Emily LakdawallaDec 31, 2013

What's up in planetary missions in 2014

With the New Year upon us, what can we look forward to in 2014?

For me, the main event of 2014 is that ESA's Rosetta mission finally -- finally! -- catches up to the comet it has been chasing for a decade. But first it has to wake up from its long, silent hibernation, an event that will take place three weeks from now. We hope. In anticipation, ESA has begun a "Wake Up, Rosetta!" campagin, inviting the world to contribute little videos telling the spacecraft to wake up and phone home. Here is The Planetary Society's entry, which you should vote for at ESA's Wake Up, Rosetta Facebook Page:

The other four most momentous events to look forward to in 2014 are the planned end of LADEE, at the end of March or beginning of April; two spacecraft arrivals at Mars in September; and the launch of Japan's Hayabusa2 in December.

Meanwhile, a host of spacecraft are active across the solar system. The year begins with an amazing 24 spacecraft exploring or cruising toward various planetary destinations (my count doesn't include solar or astronomy missions). Here's Olaf Frohn's lovely diagram:

In the inner solar system:

MESSENGER is in its second mission extension at Mercury. As far as I know, NASA never formally announced the funding of this second mission extension, but barring any unforeseen problems, the spacecraft should last through 2014 and in to early 2015.

Venus Express is still going strong at Venus. ESA announced in June that its mission was extended until 2015, subject to a mid-term review in 2014.

Akatsuki is patiently orbiting the Sun, headed toward a second attempt at orbit insertion at Venus in November of 2015.

At the Moon:

The twin ARTEMIS spacecraft are still happily operating at the Moon and will continue to do so through 2014.

LADEE is in its prime mission and is planned to crash into the lunar surface in March. No lengthy mission extension is possible for this mission -- its low orbit, necessary for sampling the lunar atmosphere, is a death sentence.

Chang'e 3 and Yutu are wrapping up their first lunar day of operations. The nominal mission is planned for three lunar days. But mission managers have remarked that the spacecraft are performing better than expected, so I hope to see the pair operating through quite a bit of 2014. However, I don't expect an Opportunity-like 10 years of operations because the brutal temperature swings on the Moon must make something break sooner or later. If they're still working in April, they'll be in position to witness a solar eclipse (for them; it's a lunar eclipse, for those of us on Earth).

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter continues its mission at the Moon in a quasi-stable elliptical orbit (30 by 200 kilometers, with a periapsis over the south pole). Noah Petro reported to the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group in October that the mission can expect to last about 8 years in this orbit, barring unforeseen problems. The longer it lasts, the more chances it will have to discover new impact craters on the Moon, and the more opportunities it will have to observe lunar crashes, landings, and roves.

At Mars:

With the exception of Curiosity, it's a venerable fleet of spacecraft operating at Mars. Odyssey has been there for 12 years, Opportunity and Mars Express for 10, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for 8. Because of their age, I'm concerned about them all. Every day of operations we get from those four is a gift.

Odyssey and Mars Express have had the most serious problems, but continue to do great imaging and (in the case of Odyssey) valuable relay work. Mars Express' mission is extended through 2016.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has developed a spectacular routine of wider-field imaging with its Context Camera with rapid followup of any new features with high-resolution HiRISE images, so I hope to see more new discoveries of fresh impact craters, possible water-carved features, moving sand dunes, and other geomorphology that shows Mars to be an active planet.

It will be winter for Opportunity through 2014, so the rover's activities will be limited by low power. However, they have found themselves a nice north-facing slope to tilt the solar panels at the winter Sun, so they shouldn't have to park for long stretches; they'll make brief journeys from one north-facing "lily pad" to another, exploring Murray Ridge.

For Curiosity, the directive is to drive, drive, drive. By the summer of 2014 the rover should be approaching the Murray Buttes, a gap between the basalt sand dunes that will allow them passage to the clay-bearing rocks they landed in Gale crater to explore. Between now and then, my prediction is that they'll stop one other place to do some drilling, in order to give the Chemin and SAM instruments something to chew on along the way. That may happen relatively soon. Barring difficulties, the end of 2014 should see a major shift in the style of the Curiosity mission from a "cruise"-like phase where the travel is more important, to a "survey"-like phase where they perform a geologic traverse along the rocks exposed at the base of Mount Sharp. However, I don't predict that we'll see any significant mountain climbing in 2014. Take all these predictions with a grain of salt, though. Mars exploration is nothing if not surprising!

Let's hope there are no surprises in September, when two new spacecraft will rendezvous with the Red Planet: MAVEN and Mars Orbiter Mission. I wish them both good luck in the final scary stage of their journeys to Mars!


Rosetta will be the big star of 2014, making the first-ever orbit insertion at a comet in August and attempting a landing on it in November. Its images will be spectacular, its mission daring. I can't wait!

At Saturn, the current plan is for Cassini to have 11 gravity-assist flybys of Titan (including one tomorrow!). All of 2014 will be spent in an inclined phase from which it can observe the effects of springtime sun on the north poles of Titan and Saturn and image the rings, while exploring the magnetosphere and plasma environment of Saturn in three dimensions. Cassini will not return to an equatorial orbit (and frequent opportunities to observe the other moons) until March of 2015. However, Cassini is currently under very real threat of cancellation. If its mission is to be ended in 2015, then a propulsive maneuver to set up that ending will be performed in 2014, canceling all those carefully-laid plans. So for Cassini the most important events of 2014 will be taking place here on Earth, in the halls of Congress and the White House.

ICE will fly past Earth in August. If we want to regain control of this aged-but-still-perfectly-good spacecraft, we must do it early this year. The budget mess is making that seem difficult to achieve. I'll report if I have any further news on that.

Juno, Dawn, and New Horizons will spend 2014 cruising to their next destinations. The latter two will be setting the stage for a spectacular 2015, what I'm calling the Year of the Dwarf Planet, when we will turn three round worlds from astronomical objects to geological objects for the first time: Ceres, Pluto, and Charon.

And finally, always last but never least, Voyagers 1 and 2 will be carrying their missions on into the interstellar medium.

I hope you will all stay with me on this grand planetary adventure through 2014!

Let’s Go Beyond The Horizon

Every success in space exploration is the result of the community of space enthusiasts, like you, who believe it is important. You can help usher in the next great era of space exploration with your gift today.

Donate Today