Ep. 600: Looking Ahead

Today, we gaze into the future of space and astronomy. What upcoming missions and events are we excited about?

Download MP3 | Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

The Extremely Large Telescope (ESO)

Vera C. Rubin Observatory (LSST)

Hypothetical Planet X (NASA)

Kuiper Belt (NASA)

Trojan Asteroids (Swinburne University)

Thirty Meter Telescope

Very Large Telescope (ESO)


Square Kilometre Array

BepiColombo (ESA)


NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite



Ariel Space Mission


PLATO Mission

Pandora Mission Would Expand NASA’s Capabilities in Probing Alien Worlds (NASA)

NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope

Europa Clipper (NASA)

Proposed NASA Mission Would Visit Neptune’s Curious Moon Triton (NASA JPL)

Dragonfly (JHUAPL)

Parker Solar Probe (NASA)

ESA Solar Orbiter (ESA)

Daniel K Inoue Telescope (NSO)

Ripples on Pluto hint at subsurface ocean (EarthSky)


PDF: Spektr-RG (Roscosmos)

Chang’e 4 (Wikipedia)

Tianwen-1 (Wikipedia)

ZhengHe (Wikipedia)

Emirates Mars Mission

Chandrayaan-3 launch delayed to 2022: All you need to know (India Today)

Hayabusa2 (JAXA)

Martian Moons eXploration (JAXA)

Mars Orbiter Mission (ISRO)

Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso (Wikipedia)

India-based Neutrino Observatory

The New Era of Multimessenger Astronomy (Scientific American)

What is the Cosmic Microwave Background? (Universe Today)

What are Gravitational Waves? (Caltech)

LIGO (Caltech)

IceCube (University of Wisconsin)


Large Hadron Collider (CERN)

Supersymmetry (CERN)

Dark Matter (CERN)

Neutrinos (University of Wisconsin)

What is a biosignature? (NASA)

Dark Energy (Swinburne University)

Fast Radio Bursts (Swinburne University)


Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

Fraser:                         Astronomy Cast, Episode 600. Looking Into the Future. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know.

                                    I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hi, Pamela, how are you doing?

Pamela:                       I am doing well. We are really earning our wings today as the oldest continuously running astronomy podcast. And it’s awesome.

Fraser:                         Is that how that works? Is that how you get your astronaut wings? You either –

Pamela:                       Well, I didn’t say astronaut wings. I just said wings.

Fraser:                         Oh, just regular wings? Well, I want my astronaut wings. You hit 600 episodes, you get your astronaut wings or fly to space, one or the other.

Pamela:                       Okay. All right.

Fraser:                         And we accomplished one. Yeah. That’s pretty amazing. All right. So, today we are going to gaze into the future of space and astronomy. What upcoming missions, events are we excited about? And we will talk about that in a second, but first, let’s have a break.

                                    All right, Pamela, 600 episodes. Crazy. But we don’t look back.

Pamela:                       No. Because, wow, science evolves. And what’s crazy is I know some of the things I’m going to look forward today are things I didn’t even think were possible when we started recording. And we blatantly told you are not possible.

Fraser:                         Yeah, yeah. I 100% agree. And I think one of the things that I always find is when you talk about some of these really far-flung missions, people are always so – they go like, “Oh, 2035, 2045 for a mission. Oh, I’ll, be 60 by then,” or whatever, you know, “I’ll be in my 70s or something.”

                                    But don’t worry. There’s so many really cool things happening all the time, every year, year after year after year, that you don’t have to worry about what the far future holds because there will be enough stuff happening in the short term to keep you wildly entertained throughout this entire thing. So, we will definitely talk about stuff that’s going to happen in the far future. But we will also talk about a bunch of stuff that’s happening in the near future.

                                    How do you want to organize this? Where do you want to go?

Pamela:                       So, why don’t we look to the missions that we were most excited about, the kinds of discoveries that we hope will be made, and then the crazy ideas that we’re hoping someone will prove or disprove before it’s all over.

Fraser:                         That sounds great. Well, so let’s start with observatories and sort of astronomy-related observatories and missions that connect to, you know, astrophysics and astronomy first, as opposed to exploration?

Pamela:                       Okay. So, I think the extremely large telescope is where it’s at. These 10s of meter systems that are coming up, they’re gonna, hopefully, change everything. But before they get here, we’re going to have the Vera Rubin Large Synoptic Survey Telescope down in Chile, hopefully, by the end of this year. So, I don’t feel like we’re working too far ahead looking at that one.

Fraser:                         And yeah, I mean to have a telescope that we have been incredibly enthusiastically excited about what feels like a decade –

Pamela:                       More than a decade. I started talking about that scope back in 2008.

Fraser:                         Did you? Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, you know, it has reached the point now where it’s going to be doing first light later this year.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         So, how will Vera Rubin change our understanding of the cosmos?

Pamela:                       Well, the thing I personally am looking most forward to is, that sucker, as it observes the entire sky in just a few nights, the entire visible sky, in just a few nights, it’s going to be able to see the entirety of the ecliptic over the course of the year in never before seen detail. And if it doesn’t find Planet Nine within the first two years, it’s probably not out there.

Fraser:                         It doesn’t exist, yeah.

Pamela:                       So, I want to know what other Kuiper belt objects, what other planets are in our own solar system. And it will finally tell us. Beyond that, it’s finally going to allow us to survey just what is the distribution of all those little asteroids that are threatening to crash into our planet? What is the distribution of all the Trojan objects out orbiting with Jupiter and beyond?

                                    And beyond also includes, what’s the distribution of the faintest stars and the transient objects and things that go flicker and flare in the night beyond our solar system and beyond our Galaxy?

Fraser:                         I always like to describe this as like right now, all we ever get to look at is a photograph of the night sky, and Vera Rubin will give us a video.

Pamela:                       Yes.

Fraser:                         And we will see what the universe is doing night after night as it changes, as it evolves. As things happen, we can see how vibrant and just how ever-changing the universe, itself, is.

Pamela:                       And it’s gonna let us see all the rare stuff, just ‘cause it sees so much.

Fraser:                         So, Vera Rubin is a big telescope, you know, 8-plus-meter telescope. But I think right around the corner from that are a whole ‘nother class of even bigger telescopes.

Pamela:                       And this is where we have the extremely large telescope, which I have faith, will actually be finished, the 30-meter telescope which seems to be stuck in purgatory of unknown construction. There’s many of these under discussion, but I think it’s going to be the extremely large telescope that reaches completion first down in the southern hemisphere. And with its 10s-of-meter mirror, is going to have the light-gathering power to allow us to start to do spectroscopy, separating out the individual atoms of the faintest and most distant objects in the sky.

Fraser:                         Yeah. Just for comparison, the current biggest telescopes in the world, you could say it’s a very large telescope which is four 8-meter telescopes that work like one big telescope. The extremely large telescope is going to be just shy of 40 meters, a single telescope with a 40-meter mirror, 39 meters. You’re going to be able to see exoplanets directly. It’s going to be able to peer out deeper into the universe. It will outclass every astronomy tool that exists on Earth and many in space. It’s crazy. And that’s like 2026.

Pamela:                       I suspect that engineering difficulties and COVID will delay it a bit but not as much as JWST has been delayed.

Fraser:                         Right. So, those are the – I mean I think, and then there’s a bunch of other observatories, as you said.

Pamela:                       Square Kilometre Array.

Fraser:                         Okay. So, let’s talk about that.

Pamela:                       So, this is another mega system where we’re looking at dozens of telescopes scattered across southern Africa and the Outback of Australia tuned to different long wavelengths of light. And they’re going to be able to see things that we don’t have the technology to see right now. We’re getting glimpses with meerKAT and some of the other devices.

                                    But through a combination of looking in these longer wavelengths that we’re just now starting to see on a regular basis and by having a resolution by spreading these telescopes out so far, it will see smaller things, fainter things and in a just starting to be studied color of light. And we don’t know what we’re gonna find. And that’s what’s so awesome.

Fraser:                         Yeah, yeah. I mean I know I mention this all the time, that it will be capable of – it would be capable of detecting the leaked radio emissions from the Earth’s airports at about 100 light-years away. So, it would detect airport chatter. But I mean it’s going to be looking out deep into the universe, seeing some of the first events. It’s going to be detecting emissions from stars. It’s crazy what it’s going to be able to –

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         – what it’s going to be able to do. And it joins these super telescopes. Vera Rubin for seeing fast-changing stuff, extremely large telescopes for just –

Pamela:                       High resolution.

Fraser:                         Yeah. Light-gathering power. And then the Square Kilometre Array for just total area, 1-kilometer size telescope, just madness. What about space?

Pamela:                       Someday maybe we will know if the JWST will work or not.

Fraser:                         October 31st, 2021. That’s the date. It’s not changing. It’s changing.

Pamela:                       I will believe it when I see it. I feel like we almost need one of those surveys like you do, when’s the woman going to give birth to the child, where whoever gets closest without going over gets the prize. And you know if we do that, someone’s going to say 2025 or something. Yeah. So JWST, hopefully, later this year.

                                    The one I’m really looking forward to is BepiColombo finally making it to Mercury with all the new instruments it’s carrying and letting us go back and see more of the things that Messenger gave us hints of, the idea of past explosive volcanism on Mercury, of there being ice in some of the shadowed regions, helping us understand what’s the history of this world that has shrank over time and been tortured by the sun. I want to see what BepiColumbo will see.

Fraser:                         All right. Well, we’re gonna talk about some more in a second, but first, let’s have another break. And we’re back.

                                    Now you talk about BepiColombo, Mercury. You’ve already skipped into planetary science stuff. I’m super excited – no, no; it’s fine; it’s fine. Challenge accepted. No.

                                    What I’m really excited about is this next set of planet-hunting missions that are coming. So, you know, right now we’ve got TESS, which has really demonstrated that we can find planets nearby the Earth. And now there are plans, both from the European Space Agency and from NASA, to launch a series of missions to take all of this to the next level.

                                    You’ve got ARIEL, which is 2028, which is going to be observing atmospheres of other planets. Its job is to observe atmospheres of planets. You’ve got the potential for the HAVOCs mission coming in maybe 2030, 2035, which will sort of take that to the next level, observing Earth-sized worlds and their atmospheres. There’s PLATO. There’s a new mission on the books from NASA called Pandora, they’re thinking of – sort of a similar thing.

                                    So, you’ve got just a whole string. Probably every two years or so there’s going to be a new planet-hunting, either Earth-based or space-based, mission that’s going to figure out some aspect of the planets.

Pamela:                       And the thing that gets me is there’s also these generalized missions that it sometimes feels like we’re no longer launching. WFIRST, which has been named the Nancy Grace Roman telescope. It’s one that was originally said to be the dark energy mission. But then it was realized, wait, we can use this for planet hunting.

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                       We can use this for so many other things. So, we are going to continue to have these Hubble-like missions that can bridge across all the different sciences. And with Hubble starting to reach middle age and somehow still functioning, it’s nice to know there’s another optical telescope up and ready to be launched in the coming years.

Fraser:                         All right. So, let’s shift some gears. And, you know, there’s too many to even name, but let’s shift some gears and talk about some other planetary missions that we’re excited about. First, of course, is Europa Clipper which is in development. And that’s going to be sending a mission to Europa to search for water under the surface of the ice on Europa, try to really understand what’s going on there, and try and give us some kind of clue if there’s gonna be life. That’s going to be one of those ones you’re gonna need to be patient for because it’s still under construction.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         It’s a long flight all the way out to Jupiter and Europa. But stay tuned.

Pamela:                       And there’s the Trident mission potentially going to Triton, It hasn’t been fully funded yet. It’s in the works. There’s Dragonfly, which is funded to go to Titan and fly about, flit about in its atmosphere, maybe figure out for once and all if the planet really is chemically out of balance and the potential for having life.

                                    We’re also looking at so many different things being developed to go to Venus with this constant parade of papers and the literature saying, “Wait, there could be life.” “Wait, there’s not life.” “We don’t know.”

                                    We need more data. And hopefully, there will be a Venus mission selected that will dip down into the atmosphere and allow us to know what really is and is not there in that hot world’s upper boundaries.

Fraser:                         Yeah. Venus is now, at this point, kind of criminally under-explored. And so, it really makes sense for us to go back to Venus. Now there have been some missions that have been launched. They’re moving into position to help us study the sun.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         And I’m really excited about [unintelligible], Parker Solar Probe, which we’ve talked about. Yet still, we’re just getting closer and closer with each orbit until the point that it’s gonna be just a few million kilometers away from the sun, capturing the closest images we’ve ever seen. You got the European Space Agency Solar Orbiter, which is moving into its position to start showing us the sun from other latitudes, showing us above and below the sun. And then you match that with the Daniel K. Inouye Telescope –

Pamela:                       That’s amazing. That’s ground-based.

Fraser:                         – which has just really come online. And I think there’s still like one more instrument that isn’t fully going yet. And so, you take those three observatories together. I think there’s one more as well. They are the James Webb, extremely large telescope, of the sun. And they’re all moving into position. And so, our understanding of the sun, of how the solar wind gets produced, how solar storms are generated, and as they reach the Earth, that’s all going to get figured out in the next decade. So, it’ll be – we’re going to watch all this happen, just discovery by discovery.

Pamela:                       It’s really amazing. And this is where you have to start wondering, what are we on the crux of discovering? And it makes me think back – I know we’re not going to go back in history, but it makes me think back to 50 years ago when we were just starting to get back data on – it’s now closer to 60 years ago – we were just starting to get back temperature data on Venus, starting to get images back of Mars, and suddenly we realized, “Oh, expletive, those aren’t super-habitable worlds like we had thought.”

                                    But as we’re now starting to understand that there’s water everywhere, are we going to realize that there’s microbes everywhere as well? Is there bigger life in the oceans of Pluto, of Enceladus, of Europa? There’s more habitable volume, if you believe Alan Stern’s work, in Pluto than there is on Earth.

Fraser:                         Yeah. All right. We’re going to talk about some mission concepts that we’re excited about, things that we hope. And we’ll talk about that in a second. But first, let’s have a break.

                                    And we’re back. So, now we’ve talked about all the missions that we know are going to happen and of course we were missing dozens, I’m sure.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         And so, I’d love to talk about what we’re excited about. And one thing just before we even kind of go into this conversation. For me, the thing that I’m really excited about is how many other nations are getting involved in space and astronomy and space exploration. So, up until this point, it’s always been NASA and ESA.

Pamela:                       And Roscosmos. Don’t forget Roscosmos.

Fraser:                         Sure. For sure. But less so on the science side, although they recently launched a really cool X-ray satellite. But you’ve got – for example, the Chinese are doing a lot of great work with radio telescopes both on Earth and out in space. They’ve got a mission at the far side of the moon. They’ve got a Rover going to Mars that’s going to be joining Perseverance and Curiosity on the surface of Mars. It’s going to be landing soon. They’ve been bringing samples back from the moon. And they’ve detailed – there’s going to be a mission to an asteroid they’re going to be doing, a sample return mission from asteroid, experiments to in-situ resource utilization.

                                    You’ve got the United Arab Emirates with their mission to Mars. You’ve got all the hard work that India is doing with the moon.

Pamela:                       And Japan’s robots that it slings at things.

Fraser:                         Yeah.

Pamela:                       I’m still giggling at Hayabusa 2 just dropping stuff on Ryugu. It was amazing. And they have more plans.

Fraser:                         They’ve got a mission going to Deimos and Phobos, potentially. India has also sent a mission to Mars. Various groups are working on space stations. And so, I think one of the big themes that we’re really going to see in the next couple of decades is just how much the rest of the world gets involved in space exploration and makes some serious contributions to space and astronomy. Competition’s always a good thing. I love it.

Pamela:                       And what’s getting me is, it’s not just the spacecraft, it’s also the particle detectors, where we see nations like Italy and Spain all getting in there and being like, “Okay. We’re going to figure this out too.” And as we’re trying to figure out gravitational waves, you see India building its own detectors as well.

                                    And hopefully, we’re entering a new era where we’re looking at what’s called multi-messenger astronomy. This is where we’re combining data from gravitational waves, from particle detectors, from telescopes that detect light in all its various colors. And by pulling all this varied information together, for the first time, I actually think it might be possible that we’ll start to get data from before the formation of the cosmic microwave background. I would never have said that in the past.

Fraser:                         Yes. In fact, you grumble, grumble –

Pamela:                       Have adamantly said, “We’ll never –” I was wrong.

Fraser:                         Yeah, yeah, yeah. Grumble, grumble, gravitational waves, grumble, grumble, if I recall.

Pamela:                       No. I grumble, grumbled LIGO. And I stand by my grumble, grumble of early LIGO.

Fraser:                         All right. Okay.

Pamela:                       It’s better now.

Fraser:                         It is better now. It’s advanced now. It has more detectors. Yeah. I mean even in other – there’s other kinds of ways of looking at the universe that people are starting to figure out. And so, there is, say we have the ice cube detector down in Antarctica. They’re planning a upgrade that will turn it from 1 cubic kilometer of ice to 10 cubic kilometers of ice to try and search for neutrinos and even, potentially, even a neutrino background to the universe.

                                    There’s massive new gravitational wave observatories in the works. LIGO I think has 10-kilometer-long arms. There’s one that’s being planned that’ll have 40-kilometer-long arms.

Pamela:                       And LISA maybe will finally be given a chance to fly.

Fraser:                         Yeah. A space-based version of LIGO, LISA, which will be terrific. So, we’ve got the potential to see the universe in neutrinos, to see the universe in gravitational waves. And a lot of these big problems, these big mysteries, that we struggle with today will just get solved.

Pamela:                       And Large Hadron Collider is going to be coming out at higher energies. And it’s finally going to, I think, put a nail in the coffin of supersymmetry and start saying these dark matter possibilities are or are not real. And it takes so many different kinds of detectors to figure out all the different scales of things we need to understand to understand our universe. And the world is investing in it, not as much as any of us would like, but the world, not always the country you would like.

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                       The world is investing in science with the Large Hadron Collider, with all the gravitational wave detectors, with these multi-meter telescope – multi 10s-of-meter telescopes, Square Kilometre Arrays. The world is figuring out our universe as we work together.

Fraser:                         So, one last question. What is a mission that you wish somebody would figure out that no one is – or a scientific question that you wish somebody would go to actually solve.

Pamela:                       I really wish we could figure out a better way to convince neutrinos that they need to interact with us. I think there’s a lot about neutrinos that we still need to figure out. And I wonder if they are the bridge to understanding dark matter that we need. I want to know more about neutrinos. It’s just that simple.

Fraser:                         Okay. Yeah.

Pamela:                       What about you?

Fraser:                         For me, it’s searching for biosignatures. I think I would love to see a space-based interferometer that has the capability of observing extrasolar planets, multiple pixels of extrasolar planets, try to piece together, can we see the continents, the oceans? Can we start to measure brightness, clouds, that kind of thing, maybe even city lights at night?

Pamela:                       I think that’s in the way, though. I think that will come with time.

Fraser:                         Yeah. I think – yeah, so multiple kilometer-size space-based interferometers would be lovely. So, I think we are, hopefully, going to – you know, the point being, every few months, there’s going to be something exciting that’s going to happen in space and astronomy.

                                    We both have been doing this now for decades. We can confirm that it is has happened throughout our entire careers. And so, there’s so much exciting stuff.

Pamela:                       And we’ll be wrong again.

Fraser:                         Yeah, yeah. And of course, the most exciting thing is the huh-that’s-strange discovery, like dark energy, or fast radio bursts.

Pamela:                       Yeah.

Fraser:                         So, there’s lots more the universe has in store for us. All right. Do you have some names for us this week?

Pamela:                       I do. So, as always we are here thanks to the generous contributions people like you. It takes a whole crew to keep Fraser and I on the straight and narrow. There’s Nancy running herd, Ali doing video, Rich doing audio. Beth is out there updating websites. So many people involved. And because of you, we can keep them employed.

                                    So, this week I want to thank Burry Gowan, Birko Roland, Kevin Lyle, Andrew Poelstra, Brian Cagle, David Truog, Robert Wenger, Venkatesh Chary, TheGiantNothing – I love that user.

Fraser:                         You really do.

Pamela:                       Jeanette Wink, Aurora Lipper, Joe Hook, David, Gerhard Schwarzer, Laura Kittleson, Robert Palsma, Joe Hollstein, Paul Jarman, Les Howard, William, Jos Cunningham, Emily Patterson, and Just Joe.

                                    Thank you. You make this possible.

Fraser:                         Thank you, everybody. Thank you, Pamela.

Pamela:                       Thank you, Fraser. Happy 600.

Fraser:                         We did it. And we’ll see all of you next week.

Announcer:                 Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy Cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it. But please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay.

                                    You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website astronomycast.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep this show going, please consider joining our community at patreon.com/astronomycast, Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyway, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast.

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