NASA’s Next Flagship Mission

Let’s imagine you’re NASA. You have two big flagship-class missions coming up: one to search for life on Mars (launcing in 2020) and another to search for life on Europa (launching in 2022). These flagship missions are big, expensive projects, so Congress only lets you do one or two per decade.

After 2022, the next flagship mission probably won’t launch until the late 2020’s or early 2030’s, but still… now is the time for you to start thinking about it. So after Mars and Europa, where do you want to go next? Here are a few ideas currently floating around:

  • Orbiting Enceladus: If you want to keep looking for life in the Solar System, Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) is a good pick. It’s got an ocean of liquid water beneath it surface, and thanks to the geysers in the southern hemisphere, Enceladus is rather conveniently spraying samples into space for your orbiter to collect.
  • Splash Down on Titan: If there’s life on Titan (another moon of Saturn), it’ll be very different from life we’re familiar with here on Earth. But the organic chemicals are there in abundance, and it would be interesting to splash down in one of Titan’s lakes of liquid methane. If we built a submersible probe, we could even go see if anything’s swimming around in the methane-y depths.
  • Another Mars Rover: Yes, we have multiple orbiters and rovers exploring Mars already, but some of that equipment is getting pretty old and will need to be replaced soon. If we’re serious about sending humans to Mars, it’s important to keep the current Mars program going so we know what we’re getting ourselves into.
  • Landing on Venus: Given the high temperature and pressure on Venus, this is a mission that won’t last long—a few days tops—but Venus is surprisingly similar to Earth in many ways. Comparing and contrasting the two planets taught us how important Earth’s ozone layer is and just what can happen if a global greenhouse effect get’s out of control. Who knows what else Venus might teach us about our home?
  • Orbiting Uranus: This was high on NASA’s list of priorities at the beginning of the 2010’s, and it’s expected to rank highly again in the 2020’s. We know next to nothing about Uranus or Neptune, the ice giants of our Solar System. Given how many ice giants we’ve discovered orbiting other stars, it would be nice if we could learn more about the ones in our backyard.
  • Orbiting Neptune: Uranus is significantly closer to Earth than Neptune, but there’s an upcoming planetary alignment in the 2030’s that could make Neptune a less expensive, more fuel-efficient choice. As an added bonus, we’d also get to visit Triton, a Pluto-like object that Neptune sort of kidnapped and made into a moon.

If it were up to me, I know which one of these missions I’d pick. But today we’re imagining that you are NASA. Realistically Congress will only agree to pay for one or two of these planetary science missions in the coming decade. So what would be your first and second choices?

15 thoughts on “NASA’s Next Flagship Mission

    1. Thanks, I’m glad to hear that. I wanted to make sure I was fair to all the options I’d read about, especially since I do have a strong preference for one of these options over the others.


  1. Such tough choices… I think if I had only two, I’d go with Enceladus and Titan. The others are important and exciting, sure, but it feels like we have the most to gain by getting a closeup of these two places. Venus, though, is another interesting one. Some time ago, I read a pretty compelling argument, if it’s feasible, for sending people there, not to Mars. There are places in Venus’s atmosphere where the climate could be okay for human life, and the astronauts could live in floating cities, maybe even with Lando.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I really like the proposals to colonize Venus. NASA produced a really cool video about that showing zeppelins flying around above the acid clouds. It seems counterintuitive, but Venus would probably be a better place for us to live than Mars.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I suspect the relative projected costs for each of these will also be an issue. If one is super expensive, the second might have to be more modest. But I agree with Scott, it seems hard not to favor Enceladus and Titan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Enceladus and Titan, certainly… but I also feel like we’ve “skipped” the ice giants (and gone straight to Pluto and beyond). Keeping in mind that, particularly in the case of Enceladus, it wouldn’t have made it this high on the list without the discoveries of Cassini – and knowing how surprising Pluto and Charon were – it just makes me wonder what we may be missing at Uranus. It’s tough to have to make a decision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a really good point, that we wouldn’t have known about Enceladus without the Cassini mission. The Uranian moons could have a lot of surprises for us too.


  4. Given the recent stunning closeup images of Jupiter and Saturn (and throw in that ice ball Pluto), it is hard not to yearn for the same treatment for Uranus and Neptune. Still, if I had to vote, I would go for Venus. Our closest neighbor feels strangely neglected for exploration and I would hope newer techniques would make examination more worthwhile than in the past.

    Liked by 1 person

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