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After Cassini: 14 Epic Planetary Science Missions to Get Excited About

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An artistic representation of the Mars2020 rover (operating the SuperCam remote sensing instrument) on the Red Planet.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft ended its epic 13-year stint at Saturn on Sept. 15, but there are other upcoming planetary science missions to look forward to.

Currently, there are several active missions (led by NASA as well as other space agencies) exploring planets and other rocky objects in the solar system. For example, the Juno probe is studying Jupiter, and the Curiosity rover is exploring Mars. Looking ahead, NASA is reviewing mission proposals that may include returning to Saturn to search for signs of life on ocean worlds, like the planet’s moons Enceladus and Titan. Planned missions to Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and other celestial bodies in our solar system and beyond are also in the works.

Here’s a list of some of the orbiters, probes and rovers en route to new destinations or slated to launch in the next few years. [In Photos: Cassini Mission Ends with Epic Dive into Saturn]

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will search for signs of past microbial life and possibly habitable conditions that may have once existed on the Red Planet. The rover’s basic design resembles that of NASA’s nuclear-powered Curiosity rover. The Mars 2020 rover will use a drill to collect core samples of rocks and soils, and then examine those samples on a microscopic level to search for biosignatures, or chemicals that could be indicative of ancient life on the Red Planet. (The Mars 2020 drill will probe much deeper into the Martian surface than the drill on Curiosity.) Samples collected by the Mars 2020 rover could potentially be returned to Earth in a future mission.

The rover is expected to launch in July or August of 2020 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Three potential landing sites have been selected and include an ancient lake bed called the Jezero crater, the edge of the Syrtis Major volcanoes and a hot-spring site called Columbia Hills. Mission scientists hope that, after it touches down on the Red Planet, the rover will explore the Martian surface for two years. This mission offers a unique opportunity to prepare for future human exploration of Mars, mission team members have said.

NASA’s InSight Mars lander is expected to launch in May 2018 and arrive at the Red Planet in November 2018. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission will study the planet’s deep interior to gain a better understanding of the processes that helped shaped rocky planets like Mars and Earth.

Once it has landed on the Red Planet, the probe will spend a full Mars year (687 Earth days) surveying its surroundings. (Because it’s not a rover, it will have to stay in one spot.) InSight will be equipped with two specialized instruments, allowing it to probe deep beneath the Martian surface and study the planet’s internal geologic activity and temperature.

The European Space Agency (ESA) also has its eye on the Red Planet. The ExoMars rover mission is designed to search for signs of ancient life that may have once existed on Mars. The golf-cart-size rover will be equipped with a drill to collect samples, as well as a panoramic camera system for stereoscopic imaging and ground-penetrating radar to search for ice beneath the Martian surface.

The ExoMars rover is scheduled to launch in the spring of 2020. The rover will reach the Red Planet in 2021, joining the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter — the first phase of the ExoMars mission, which launched toward the Red Planet on March 14, 2016.

This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s and will explore Jupiter’s icy moon.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will study the possibly habitable Jovian moon Europa. The probe is expected to launch in 2022 and later settle into orbit around Jupiter in 2025. The solar-powered spacecraft will perform about 40 flybys of Europa to learn more about the ocean of liquid water that lies beneath the moon’s icy crust and perhaps determine if it is capable of supporting life as we know it on Earth.

ESA is also planning a mission to Jupiter in 2022. However, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, also known as JUICE, won’t arrive at the Jovian giant until 2029. JUICE will study Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetic environment, and it will also investigate three of the planet’s Galilean moons: Europa, Callisto and Ganymede.

ESA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plan to launch a joint mission to Mercury in October 2018. The mission includes a carrier spacecraft called the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) — which supplies electrical power during interplanetary cruising — and two separate orbiters: Europe’s Mercury Planet Orbiter and Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter.

The spacecraft will take about seven years to get into orbit around Mercury, using several gravity assists from Earth and Venus. The mission is designed to investigate how Mercury formed so close to a parent star, and to take a closer look at the planet’s interior structure, geology, composition and magnetic field.

This artist's rendering show the Parke Solar Probe, which will fly closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft.

This artist’s rendering show the Parke Solar Probe, which will fly closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft.

Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is scheduled to launch on July 31, 2018, will travel closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history. The mission will perform 24 close flybys of the sun — some of which will bring the spacecraft within just 3.9 million miles (6.2 million kilometers) of the solar surface.

From this unique vantage point, the probe will be able to measure the sun’s electric and magnetic fields, photograph the solar structure and study the solar wind. These findings could help astronomers answer questions about the sun’s perplexing outer atmosphere, also known as the corona, and other long-standing mysteries.

China is planning to launch a sample-return mission to the moon at the end of November 2017. The mission, called Chang’e 5, will be the first to return lunar material to Earth in more than 40 years. The spacecraft will include an orbiter, a lander, an ascender and an Earth re-entry module. Chang’e 5 is one in a series of China’s moon exploration missions, which also include Chang’e 4 — a lunar probe set to launch around 2018 and make the first-ever soft landing on the farside of the moon.

The Google Lunar X Prize is an international challenge to land a robot on the lunar surface, have it travel at least 1,650 feet (500 meters), and send high-definition photos and videos back to Earth. There are five teams still competing for the $30 million prize: Florida-based Moon Express, Israel’s SpaceIL, Japan’s Hakuto, India-based TeamIndus and the international collaboration Synergy Moon. To qualify for the Lunar X Prize, teams must complete their lunar missions by March 31, 2018.

This artist's concept shows the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft grabbing a sample of an asteroid for return to Earth.

This artist’s concept shows the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft grabbing a sample of an asteroid for return to Earth.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) mission will study the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. The mission launched on Sept. 8, 2016, and is slated to arrive at Bennu in 2018.

OSIRIS-REx will spend approximately two years studying the rocky body in great detail, before collecting a sample to bring home to Earth. Asteroids are leftovers from the formation of planets and carry blueprints of the early solar system. Samples collected from Bennu will therefore help astronomers learn more about the evolution of our solar system and how planets formed. If all goes according to plan, OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth in 2023, marking the first U.S. asteroid sample-return mission.

JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission is another asteroid-sampling mission en route to its target destination. The spacecraft launched on Dec. 2, 2014, and is expected to arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu in 2018. Hayabusa2 follows JAXA’s historic 2003 Hayabusa mission, which brought the first pristine samples of an asteroid to Earth in 2010.

This time around, the mission will land a small probe on the surface of the asteroid, as well as a pair of rovers for exploring the asteroid’s surface. Hayabusa2 will spend a year studying the asteroid before collecting samples to return to Earth in December 2020.

NASA’s Psyche mission will launch in 2022 to study a bizarre metal asteroid up close. The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is located in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Whereas most asteroids are made of rock, Psyche is composed of metallic iron and nickel — the same material found in Earth’s core. It’s the only known object of its kind in the solar system, leading astronomers to believe that the asteroid is the remnant of what was once a protoplanet in the early solar system. Therefore, learning more about this asteroid will help scientists better understand the cores of Earth, Mars, Mercury and Venus.

NASA’s New Horizons probe visited Pluto in July 2015, completing a nearly decade-long journey to the distant dwarf planet. The mission provided the first-ever up-close view of Pluto, revealing new details about its icy surface and largest moon, Charon.

Since accomplishing this amazing feat, the probe is still going strong and is set on a new object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, located approximately 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto. On Jan. 1, 2019, the spacecraft will fly within just 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) of the distant object called 2014 MU69, allowing the probe to study the rocky body up close. This ancient object is also expected to help paint a clearer picture of what the early solar system was like.

This artist's concept depicts NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space in 2012. The probe and its twin, Voyager 2, are still in contact with Earth.

This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space in 2012. The probe and its twin, Voyager 2, are still in contact with Earth.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This year, NASA’s historic Voyager mission celebrated 40 years in space, and it’s not ready to quit anytime soon. The twin spacecraft launched two weeks apart in 1977 — Voyager 2 on Aug. 20 and Voyager 1 on Sept. 5 — with an initial goal to study the planets and explore the outer solar system.

Over the course of the mission, the Voyager probes have captured up-close views of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and many of the moons of these giant planets. In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft ever to reach interstellar space, and Voyager 2 is currently flying through the bubble of solar material that marks the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space.

Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

Space.com is the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news, chronicling (and celebrating) humanity's ongoing expansion across the final frontier. We transport our visitors across the solar system and beyond through accessible, comprehensive coverage of the latest news and discoveries. For us, exploring space is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So from skywatching guides and stunning photos of the night sky to rocket launches and breaking news of robotic probes visiting other planets, at Space.com you’ll find something amazing every day.

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Bizarre Blue 'Flashes and Glows' May Reveal Thunderstorm Secrets

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Bright, blue flashes stretch from the tops of powerful thunderstorms toward the edge of space, providing a fascinating celestial show for astronauts on the International Space Station, and now, scientists are learning more about these showstopping displays. 

In 2015, European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen captured a video of the strange blue flashes dancing above the clouds as the space station passed over the Bay of Bengal. 

These features are called blue jets — a type of transient luminous event (TLE) resulting from activity in and below powerful thunderstorms on Earth. One of the photographs captured by Mogensen showed a pulsating blue jet that stretched 25 miles (40 kilometers) above sea level, according to a statement from NASA. [Earth From Space: Amazing Astronaut Photos]

Using these observations, researchers from Denmark’s National Space Institute studied the elusive features to learn more about how storms form and develop over time. Their findings showed that 245 pulsating blue discharges were observed during the 160 seconds of video footage, which is equal to roughly 90 blue-jet flashes per minute, the researchers said in a new study describing the findings. 

The study also revealed evidence of red sprites, which glow in the upper atmosphere following large lightning flashes on Earth. Red sprites are difficult to detect because they last only a few milliseconds. 

In fact, visual evidence of TLEs wasn’t available until 1989. Some of the first observations of these events were of red sprites photographed by cameras on board the space shuttle, as well as from images taken during a NASA and University of Alaska airborne campaign. 

Recently, however, astronauts aboard the space station have been able to capture various natural light shows on camera, including red sprites over two different storms within 3 minutes of each other — first over the American Midwest and then later near the coast of El Salvador. These red sprites, which were spotted in August 2015, stretched roughly 60 miles (100 km) above Earth, according to the statement

Observations of strange atmospheric features like red sprites and blue jets help improve researchers’ understanding of lightning and thunderstorms, which can lead to better storm models and weather forecasts. Furthermore, researchers also aim to learn more about why storms produce different TLEs in different circumstances. 

“TLE studies have been, to an extent, fortunate observation,” Tim Lang, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in the statement. “We’ve gotten better at finding them, but it’s mostly case-based analysis.”

Researchers will soon have the opportunity to capture even better storm observations from space using NASA’s Lightning Imaging Sensor, which was installed on the orbiting lab in February 2017, and the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, which is slated to launch to the space station later this year. These instruments will allow researchers to analyze storms from both below and above, and closely examine thunderstorms’ impact on Earth’s atmosphere. 

Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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NASA Moon Probe Celebrates 100th Lunar Day

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October means baseball playoffs, Halloween and, for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, 100 lunar days on the moon. 

A lunar day is a lot longer than a day on Earth, according to a new NASA video. We measure days from noon to noon or sunset to sunset. On Earth, a day takes 24 hours, though it will vary by a up to 29 seconds because of the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit. On the moon, a day is 708.7 hours, or 29.53 Earth days. On Oct. 16, the probe hit the 100 lunar-day mark.

That day length is about the same amount of time it takes for the moon to make a complete revolution around the Earth, and that’s no accident. The moon is tidally locked to the Earth, and always presents the same face to us. So its rotation period and orbital period are the same.

The Earth’s orbital and rotation periods are of course very different, with our planet making one rotation in 24 hours, but completing one orbit in a year. Since the Earth moves around the sun in a roughly circular orbit, when one rotation is finished the sun will appear slightly west of its position in the sky at the same time the day before. The Earth also wobbles a bit, which alters the length of a day by a small amount. 

A similar thing happens to the moon. The 100 days LRO passed are mean solar days — an average. The length of a day on the moon can vary, being 6 hours shorter or up to 7 hours longer than the mean of 28.53 Earth days, for the same reasons that the Earth’s day can vary, plus one other: The moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle. The moon also wobbles a bit from side to side (a phenomenon called libration), so from Earth a sliver of the far side is periodically visible. 

Launched on June 18, 2009, LRO was originally planned to last about a year. It has been extended numerous times since then. The probe orbits between 12 miles (20 kilometers) and 103 miles (165 km) above the lunar surface, investigating the lunar topography and radiation environment, keeping an eye out for water. 

You can follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Supermoon 2017: When and How to See December’s 'Full Cold Moon'

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A “supermoon” rises over the U.S. Capitol Building in this NASA photo captured on July 31, 2015. Another supermoon will rise on Sunday (Dec. 3, 2017).

When the “Full Cold Moon” rises on Dec. 3, it will also be the first and last “supermoon” of 2017. 

Supermoons happen when a full moon approximately coincides with the moon’s perigee, or a point in its orbit at which it is closest to Earth. This makes the moon appear up to 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than usual. 

The moon becomes totally full at 10:46 a.m. EST (1546 GMT) on Sunday (Dec. 3). It will officially reach perigee the next day (Dec. 4) at 3:45 a.m. EST (0845 GMT), when it is 222,135 miles (357,492 kilometers) away from Earth. [Supermoon Secrets: 7 Surprising Big Moon Facts]

While the moon’s average distance is 238,000 miles (382,900 km) from Earth, its orbit isn’t perfectly circular, so that distance varies a small amount. When it reaches apogee, or its farthest distance from Earth, on Dec. 19, it will be 252,651 miles (406,603 km) away. That’s a difference of 30,516 miles (48,110 km) — but the moon’s distance from Earth can vary more than that. 

The perigee for December’s supermoon won’t even be the closest this year; that happened May 25, when the not-so-super new moon was 221,958 miles (357,208 km) away from Earth. That date didn’t coincide with a full moon, though, so it didn’t qualify as a supermoon. 

Credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com

Supermoons don’t happen every month because the moon’s orbit changes orientation as the Earth goes around the sun. So, the long axis of the moon’s elliptical path around the Earth points in different directions, meaning that a full (or new) moon won’t always happen at apogee or perigee. 

In New York City, the full moon will rise the evening of Dec 3. at 4:59 p.m. local time. Moonset will be the morning of Dec. 4 at 7:50 a.m., according to timeanddate.com. The sun sets at 4:28 p.m. on Dec. 3, so the full moon and the sun will not be visible at the same time, at least in New York. 

If you want to see both in the sky at once, you need to go below the equator. In Wellington, New Zealand, the full moon happens at 4:46 a.m. local time on the morning of Dec. 4, and sets at 6:10 a.m., half an hour after the sun rises at 5:41 a.m. 

Look for the full moon in the constellation of Taurus. Though the moon is officially full on Dec. 3, it will still appear full to the casual observer the night before and after. 

As it did in November, the full moon will pass in front of, or “occult,” the bright star Aldebaran. This event will be visible from northern Canada, Alaska, eastern Russia, Kazakhstan, much of China and as far south as Bangladesh. 

In the continental U.S., residents of Washington state can catch the occultation; People in Seattle will see the predawn moon pass in front of Aldebaran at 6:09 a.m. local time, reappearing at 6:46 a.m. In Boise, Idaho, the occultation will start at 7:15 a.m., but skywatchers there won’t get to see Aldebaran reappear from behind the moon, as the occultation ends after the moon sets at 7:43 a.m. 

In Anchorage, Alaska, Aldebaran disappears behind the moon at 4:38 a.m. local time and reappears at 5:32 a.m. The moon becomes full soon after that at 6:46 a.m. local time, setting at 9:20 a.m. Canadian observers in Vancouver will see the occultation start at 6:06 a.m. and end at 6:46 a.m. (Full moon is at 7:46 a.m.)

Observers in Asia will see more of the occultation. In Beijing, the event starts at 7:54 p.m. local time and ends at 8:37 p.m. — better timed for those who’d rather not get up too early. 

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the name of the full moon in December is “Full Cold Moon,” and given the weather in December (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), that’s not a surprise. 

This is also reflected in the names from native peoples of North America. According to the Ontario Native Literacy Project, the Ojibwe called December’s full moon “Mnidoons Giizis,” the “Big Spirit Moon” or “Blue Moon.” For the Ojibwe, it marked the 12th calendar month, and was a time for healing. The Haida of the Pacific Northwest called it the “Snow Moon,” or “Ta’aaw Kungaay.” 

Among the Hopi, whose ceremonial life revolved around the lunar and solar cycles, the lunation just before the winter solstice was the “Sparrow-Hawk” moon, as noted by Janet Sharp of Washburn University in her study of Hopi mathematical concepts and teaching.  

In the Southern Hemisphere, December is summertime. The Māori of New Zealand described the lunar months in November to December as Hakihea, or “birds are now sitting in their nests,” according to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 

In China, the traditional lunar calendar calls the December lunation the 10th month. Called Yángyuè, or Yang month, it’s named for the yang ― the masculine, positive principle of Taoism familiar to Westerners as part of the yin and yang.  

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