Kickstarting 2024, Techopedia dives into the top lunar and deep space exploration missions and covers the latest spacetech trends that set new milestones in conquering the final frontier.
Technology in Space Exploration: 8 Trends for 2024
Let’s dive into the main trends and technologies that will affect the space industry as the year unfolds.
1. Nano Satellites Take Center Stage
Tiny Titans are redefining space exploration. These miniature marvels, lighter and cheaper than their big cousins, will swarm low-Earth orbit, enabling high-resolution Earth observation, global communication networks, and even asteroid mining.
2. Forged in the Stars: Advanced Space Manufacturing
Space manufacturing is one of the main reasons why private companies and scientific organizations invest in space. The natural conditions of space are ideal for manufacturing and testing a wide range of products, including ultra-pure pharmaceuticals, high-performance materials, advanced electronics, and biotechnologies. Projects that align with this trend are expected throughout 2024.
3. Satellite Sector Advancements
The satellite sector, driven by SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, is expected to grow in 2024. Satellite constellations will expand with thousands of new and enhanced small satellites to deliver next-gen global broadband coverage.
High-throughput satellites (HTS) will take center stage, offering enhanced data transfer capabilities and faster and more reliable satellite communication services. Other trends in this area include quantum communication technology and the use of AI in satellite operations.
4. The New Era of Space Management
As Earth’s orbits become more crowded and space more accessible, traffic management is poised to take center stage. Robust international space traffic management and control systems are crucial. Sophisticated software and artificial intelligence can help organizations orchestrate and automate orbital movements and prevent satellite collisions.
2024 will bring the implementation of new international frameworks, governing resources, debris removal programs, and new standards that set responsible space practices.
5. Smart Advanced Propulsion Innovation
Innovators are pushing the boundaries of propulsion, exploring solar sails, plasma engines, and even nuclear fusion for interstellar travel. Throughout 2024 we will see innovation integrated into propulsion engineering, seeking new ways of sustainable propulsion.
6. Space Travel: The Privatization of Space
From science to manufacturing, exploration, and even space travel, private companies are stepping up and alleviating governments from their monopolistic role while bringing in new resources and capital influx. The privatization of space has started recently, and 2024 will see new and established players engaging in healthy competition and pushing space missions and technology further than ever before.
7. Sustainability: From Conceptual to Standard Norm
From satellite and spacecraft end-of-life standards, resource recycling, and green engines, sustainability will play a crucial role in the space sector throughout the year. Sustainability concepts that have never been applied to the space sector are expected to become the norm and even mandatory in 2024.
8. SpaceTech that Benefits Earth
Space technologies have the potential to guard life on Earth. In 2024 new satellites will keep watch over our planet, track deforestation, predict natural disasters, and monitor crop health with unprecedented precision. Real-time data will help save lives, enhance agriculture, better understand climate change, and drive communications and logistics.
Major Space Missions and Programs in 2024
Artemis: The Return of Humanity to the Moon
One of the most prominent space missions of our times is NASA’s Artemis return-to-the-moon program. The Artemis space program is widely different from the first race to the Moon of the 1950s, and 60s and 70s. This time, NASA is playing the long game and wants to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon.
While 2024 will not be the year in which astronauts land on the Moon, as NASA delayed missions Artemis II and Artemis III, crucial work will be done this year, including the analysis of Artemis 1 and the development of the lunar Gateway and lunar landers.
Artemis 1 Analysis: the Foundation for Safe Flights
In 2023, Artemis 1 — the first test Artemis mission completed its flight around the Moon and returned to Earth. Throughout 2024, engineers and scientists will continue to analyze data from Artemis 1 and refine the Orion spacecraft and the SLS rocket for future missions. The data and conclusions of the Artemis 1 mission will set the foundations for future crewed Artemis missions, prioritizing astronaut safety.
Source: Artemis – NASA
Building the Lunar Gateway Station
Additionally, for the Artemis space program to be successful, NASA must build a space station that acts as a gateway and portal for astronauts on their journeys to and from the Moon. The building of the Lunar Gateway is a massive NASA undertaking supported by international and commercial partners. The Gateway will be humanity’s first space station beyond Earth orbits.
Developing the Moon Landers
NASA commissioned the development of Lunar Lenders, the crucial components of the Artemis mission, to Blue Origin and SpaceX.
SpaceX’s plans for a lunar lander are ambitious and involve using Starship, the largest rocket ever to be constructed. This is a challenging feat as the iconic Starship rocket is still in early development and testing phases.
In contrast, Blue Origin’s Human Landing System (HLS) lander takes on a simpler design inspired by the early Moon lander years.
NASA has urged both companies to move forward in 2024 and advance in the development of the spacecraft as they are essential to the Artemis mission.
Hits and Misses and NASA’s Lunar Commercial Payload Program
Going back to the Moon is proving to be more difficult than everyone thought. Lunar missions have been plagued with delays and unexpected failures. On August 19, Russia’s first moon mission in 47 years, Luna-25, spun out of control and crashed into the Moon.
NASA, and its commercial partners, have been no strangers to troubles either. One of the landers commissioned to deliver payloads to the Moon, Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine Mission 1 launched successfully but didn’t manage to land the spacecraft on the Moon due to technical failures and propulsions issues.
On the other hand, the Intuitive Machines 1 (IM-1, TO2-IM) mission, designed to carry a lander to the Malapert A crater, near the south pole of the Moon (home to the new NASA Artemis base) suffered delays after delays. The launch of this expected mission is now scheduled for February 2024 when a window to the Moon opens up.
Another moon lander explorer set to launch in late 2024 is VIPER. VIPER is a golf-size rover that is on a mission to explore the Earth’s Moon for ice and other potential resources necessary for human permanent presence and the establishment of a permanent base in the South Pole of the Moon.
All U.S. and international partners´ Moon landers are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which plans to deliver tech, mobility, habitat, and science payloads to the Moon before the arrival of astronauts in Artemis II scheduled for 2025.
2024 Is All About Moons: Europa Clipper to Launch to Jupiter
For NASA and others in the sector, 2024 is all about moons. The journey to Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most exciting and expected mission launches. Europa Clipper is set to launch in October 2024. The craft is expected to reach Jupiter’s orbit by April 2030 and answer a question that has driven space exploration since its early beginnings – is there life beyond Earth?
The Europa Clipper will finally prove or disprove scientific theories of a vast ocean existing under the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon. If the ocean is there, scientists believe it could host life.
NASA says the mission will help scientists better understand the astrobiological potential for habitable worlds beyond our planet. The Europa Clipper spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter will make nearly 50 flybys of Europa, soaring as low as 16 miles from the moon’s surface.
Source: JPL – NASA
Martian Moons eXploration: Japan Stepping Up the Game
NASA is not the only one obsessed with our solar system moons. JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and a close NASA partner, will launch the Martian Moon eXploration mission in September 2024.
It will take the JAXA spacecraft one year to reach Mars. Once there, the spacecraft will explore both Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and collect samples which it plans to return to Earth by August 2028.
While the degree of sophistication and technology required to accomplish this mission is off the charts, JAXA has already executed a similar miracle mission. In 2020 the JAXA’s mission Hayabusa2 landed on an asteroid, deployed numerous payloads and four rovers on it, and managed to bring back samples to Earth.
NASA’s Osiris-Rex and the New Reinvented Osirisi-Apex
In 2023, NASA’s Osiris-Rex became the first U.S. space shuttle mission to collect an asteroid sample and return it to Earth. As scientists continue to study the material from the asteroid Bennu on Earth, which landed in the Utah desert, the spacecraft Osiris is far from having completed its mission.
The Osiris craft never landed on Earth, it only dropped a sample return capsule. After that, it reset its instruments, setting a path to a new destination. Now called the Osiris-APEX mission, the spacecraft will reach asteroid Apophis in 2029 — once the asteroid is at 20,000 miles from Earth. But to get there, Osiris-APEX must perform a perfectly synchronized navigation throughout 2024.
The Psyche Mission: Unearthing Planetary Building Blocks
Another NASA space program to keep an eye out for in 2024 is the Psyche mission. The Psyche spacecraft successfully launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on October 13, 2023, and will reach the unique metal-rich asteroid Psyche by 2029. The asteroid is known for its exposed nickel-iron core, which scientists believe could be an early planet and a chance to explore the building blocks of celestial formations.
As of today, the Psyche spacecraft and its five-panel, cross-shaped massive solar arrays have not encountered any problem. Still, as the craft journeys about 300 million miles away from the Sun, targeting an asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, numerous technological challenges lay ahead.
Rocket Lab Venus Mission: A World Once Like Earth?
2024 could be the year for the first private mission to Venus. Rocket Lab plans to launch on Venus as early as December 2024, SpaceNews reports. The mission includes an orbiter spacecraft mission and a space probe that will descend and free-fall into Venus at about 30 miles in altitude.
Research suggests Venus was once a habitable planet like Earth. This private mission aims to study and unveil the true nature of Venus today and its history. While more than 30 Venus missions have been undertaken, Rocket Lab’s mission will be the first private exploration of the planet. If launched in December 2024, the craft would arrive at Venus on May 13, 2025.
China’s Space Ambition and Its International Space Station
Beyond U.S. space exploration, other nations are making technological progress, and China has become the main contender. Throughout 2024, China will continue to build its international space station and launch new satellites.
Launches expected to the Chinese International Space Station in 2024 include the Tianzhou-7 and 8, cargo missions that will deliver supplies for astronauts, space suits, essentials, and new equipment. Additionally, the missions Shenzhou-18 and 19 will carry out extravehicular activities, scientific space experiments, technology tests, and maintenance.
An Aging International Space Station
The aging International Space Station will also continue operations throughout 2024 with its international partners. However, NASA is already planning the station decommissioning and evaluating several end-of-life options.
The International Space Station has also experienced several technological problems linked to the natural wear and tear and degradation of the structure and its aging technology. Still, 2024 is expected to be a smooth year without major upsets for the International Space Station as NASA transitions to building a new commercial space station.
Other noteworthy space missions in 2024 include the operation of a new space shuttle Dream Chaser, the final tests of SpaceX’s iconic Starship, and Hera — the asteroid deflection mission of the European Space Agency ESA.
From space exploration missions to pushing the boundaries of science and engineering, international collaboration, and innovation, the space sector in 2024 will give us a better understanding of the universe.