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Thread: Where should the next generation of unmanned probes go?

  1. #1
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    Where should the next generation of unmanned probes go?

    In the next 20-30 years, there are a number of interesting unmanned projects in development:

    The New Horizons trip to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
    The ESA's Venus orbiter, and possible future lander
    The MESSENGER probe to Mercury
    The Dawn project to Vesta and Ceres
    The return of Stardust
    The Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (or whatever version they finally choose)
    The probe, whose name I forget, that will make radar measurements to determine whether or not Jupiter has a rocky core, and therefore whether or not it is a planet or a small star
    The Europa diver (still a dream, but you never know)
    The Titan blimp (another dream...)
    The Voyager Interstellar Mission (if it isn't cancelled)
    About a zillion trips to Mars, including a potential sample return mission

    Assuming all of these projects go ahead, where is there left for unmanned probes to go? Public support would not be high for a Uranus orbiter (let's face it, that place is the planetary equivalent of Milton Keynes), and only slightly higher for a Neptune orbiter. Where are there still gaping holes on the map left to fill?

  2. #2
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    Over that timeframe, I would like to see orbiters of Neptune and Uranus, and landers/blimps for some of the more interesting moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

    I don't know if the communications/propulsion technology is there yet, but it would be exceedingly cool to send a probe for least a fly-by of another star (probably the Alpha Centauri system). I definitely doubt propulsion technology would be there by that time for an extra-solar orbiter.

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    Alpha Centauri? I DO know the communications/propulsion technology isn't yet in the embryonic stage. Barely in the embryonic stage even in theory.

    Just a note to remember: many destinations in the outer planets and beyond are dependent on planet positions, etc. for some types of missions, probes, etc. We sometimes need windows of opportunity.

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    Over the next 20-30 years, I would expect that there will be
    - more probes to Jupiter and its moons
    - Neptune orbiter
    - some to the solar corona
    - several toward the Oort cloud
    - many to the asteroids and comets

    I am expecting that this time period will be characterized by building up the completeness of our knowledge of the Solar System, and not have a lot of "Pioneer" like probes making a first voyage to some very new place.

    At some point technology will change in ways that will let us make some more radical explorations again. That time is several decades away.


    There will also be a lot of astronomy probes for looking at things far outside the solar system.
    Forming opinions as we speak

  5. #5
    I think you folks are way off.

    In my opinion we should stay with what works and expand on it.

    The Mars Rovers have outlived their expected live 4 fold. They are both right now, as I write this, chugging along and snapping photos and beaming them back to us.

    Stick with what works. Send some more of these little guys. And send some more with some removeable parts for upgrades and the capacity to service the ones that are over there.

    And they could eventually mine the landscape and build habitats for future manned exploration -- maybe even assemble parts to be used for a manned return trip -- or assemble a return craft so they could shoot back some rocks.

    Stick with what works and improve on it. It is the basis of nature and natural selection. It is what works.

    I call dibs on this origional idea. If you use it quote me and this webpage. Don't steal it. The fact that I have posted it here shows I thought of it first :P

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    Quote Originally Posted by William_Thompson
    I call dibs on this origional idea. If you use it quote me and this webpage. Don't steal it. The fact that I have posted it here shows I thought of it first :P
    Oh, my.

    A place isn't interesting just because something we sent there works. Pluto, the Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, and Uranus don't become less interesting only because MER is still chugging along while New Horizons 1 might never even make it off the pad because of plutonium scarcity.

    I think all these places deserve our attention and bold thinking re design and mission execution. If we had only used "what works" we would have sticked with the dismal success rate for Mars probes and never even sent Pathfinder; much less the MERs, after the spectacular failures of Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander.

    If we stuck with "what works", we'd still be sitting in caves, tops.

    No need to be afraid of copyright infringement on my part, WT. Absolutely not.

    My personal favourites:
    Europa drill/diver, Gallilean satellite orbiters/landers
    UBLT (Unimaginably long baseline interferometry ) from orbits in the outer ss or on escape trajectories (lovely idea, Antoniseb)
    Mars blimp
    Titan blimp
    Venus blimp (OK: anything that floats in the atmosphere for some extended period of time).
    Uranus, Neptune orbiters
    KBO hopper (means can flyby more than one)
    Mars vessel that can explore really rough terrain (southern highlands, Valles Marineris and such)

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    Quote Originally Posted by fossilnut2
    Alpha Centauri? I DO know the communications/propulsion technology isn't yet in the embryonic stage. Barely in the embryonic stage even in theory.
    I am not saying we would get there in 30 years. I am simply saying I would like to see one launched in the next 30 years. Barring some major breakthrough in propulsion, anything we send will likely not arrive for many hundreds or (more likely) thousands of years. The biggest problem would probably be getting it to last that long in space, and send back a signal when it arrives.

    Another problem would be getting decent data at the speeds it would be traveling when it passed through the target system.

    Just curious, what is the highest theoretical average speed we could achieve for such a trip assuming current propulsion technology and maximal use of gravitational assist?

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Saluki
    Just curious, what is the highest theoretical average speed we could achieve for such a trip assuming current propulsion technology and maximal use of gravitational assist?
    I guess that depends on what you call current propulsion technology.
    Suppose we try making a multi-stage ion based system that is built with fission power driving it. In the first stage use low-speed ions (say 15 Km/sec), and use an RTG powered second stage with 200 Km/sec ions. If most of the mass of the craft were propellent, it could get up to about 650 km/sec. The gravity assists wouldn't add a lot to this speed. BTW, it would take several years to get to that speed.

    If the craft could somehow start at that speed (I mention this to put the speed into perspective), it would go from Earth to Pluto in 78 days. This speed is about 2 tenths of a percent the speed of light. (460 years to go a light year).

    We could plausibly build this today, though it would be very expensive, and hard to justify.
    Forming opinions as we speak

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Arneb
    Oh, my.

    A place isn't interesting just because something we sent there works. Pluto, the Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, and Uranus don't become less interesting only because MER is still chugging along while New Horizons 1 might never even make it off the pad because of plutonium scarcity.

    I think all these places deserve our attention and bold thinking re design and mission execution. If we had only used "what works" we would have sticked with the dismal success rate for Mars probes and never even sent Pathfinder; much less the MERs, after the spectacular failures of Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander.
    I don't see things this way.

    I see things that we are on a temporary planet with temporary envoronments (Earth) and we need to think about jumping off of this popsicle stand and spreading out to increase our odds for survival.

    I know that sounds nutty.

    But a lot of truths sounded nutty before.

  10. #10
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    "I am not saying we would get there in 30 years. I am simply saying I would like to see one launched in the next 30 years"

    So would I like us to have the technology to launch one. We don't and won't in 30 years. A bigger issue than propulsion systems in material technology. We have nothing that could begin to withstand radiation bursts etc. that would take their toll over the thousands of years it would take. Even impact with a decent-sized particle of dust would destroy any probe.

    The Voyager spacecraft, , if Alpha Centauri bound would take just over 75,000 years. Alpha Centauri isn't thought to have planets so Barnard's star would be a more rewarding target if you don't mind a few more tens of thousands of years to tack on.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by fossilnut2
    Barnard's star would be a more rewarding target if you don't mind a few more tens of thousands of years to tack on.
    During that interval, Barnard's Star will become the closest star to the Sun (for a little while). Hurry, you might catch it.
    Forming opinions as we speak

  12. #12
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    wow! I didn't know that! thanks.

    A question: does Barnard's star come closer to our Sun than alpha Proxima is today or does alpha proxima get further?

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by William_Thompson
    I don't see things this way.

    I see things that we are on a temporary planet with temporary envoronments (Earth) and we need to think about jumping off of this popsicle stand and spreading out to increase our odds for survival.

    I know that sounds nutty.

    But a lot of truths sounded nutty before.
    I do not think that sounds nutty at all - even if it is taking a very long perspective.

    What I can't see is why always sticking with the sound and tested would make our spacefaring technologies better. Why the need to ultimately "get off the popsickle" should prevent us from seeking new knowledge of fascinating places with bold new technologies (it's all unmanned after all, so it only costs money when/if it fails). Some of these places might even turn out to be interesting for human habitation (think hollowed-out asteroids).
    Last edited by Arneb; 2005-Sep-15 at 10:38 AM.

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    NASA Solar System Roadmap

    Download the PDF file and read it at your leisure.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Arneb
    Pluto, the Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, and Uranus don't become less interesting only because MER is still chugging along while New Horizons 1 might never even make it off the pad because of plutonium scarcity.
    Regarding the latter:

    Fueling of the RTG for New Horizons has just been completed, said Harold McFarlane, program manager for the New Horizons RTG work at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls and director of INLís Space Nuclear Systems and Technology.
    ...
    The single flight ready unit for New Horizons is to be shipped to Florida in the late October timeframe, McFarlane told SPACE.com, for later attachment to the spacecraft.


    Looks like just one bureaucratic hurdle remains, but it could still very well go up in January.



  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality
    Public support would not be high for a Uranus orbiter (let's face it, that place is the planetary equivalent of Milton Keynes), and only slightly higher for a Neptune orbiter.
    Those would be my top two destinations, public be darned.

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by fossilnut2
    does Barnard's star come closer to our Sun than alpha Proxima is today or does alpha proxima get further?
    from http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclo...nardsStar.html
    By A.D. 11,800, at its point of closest approach, it will be just 3.85 light-years (1.18 parsecs) from the Sun.
    Forming opinions as we speak

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality
    In the next 20-30 years, there are a number of interesting unmanned projects in development:
    Some others to watch out for -

    NASA's Solar probe 2012
    Russian Phobos-Grunt
    European Solar Orbiter 2013
    Chinese Lunar and manned Missions
    Europe's ( Jules Verne ) ATV to the ISS
    Luna-Glob the joint Chinese Russia mission
    ESA's Aurora exoMars
    Russian Venera-D
    Gaia to map a billion stars
    NASA's Mars science Lab
    Rosetta and Don Quixote to Asteroids
    Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle or HTV
    ESA's Hyper precisely mapping the fabric of space by Earth
    India Moon mission Chardrayaan-1
    BepiColombo to Mercury
    JWST or Hubble-II
    LISA to detect gravitational waves

  19. #19
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    Something out to the Heliopause / Solar Bow Shock region with dedicated instruments.
    Sedna / Xena flyby (use the same probe!)

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    In a phrase, The Kuiper Belt. I think that there are still areas of the solar system closer to us that require further exploration, but if we want to expand our horizons, the next intriguing region will be to look at Pluto, Sedna et al and try and find out more about larger objects in the outer Solar Sytem. Its obvious to me that we've got to move out a bit further, so this area is the natural next step...

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    I'm 100% in agreement with William Thompson on this. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see blimps on Uranus, drills on Europa, etc. But I think our overridding priority right now should be to find life. And the best candidate for this is Mars. We should make dozens more Spirit/Opportunity rovers and equip them with the latest life finding equipment that's currently being tested by NASA and Cornell.

    They should be able to analyze soil for evidence of bacteria. Be able to sniff the air and track down sources of methane. They should be able to spot unusual heat signatures from a good distance away.

    The main problem with the Mars Exploration Rovers is that they weren't supposed to last long. That's why bigger better rovers are in the works. Well, they work great. It looks like they're going to last years and years, so send dozens. Mass produce 'em.

    Find life.

    Once you find conclusive evidence of life on Mars... well, that kind of changes everything.

    At the same time, I think we need to make sure that the Terrestrial Planet Finder gets built. As you recall, this beauty will be able to analyze the atmosphere of Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars. Find oxygen in the atmosphere, and you've pretty much found a biosphere on that planet. That would make the discovery of life on Mars boring in comparison. No expense should be spared in getting this mission running.

    Finally, we should fund SETI until a sizable portion of the sky is getting analyzed in the appropriate wavelengths. We need to find out definitively, if there's intelligent species out there attempting to communicate with us.

    I think these three programs should take on Apollo/Human Genome project scale efforts, since they hope to answer the most fundamental question we can possibly ask... are we alone? We've got the tools to find out, so let's do it!

    - I should write an article about this. :-)

  22. #22
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    Much that I respect your argument Fraser, I have to disagree with the premise that concentrating on Mars, putting all our scientific eggs in one basket, overrides all else. What if - and you can't discount this - what if Mars is dead? Has always been dead? If we've bet the farm - the whole strategy for solar system exploration - on one planet, on one objective, and it fails, what will we do then?

    Don't misunderstand me please - we should go back to Mars. Like we are planning. Look for water, look for life-bearing environments, look for life. Find aquifers, drill down. But also understand the geology and history of Mars. Understand the geology and ancient history of Titan, Europa, Enceladus, Triton, even Venus, which has been written off because it's so unwelcoming now. The answers for how life began on Earth may not yet be on Mars, they may be elsewhere.

    (Knowing our luck, the remnants of pre-biotic organics, fossils of the chains that led to proteins, DNA-precursors, are in the deep enfolded mantle rocks of Ishtar Terra, Venus!)

  23. #23
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    Okay, I wrote the article. Thanks for the inspiration. I should do this more often. :-)
    http://www.universetoday.com/am/publ...find_life.html

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    Dear Fraser, with all due respect to your - as usual - lovely written article,


    I have to disagree too. Even if we found some - active or fossilized - microbe on Mars; even if we found a life-bearing planet with our TPF probes (if they are mass-produced, that would allow what I called ULBI - vast improvement in resolution); then we are still, for all intents and purposes, alone in the Universe. Maybe not the only sentient species, even within a sphere of, say 100 or 1000 ly - We are, if you like, home alone: No other well-intentioned, friendly species will lift us "off the popsicle" (to quote WilliamThompson), even if it exists.

    To become able to do serious exploration of space, we have to learn, learn, learn, be it about the life-bearing parts of the Universe or not. So while to concentrate on mass-producing Mars rovers and TPFs will indeed amount to betting the farm (by the way, who is going to provide all the DSN dishes?) and may well turn up empty (very real possibility), there are still a myriad things to learn about this quaint little system and the world beyond. It doesn't have to be alive to be fascinating, and ultimately we'll have to learn it in order to make use of it, should this species not want to go extinct.

    So, no agreement this time. We'll have to keep our interests spread, otherwise one loss (=finding no life) will break the bank. We'll need the non-life-bearing parts of this Universe soon enough. Too important to put on hold, too fascinating not to explore.
    Last edited by Arneb; 2005-Sep-15 at 01:08 PM.

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    This is why we need to explore the outer reaches of the solar system. The further out that an object is, the less it should have been affected by the solar wind and theoretically the better preserved it should be. Lets get a look at Pluto and soon.

    I bet that whatever is there will be a huge surprise to us all. After all it has its own atmosphere, a moon half its size, and I for one can't wait. Also if possible we ought to see if within the next few decades we can get a probe even further out to another kuiper belt object. These objects are often spoken about as if they are all very similar. I think this may be a bit of a premature idea. The objects in the inner solar system show huge diversity, so why wouldn't this apply further out? For all we know Kuiper Belt objects including Pluto may well be very different from each other. In fact if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on it!

  26. #26
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    Gas Giants

    This is a very valid question, and to be honest I think we should spread the load around. Tipping my hat to Jakenorrish, exploring the Outer Solar System is indeed something we should have as a priority, and to that end, the Pluto/Kuiper Express (or whatever they're calling it these days) is scheduled for launch early in the New Year (discounting natural disasters like Hurricane Wilma et al striking again).

    I fully support that mission, but I don't think it needs to be followed by a fleet of probes in that direction, our understanding of that area of our Solar System is lacking, but I think we should be concentrating closer to home, not that closer to home, but to areas that we already know a fair bit about, but where a lot remains to be found out.

    In terms of the `next generation` of probes, I think it could be fairly argued that the current generation of probes is in fact geared towards Martian exploration and finding out whether life ever in fact arose there. I support that too, although I actually think, as stated above, that Venus may in fact have been more amenable to life in years gone by than Mars, but that is a side-point anyway as we don't have the technology to mount explorations of the Venusian surface as extensive as those we can mount on the Martian surface.

    So, in terms of the `next generation` of probes, the next area upon which we focus much of our exploration budget, I think the returns of unmanned probes are the greatest in the systems of the Gas Giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus & Neptune. I guess I would be in agreement with Wolverine here, sending probes to Uranus & Neptune should be a top priority in the coming years given they remain the only planets not to have been explored in such detail.

    Personally for me, those 4 systems are the 4 most interesting areas of study that we should be pursuing with unmanned probes this century, in terms of manned missions though, we should be aiming at the Moon and Mars with all that we've got, but I would fervently hope that the one does not detract from the other, or indeed from other extremely worthwhile missions such as the TPF.

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    One word:

    Everywhere.

    Forth the Von Neuman machines!

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    I think a neat project would be to send 4 space telescopes of the caliber of the James Web telescope to equal distances from the Sun, say a quarter of a billion miles from the Sun each. With some sort of set up where all four can look at the same object at the same time.

    It would be like the terrestial planet finder times a hundred million.
    Just think of the resolving power, and the parallex accuracy.

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    Put me down for the TAU mission. A Solar Foci telescope too. Launched by HLLV of course.

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    A low-budget probe to Hygiea would be nice. People seem to argue whether it is a spheroid or a potato. And, if indeed it is a spheroid, it could be just as geologically fascinating as Ceres is. Fully worth it's own cheap probe. DAWN will not have enough propellant to make it out to Hygiea after Ceres. A non-US orbiter would be my guess. Japanese probably, as they have stated they would enjoy another asteroid based mission after Hayabusa.

    JAPAN TO HYGIEA YES!

    ---Vil.

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