but a thirty minute exposure employing 150 3m diameter mirrors with varying separations of up to 150 km, linked together as a “hyper telescope”, would be sufficient to act as an ‘Exo-Earth imager’ able to detect several pixel “green spots” similar to the Amazon basin on a planet within ten light years.The short exposure time is an added necessity for spatial imaging in order avoid blurring caused by clouds or planetary rotation. This is why it may be important to have an external occulter with WFIRST, not just for potent imaging but to allow the “formation flying ” necessary to link the two devices together. A small step but a necessary one to get to direct spatial imaging.
Meanwhile, everything we learn from direct imaging will be via increasingly sensitive spectroscopy of O2, O3, CH4, H20 (liquid in the habitable zone as determined by astrometry) and photosynthetic pigments like the chlorophyll “red edge” bio signatures from “point sources”. The bigger the telescope, the better the signal to noise ratio (SNR) and the better the spectroscopic resolution. WFIRST has a three dimensional “Integral field spectroscope” with a maximum resolution of 70. When you think that high resolution runs to the hundreds of thousands, it shows that we are only just scratching the surface. Apart from that and until spatial imaging (if ever), SETI, Infrared heat emission or spacecraft exhausts might be the only way to separate intelligent life from life per se.
That said, things are going to happen that would have been inconceivable even in 1995. Twenty thousand plus exoplanets by 2030, hundreds characterised. Exciting if crude and controversial spectroscopic findings, and just five years perhaps from launching a 16m segmented telescope into an orbit 1.5 million kms from Earth where it will be regularly serviced by astronauts and robots practising for Mars missions.
Missions and Their Development Paths
Closer to home, we have the ESA JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) mission to Jupiter with flybys of Europa and Callisto and a Ganymede orbiter. NASA will hopefully get its act together for a cost-effective Europa Clipper and we may yet find signs of life closer to home, though my money is on biosignatures first from an exoplanet, possibly as early as TESS but certainly from ATLAST. The key for me is that life (as we know it) is made from elements and molecules that are common.
This is why infrared astronomy is so important, for infrared light travels long distances and isn’t easily absorbed, and if it is, it soon gets re emitted. The missions to icy bodies in our system, like Rosetta, Dawn, OSIRIS-REX and New Horizons, are as critical to life discovery as TESS, WFIRST or even ATLAST, as they illustrate the ubiquity of all the necessary ingredients of life (including water) as well as the violent formation of our solar system. In the absence of “flagship missions”, the highest-funded NASA missions that were suspended after the JWST overspend, most planetary-style missions are now funded by smaller amounts, like Explorer (different cash levels up to $220 million plus a launch), Discovery ($500 million plus a launch) and New Frontiers ($1 billion plus a launch). NASA even has a list of prescribed launch vehicles and savings made, but fitting any mission into a smaller launcher can feed into the mission itself. Up to $16 million for a Discovery concept, for example. Applications are invited for missions according to how often they fly with the cheapest, Explorer, launching every three years.
Image: JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) is the first large-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 programme. Planned for launch in 2022 and arrival at Jupiter in 2030, it will spend at least three years making detailed observations of the giant gaseous planet Jupiter and three of its largest moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Credit: ESA.
The limited funding has had the advantage, however, of inspiring great innovation and hugely successful mission concepts like TESS, just $200 million, Kepler at about $700 million, and Juno, a New Frontiers $1 billion mission currently en route to Jupiter. Without going into detail, the costs of missions are made up of numerous elements with hardware like telescopes and spacecraft contributing the biggest element, but they require constant engineering and operating support throughout their lifetime, which builds up and has to be factored into the initial budget.
Juno hasn’t reached Jupiter yet, but its science and engineering teams are all at work making sure it operates. So although budgets of hundreds of millions sound like a lot, they are in fact fairly small, especially if compared to “flagship” missions like Cassini, Galileo and the Voyagers, which in current funding would run into many billions of dollars. This contributes to a big hole in exploration, preventing follow up intermediate telescopes and interplanetary missions. The lack of any mission to Uranus or Neptune is a classic example, with no plan for even getting close since Voyager 2. The fact that even a heavily cut back Europa Clipper is still estimated at $2 billion for a 3.5 year multiple flyby mission (which is cheaper than an orbiter). The heavy contribution of running costs is bizarrely demonstrated by the fact that a Europa lander was considered over an orbiter because it would be cheaper simply because it wouldn’t last long due to the hostile environment! The next round of New Frontiers bids is just starting for a 2021 launch with just one outer Solar System concept involving a Saturn atmospheric probe and relay spacecraft. It is expected to transmit f0r 50 minutes after an 8 year journey and costs $1 billion.
All of this illustrates the problem mission planners face and the huge cost of such missions. Europa Clipper is actually a very good value mission and might just fly. In conjunction with the ESA JUICE mission, Europa Clipper will drive forward our knowledge of Jupiter’s inner moons, certainly confirming or disproving the idea of sub-surface oceans beyond all doubt and maybe finding some interesting things leaking out from the depths! The ESA face the same situation with JUICE, funded through their large or “L” programme scheme with a budget of just over a billion Euros, or about $1.5 billion. Their lesser funds have forced even greater innovation than NASA and the low cost of JUICE is due to innovative lightweight and cheap materials like silicon carbide for a mission concept very similar to Europa Clipper.
Returning to Uranus and Neptune, these planets always appear in both NASA and ESA discovery “road maps” but always with other things further ahead which, with limited funds, ultimately take precedent. There is constant pressure to have visible results, the success of which was obvious with the ESA Rosetta mission and, we can assume, with Dawn at Ceres as well. Out of necessity, such mission concepts tend to be favoured as opposed to a mission to Uranus that with conventional rockets would take as long as 13 years.
Remember that throughout that time the spacecraft needs looking after remotely from both an engineering and operations perspective, requiring the maintenance of near full time staff, all of which eats into a limited budget of $1 billion, the New Frontiers maximum unless alternative funding sources or partnerships are used. This is one of the reasons I welcome the Falcon Heavy launcher so much. It is much cheaper at about $100 million than any other comparable launcher and can lift bigger loads off Earth into orbit. What isn’t as well known is that it has the ability to send missions direct to their target rather than needing gravitational assists from Earth, Venus and Jupiter, as with previous outer Solar System missions since Voyager.
Falcon Heavy could lift about a 5 tonne payload to Uranus in well under ten years, and in reducing the mission length would of course lower its cost, allowing more “mission proper”, perhaps even fitting within a New Frontiers cost envelope. The ESA were certainly able to produce a stripped down “straw man” dual Uranus/ Neptune concept, ODINUS, within an L budget. New ion propulsion systems like NEXT (or its descendants) require far less propellant than conventional chemical rockets and could ultimately be used to slow a Uranus probe into orbit without taking up too much mass of the critical spacecraft and its instrument suite.
Image: Neptune, a compelling target but one without a current mission in the pipeline. Credit: NASA.
That just leaves one big obstacle: Power. So far out from the Sun, even huge versions of today’s efficient solar cells would be inadequate to power even basic spacecraft functions, never mind complex scientific equipment. Traditionally power comes from converting heat to electricity via radioactive decay of the isotope Plutonium 238 (not to be confused with its deadly bomb making cousin Plutonium 239) in a “Radioisotope Thermal Generator”. Cassini uses such a device, as does Voyager 2, that with an 80 year plus half life is ideally suited for such extended missions.
This isotope is a byproduct of nuclear bomb making, so post Cold War it is in increasingly poor supply and what is available is earmarked for other projects well in advance. This situation faces all missions mooted to go beyond Jupiter, like an Enceladus or Titan orbiter/lander, and is a real deal breaker that needs addressing. Uranus and Neptune in particular need to be explored in detail not least because the exoplanet categorisation described above illustrates that they, in varying sizes, are the most ubiquitous planet type in the galaxy and are on our doorstep.
It’s impossible to talk observational astronomy and not mention Mars. Undoubtedly, the most popular mission target given its proximity, with a solid surface on which to land and the possibility of life, slim but possible if not now then at some time in the distant past. The next tranche of missions starts in 2016 with an ESA orbiter and stationary lander and a NASA lander, Insight. Both landers are intended to last two Earth years and prepare the way for rovers.
The NASA mission was part of the Discovery programme and was chosen just ahead of the TiME concept, Titan Mare Explorer – a floating lander that would analyse the Titanian methane lakes whilst Earth was above the horizon so it could transmit direct to Earth without the need for an expensive orbiter. What a mission that would have been, and for just half a billion dollars. That chance is now gone for twenty years or so, and with it any hope of a near-term Saturn mission after Cassini, given the expense of a more complex mission profile to either Titan or Enceladus.
Meanwhile, Insight will dig some holes and do more analysis and help prepare the way for the Mars 2020 rover, a beefed up version of Curiosity which will have more sophisticated instruments, including drills, that will look specifically for life rather than just water, as with Curiosity. Crucially this will use one of the few remaining RTGs as opposed to solar panels like those on Opportunity (still going after running a marathon in ten years), thereby removing the possibility of using the device for outer Solar System exploration. Plutonium 238 production has begun again at Oak Ridge but yearly production is tiny, and it will take years to produce the kilogram masses necessary to power space missions. The ESA are also sending a rover to Mars, in 2018, funding and builders Roscosmos allowing. It will be solar powered and launched by a Russian Proton rocket, whose success rate isn’t the best.
For all the potential deficiencies in exploration, what has been achieved over the last twenty years is immense. What is planned over the next twenty years is not fully clear yet, but it is likely to culminate in a huge multi-purpose space telescope that will pull all previous work together, and in concert with other space and ground telescopes, and hopefully multiple interplanetary missions, will discover signs of life, if not at present, certainly in the past. I think ultimately we will find out that life is common, but much as I would like to disagree with Fermi and “Rare Earth”, I think finding intelligent life is going to be a whole lot harder. As the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy says, “Space is a very big place “. Both in size and time.
Considering we are living in times of austerity, though, I think what we have done so far isn’t at all bad !