Crucial events on the way back to the Moon
NASA wants to take American astronauts to the lunar surface in the coming years with the Artemis III mission. Before that can happen, however, a lot of things have to go right, and two of the biggest are scheduled for 2024.
The first is the Artemis II mission. NASA introduced the four Artemis II astronauts last year. Already in November, the four could travel around the Moon and back. They would be the first humans to travel near the Moon since 1972, when the Apollo 17 mission concluded. To fly in 2024, NASA will need to resolve problems with the heat shield of the astronauts’ spacecraft, as well as overcome other possible delays.
The second obstacle is that the Orion capsule can only orbit the Moon, it does not land. Astronauts need another vehicle to go to the surface. At the moment, it is a version of Starship, the spaceship being built by SpaceX, the private spaceflight company founded by Elon Musk. But Starship needs a lot of work before it’s ready to take astronauts to the moon.
Musk’s spacecraft prototypes launched twice in 2023, with each mission ending with a fiery explosion. SpaceX has said it wants to fly the next Starship test early 2024; Whether it succeeds or fails, flights of more prototypes could follow. If SpaceX gets Starship’s upcoming flights right, NASA’s prospects for landing the next man and first woman on the moon will improve in the coming years.
A total eclipse over North America
The celestial spectacle of 2024 will be the “Great North American Eclipse.” On April 8, the Moon will get in the way of the Sun, obscuring the Earth during the day. The eclipse’s broad path begins in Mexico, crosses into Texas, continues through Arkansas and Missouri to southern Illinois, crosses into Indiana and Ohio, then darkens western New York and the New England states before ending in the eastern provinces of Canada.
If you live on the road, be prepared for visitors. (You can’t book a trip to the path of totality soon enough.) And if you plan to watch the eclipse, from anywhere, it’s time to order eclipse glasses or other protective viewers.
New rockets and trips to space
Falcon 9 rockets, built and operated by SpaceX, have become the dominant way to get to space. The launcher or its Falcon Heavy variant flew 96 times in 2023, and each flight to orbit was a success. But SpaceX should expect new competitors on the launch pads in 2024. These include:
Vulcan, a rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The rocket engines are built by Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. It could fly on January 8.
Ariane 6, a European rocket. The European Space Agency has recently been left without a dedicated vehicle to reach orbit, forcing Europe to rely on SpaceX and others to deliver spacecraft to the solar system. After a series of delays, the first flight of the Ariane 6 could take place in June.
H3, a Japanese rocket. This vehicle was first launched in March 2023, but failed in its attempt to launch an imaging satellite into orbit. A second attempt could occur as early as February 15.
New Glenn, a Blue Origin rocket. Bezos’ company has taken tourists to the edge of space in its smallest New Shepard vehicle. Its large orbital launcher could debut in 2024, revolutionizing private spaceflight if it proves successful.
New vehicles could also visit the International Space Station. Dream Chaser, a space plane built by the Sierra Space company, will be able to transport cargo to the station for the first time this year. Additionally, Starliner, a capsule built by Boeing, could finally carry a crew of astronauts to the orbiting outpost on April 14 after years of delays.
Lunar traffic jam
Three missions attempted to land on the moon in 2023. Only one, India’s Chandrayaan-3, succeeded. Four additional missions, and perhaps even more, will also attempt to complete a moon landing in 2024:
SLIM, a Japanese mission, should be the first lunar landing attempt of 2024, on January 20. The small experimental spacecraft was launched in September and is already orbiting the moon.
Two other missions come from private companies, with NASA as their main client. Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh company, will launch its Peregrine lunar lander on Jan. 8, which could attempt to land near the Ocean of Storms on the near side of the moon in February. Intuitive Machines of Houston will send its own lander to the Moon’s south pole in mid-February.
China is also planning its fourth moon landing. Chang’e-6 could head to the far side of the moon in May, collecting samples of lunar rock and dust to bring back to Earth for study.
Other missions are more provisional. Japanese company Ispace, which crashed its first lander last year, could make a second attempt later this year. And Intuitive Machines has ambitions to send two more NASA-sponsored missions to the Moon in 2024.
Travel around the solar system
There’s a vast solar system out there, and missions large and small will set out to explore it.
The largest is the Europa Clipper, a NASA spacecraft headed to Jupiter’s moon Europa in October. Europa has an icy exterior that hides a vast ocean that scientists believe may have the right conditions for life. After Clipper reaches Europa in 2030, the spacecraft will not attempt to land there, but will study the moon during dozens of flybys.
Two new spacecraft could also head to the red planet no earlier than August as part of NASA’s small ESCAPADE mission. The spacecraft will orbit Mars and study the magnetic bubble that surrounds it.
In October, the European Space Agency will launch the Hera mission to the asteroid Dimorphos. It will study the effects of a previous mission, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which crashed into Dimorphos in 2022 to test whether altering the trajectory of a space rock could protect Earth from future asteroid attacks.