Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 11 January 2023

Five space missions

Source: By Sethu Pradeep: The Indian Express

2022 was an incredible year for humanity’s spaceflight aspirations. From NASA’s Artemis 1 mission that charted humanity’s path back to the Moon to the DART mission that successfully redirected an asteroid, the year marked many firsts for human spaceflight. 2023 will also prove to be an important year for human spaceflight with the beginning and conclusion of many pathbreaking missions.

In September 2023, the OSIRIS-Rex mission is scheduled to return to Earth with samples of the asteroid Bennu. Shortly after the return of OSIRIS-Rex, NASA plans to launch the Psyche spacecraft, which will explore the origins of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche.

We have already explored a list of missions that are headed to the Moon in 2023. Here, we have put together a list of other important spaceflight milestones that will happen in the year 2023.

Gaganyaan mission

ISRO will begin a series of test flights for India’s maiden human space flight from February 2023, according to PTI. The space agency said it also plans to use the heavy-light Chinook helicopter and the C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft for testing the mission’s crew module. The module is designed to carry astronauts into orbit for three dates as part of the Gaganyaan mission.

The Gaganyaan mission was initially announced in 2018 targeting a launch in 2022. But due to pandemic-induced delays, India’s maiden manned space mission will only launch by the end of 2024 or Early 2025.

The crew module will have to provide oxygen, remove carbon dioxide, remove humidity and maintain a living temperature as it transports the three astronauts on board. The Indian space agency has shortlisted four candidates to go on the mission and they have already undergone initial training in Russia. They are now undergoing further training at the Astronaut Training Facility in Bengaluru.

Chandrayaan-3

ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3 mission will be a follow up to the Chandrayaan-2 mission, which failed to achieve a soft landing on the Moon. Just like Chandrayaan-2, Chandrayaan-3 will carry a lunar lander and a lunar rover to Earth’s lone natural satellite. The mission is scheduled to launch aboard a Launch Vehicle 3 (LVM3) rocket, earlier known as the GSLV 3, in June this year.

The mission’s propulsion module will carry the lander and rover configuration to an orbit that is about 100 kilometres above the Moon’s surface. The module will also carry a Spectro-polarimetry of HAbitable Planet Earth (SHAPE) payload to study the spectral and polarimetric measurements of Earth from the lunar orbit.

Meanwhile, the mission’s lunar lander will carry instruments like Chandra’s Surface Thermophysical Experiment (ChaSTE) to measure the thermal conductivity and temperature; Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity (ILSA) for measuring the seismicity around the landing site; Langmuir Probe (LP) to estimate the plasma density and its variations. A passive Laser Retroreflector Array from NASA will also hitch a ride aboard the lander.

Juice mission

The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission in April 2023. The Juice mission will complete 35 fly-bys near Jupiter and will make detailed observations about the gas giant and its three large ocean-bearing moons–Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Apart from exploring Jupiter’s environment in depth using the ten sensors aboard, the mission will also characterise its moons as both planetary objects and potential habitat.

The Juice spacecraft will monitor Jupiter’s complex environment in depth including its magnetism, radiation and plasma. After it completes its 35 fly-bys near Jupiter and its Moons, it will also become the first spacecraft to shift its own orbit to another world by moving to Ganymede’s orbit.

Among the three moons, Ganymede will be the primary scientific target of the Juice mission. It is the largest moon in the Solar System and is larger than both Pluto and Mercury. It is also the only moon to have its own intrinsic magnetic field. Mercury and Earth are the only other solid bodies that generate a dipole field like Ganymede.

Also, Juice will study the Galilean moons’ hidden oceans, magnetism, heating processes, tidal effects, orbits, surface activity, cores, compositions, atmospheres and space environments to investigate whether the conditions necessary for life could have ever emerged on these three moons. The spacecraft’s high-resolution mapping will hunt for biologically essential and important elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, magnesium and iron.

OSIRIS-Rex mission

The OSIRIS-REx mission was launched in September 2016. In 2021, it took off from the asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft is carrying samples of the asteroid and is on track to return them to Earth in September 2023. When the spacecraft reaches around 250 kilometres above the surface of our planet, it will release a sample capsule that will make a precise landing at the United States Air Force’s Utah Test and Training range.

According to NASA, asteroids like Bennu can act as time capsules for the earliest history of our solar system. They preserve chemical signatures from when the universe was a younger place and might even contain samples of the ancient building blocks of life. The space agency will distribute portions of the samples to scientists around the world but a large fraction of it will be preserved so that it can be studied by future generations with much more advanced technology.

NASA refers to Bennu as an “ancient relic of the solar system’s early days.” The asteroid has more than 4.5 billion years of history and its present-day composition was already established within 10 million years of the solar system’s formation.

Bennu probably broke off from a much larger carbon-rich asteroid between 700 million to two billion years ago. It likely formed in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and has drifted closer to the Earth. Since it is so old, it may contain molecules similar to those that were involved in the beginning of life on Earth.

Visiting Asteroid Psyche

Following OSIRIS-REx’s return, NASA plans to launch the Psyche mission to study the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche. The asteroid orbits the Sun in an orbit between Mars and Jupiter and is unique because it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of the solar system.

There are metallic cores deep within most rocky, terrestrial planets, including Earth. But these cores are difficult to access because they are contained unreachable far within the planet. Since we can’t see or measure our planet’s core directly, the Psyche mission will offer a window into the collisions and accretion that create terrestrial planets.

Instruments aboard the Psyche spacecraft will include a Multispectral Imager, a Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer, a Magnetometer and an X-band Gravity Science Investigation. The mission will also test a new laser communication technology that uses light at near-infrared wavelengths instead of radio waves to communicate with the Earth.

Bonus: Newly-developed rockets

Apart from the many science missions that are scheduled for 2023, the year will also see various private space companies conducting the maiden flights of their new rockets. The rockets that are scheduled to launch for the first time this year include Arianespace’s Ariane 6, Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Elon Musk-owned SpaceX’s Starship and the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur.

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