5 Future Robotic Expeditions and What They Could Reveal [Slide Show]
Some are already on their way and some are still in the works, but here is what we may see from unmanned exploration of space in the coming years
Credits: ESA/AOES Medialab
MESSENGER: The Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) craft took flight five years ago and in 2011 will become the first probe to orbit Mercury. The closest planet to the sun, Mercury is difficult to study from Earth, and before the first of MESSENGER's flybys of the planet, less than half of its surface had even been photographed. Those flybys are already providing clues to some of Mercury's mysteries by measuring the planet's magnetic field, assessing its chemical composition, and mapping its pockmarked surface in three dimensions.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
DAWN: Launched in 2007, NASA's Dawn probe is on its way to a pair of encounters in the asteroid belt, where it will investigate the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Those objects are two of the largest leftovers from the planetary formation process billions of years ago. Dawn is powered by an innovative plasma drive. For more on the probe's efficient propulsion system, see our feature article and accompanying video from earlier this year, around the time that Dawn harnessed Mars's gravity for a trajectory adjustment.
ROSETTA: The European Space Agency launched its Rosetta spacecraft in 2004 on a 10-year journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Once there, the probe will drop a harpoon-anchored lander to investigate the comet's nucleus, while lingering nearby in a cometary orbit, studying how the icy body changes as it makes its way around the sun. In this artist's conception, the lander descends from the primary Rosetta spacecraft to the surface of the comet.
MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY: NASA's next-generation Mars rover is a behemoth, both in terms of physical size and budget. Its launch, which had been planned for this year, was postponed in late 2008, pushing estimates of its cost up to $2.3 billion.
The Mars Science Laboratory's scientific objectives include hunting down organic molecules, further investigating the Red Planet's geological history, characterizing the radiation that bombards the Martian surface and inventorying the planet's water and carbon dioxide.
When it finally reaches Mars in 2012, the Mars Science Lab will dwarf Spirit and Opportunity, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers currently investigating the Red Planet. For comparison, this photograph features a model of the Mars Science Laboratory [ right] next to models of a Mars Exploration Rover [ left] and the Mars Pathfinder rover [ center], which landed on Mars in 1997 and explored the surface for nearly three months. NASA/JPL-Caltech Advertisement
NEW HORIZONS: The New Horizons probe, launched by NASA in 2006, is on its way to humankind's first close-up encounter with Pluto. To reach its distant destination, New Horizons left Earth at blinding speed, passing lunar distance in about nine hours and reaching Jupiter in just over a year. The probe should reach Pluto in 2015, and then may head into deeper reaches of the solar system, investigating the Kuiper Belt, the icy debris field where Pluto resides.