Our Moon, as well as the moons of Jupiter and Mars, are targets of some fascinating 2024 space missions.
I think 2023 has been one of the most fascinating years for space sciences.
For example, I reported that SpaceX launched its second Starship rocket flight in November. The vehicle hit several milestones, including separation, before breaking apart.
A third test is planned soon, as the company has now tested one of its giant rockets before the next Starship launch.
SpaceX conducted a “static fire” test today (Dec. 20) with the Starship upper-stage prototype known as Ship 28, briefly igniting the vehicle’s Raptor engines while it remained anchored to the pad at the company’s Starbase site in South Texas.
Ship 28 is being prepped to conduct Starship’s third test flight, which SpaceX aims to launch in the coming weeks. And that timeline apparently remains in target, for today’s trial went well.
“Flight 3 Starship completed a full-duration static fire with all six of its Raptor engines,” SpaceX said this afternoon in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), which also featured video of the test.
A successful Starship launch would certainly be a great way to start 2024, especially as the vehicle is part of long-range plans to return humans to the Moon. Along with the test flight, the Artemis II mission crew planning to travel around the Moon and back was recently invited to visit SpaceX to talk about the spacecraft.
Reid Wiseman, the NASA astronaut leading the four Artemis 2 crew members, told Space.com in a Dec. 18 exclusive that SpaceX wants to talk to his crew about Starship. That’s no coincidence, given that SpaceX is developing Starship for Artemis 3, which intends to land humans on the moon for the first time since 1972.
When and how that all comes together is not known yet. Artemis 2 is expected to fly around the moon no earlier than 2024 if schedules hold. Artemis 3 is manifested for 2025 or 2026, but that assumes that SpaceX’s Starship has passed enough tests to satisfy NASA’s strict safety requirements for human-rated spacecraft.
And while Earth’s Moon is an important goal, some missions slated for 2024 focus on the moons of other planets in our solar system.
NASA will launch Europa Clipper, which will explore one of Jupiter’s largest moons, Europa. Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon, with a surface made of ice. Beneath its icy shell, Europa likely harbors a saltwater ocean, which scientists expect contains over twice as much water as all the oceans here on Earth combined.
With Europa Clipper, scientists want to investigate whether Europa’s ocean could be a suitable habitat for extraterrestrial life.
The mission plans to do this by flying past Europa nearly 50 times to study the moon’s icy shell, its surface’s geology and its subsurface ocean. The mission will also look for active geysers spewing out from Europa….
…While Earth’s moon has many visitors – big and small, robotic and crewed – planned for 2024, Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos will soon be getting a visitor as well. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, has a robotic mission in development called the Martian Moon eXploration, or MMX, planned for launch around September 2024.
The mission’s main science objective is to determine the origin of Mars’ moons. Scientists aren’t sure whether Phobos and Deimos are former asteroids that Mars captured into orbit with its gravity or if they formed out of debris that was already in orbit around Mars.
The spacecraft will spend three years around Mars conducting science operations to observe Phobos and Deimos.
One last reflection to stress the importance of our Moon, which keeps the tilt of the Earth stable and limits the amount of wobble along the planetary axis.
With every shift in the tilt, the seasons would radically change. Instead of regular, predictable changes year after year, we would experience ages with endless summers, or ages with violent but short winters, or anything in between. The rhythm of the seasons provides a pulse for life, which has the freedom to grow and evolve without trying to overcome great climactic shifts caused by a changing axis.
Luna acts as a great gravitational counterweight, stabilizing the motion of the Earth. By providing a source of gravity external to our planet, the Earth’s interior is free to shift and reconfigure as it pleases – the Moon steadies our hand and keeps us upright.
I am looking forward to another illuminating year of space reports!DONATE
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