2024’s Skyward Frontier: An Insider’s Guide to the Top Space Missions to Watch, Unveiling the Future of Cosmic Exploration

(January 11, 2024): NASA has delayed the Artemis 2 mission to September 2025. Read more in NASA’s press release.The original article appears below.

The next year promises to be a busy one for spaceflight, set to follow on the record-setting trends from 2023 (212 launches) and 2022 (135 launches).

It’s fascinating (and sometimes amusing) to look back at how the previous year stacked up in terms of missions that actually left the launchpad. 2023 saw the launches of the European Space Agency (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons (JUICE) mission, its Euclid mission, and NASA’s long-awaited mission to the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche. OSIRIS-Rex also returned its sample of asteroid Bennu to Earth, and India made its first successful landing on the Moon with Chandrayaan 3. Meanwhile, iSpace’s Hakuto-R and Russia’s Luna 25 crashed on their lunar landing attempts.

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Nearly half of 2023’s launches were SpaceX Falcon 9 flights (96 in total); a majority of these were Starlink deployments. Things are getting crowded in low-Earth orbit, and 2024 will be no different.

Read on for our summary of spaceflight in 2024, with our usual focus on astronomy and exploration. Keep in mind that the launch dates are current as of this writing, but, as is always the case in spaceflight, they’re subject to change.

Top Missions for 2024

Of course, the biggest mission to watch for in 2024 is the second launch of NASA’s Artemis program. Artemis 2 will put nearly all of the elements together, including the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion capsule, and four crew. The mission will perform a lunar flyby, making the crew the first humans to leave low-Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972. Right now, the launch is set for not earlier than November 2024.

Another highly anticipated mission is NASA’s Europa Clipper, the agency’s flagship interplanetary mission. Europa Clipper is due to launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket on October 10th, though it won’t reach Jupiter until 2030. Despite launching more than a year after ESA’s JUICE, Europa Clipper will actually beat that spacecraft to Jupiter due to its more efficient trajectory.

Moon Missions in 2024

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program may finally field missions to the Moon in 2024. First up, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan-Centaur rocket is scheduled to launch the Peregrine One lander, developed by space startup Astrobotics on January 8th. Peregrine will then make the first commercial lunar landing at the Sinus Viscositatis (the “Bay of Stickiness,” as designated by the International Astronomical Union) in late January. (If that mission’s successful, watch for Astrobotics’ next-generation Griffin Lunar Lander to head to the Moon in November.)

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Next, Intuitive Machines will get into the commercial lunar-landing game, sending its IM-1 mission moonward on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in February. The company’s IM-2 (and perhaps, IM-3) missions may also fly in 2024. Later this year, watch for Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost lunar-lander test and possible lunar-lander flight.

China has lunar ambitions as well, with plans to launch Queqiao 2 in March, which will act as the relay orbiter ahead of China’s Chang’e 6 lunar farside sample-return mission, which launches in May. That mission will be China’s second lunar sample return, as well as its second farside landing. (Pakistan’s first lunar orbiter IceCubeQ will also hitch a ride with Queqiao 2.)

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In a non-commercial mission set for later this year, NASA will also send its first automated rover to the Moon: the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration (VIPER) mission may launch by November.

Also, watch for iSpace’s second lunar lander attempt with Hakuto-R Mission 2, which might launch in late 2024. This is the follow up to their failed Hakuto-R mission which crashed on the Moon on April 25, 2023. This do-over will carry the company’s Resiliance lander, plus a small micro-rover.

Finally, will SpaceX’s crewed lunar flyby happen in 2024? Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has stated that the launch date for the mission, dubbed dearMoon, would be delayed to 2024 . . . but that flight depends on SpaceX’s Starship, which has yet to reach orbit, let alone receive a safety rating to allow for crew.

In between launches, there are also landings: The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will attempt to touch down its SLIM mission near Shoili Crater on January 19th. SLIM launched with Japan’s XRISM X-ray observatory on September 6, 2023, and has already entered lunar orbit.

Interplanetary Missions in 2024

The lead up to the Mars opposition in early 2025 offers a window for missions launching toward the Red Planet, such as NASA’s Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (Escapade).

NASA’s Escapade is also due to launch in early August on Rocket Lab’s first-ever interplanetary mission. The mission consists of two orbiters that will monitor Martian space weather. And India is aiming to fly its Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MOM 2), also due to launch in late 2024. MOM 2 follows MOM 1, which ended in 2022.

ESA’s Rosalind Franklin Mars mission, which also includes a rover, will miss this Mars launch window, instead expected to launch in 2028.

Beyond Mars, watch for ESA’s Hera asteroid mission, launching in October. Hera will approach the now-famous binary asteroid 65803 Didymos in 2026. The smaller asteroid of the pair, named Dimorphos, was the target of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, and Hera is flying to the collision scene to see the impact’s effects close up.

India is also planning its first Venus Orbiter, Shukrayaan 1, which has no official launch date but might launch in December.

In Earth Orbit

Some upcoming launches will stay closer to home.

No earlier than April, NASA’s Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment will field a series of six smallsats in a super-synchronous (beyond geosynchronous) high-Earth orbit.

ESA will be launching the Proba 3 technology demonstrator into a highly elliptical Earth orbit in May. Proba 3 features two spacecraft, one holding an occulter and the other a coronagraph. The two will fly in exact formation in order to produce an artificial eclipse, revealing the solar corona down to about 1.1 solar radius. By demonstrating this capability, this mission will enable future coronagraphy missions.

Later this year, China will launch Xuntian (“Heavenly Cruiser”), a space telescope sporting a 2-meter mirror. It will survey the sky at visual wavelengths, overlapping into the near-infrared and ultraviolet ranges. The telescope will station-keep with the crewed Tiangong Space Station and may even dock with the station for upgrade and maintenance.

Rocket Advances

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) may complete the first uncrewed flight test of their Gaganyaan 1 space capsule in early 2024. If successful, India may move ahead with crewed flights, perhaps becoming the fourth nation to launch humans into space by the end of the year.

In late June, we may also see the inaugural flight of ESA’s Ariane 6 rocket. Over the next decade, Ariane 6 is slated to carry several ESA missions, including the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars mission (PLATO), the Earth Return Orbiter (part of the Mars sample return program), the Atmospheric Remote sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large survey (ARIEL), and the Comet Interceptor.

Watch for the first spaceplane visit to the International Space Station in April 2024, with Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser Cargo System. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin may also send the New Glenn heavy lift rocket into low-Earth orbit in August 2024.

The Rocket Factory Augsburg One rocket may also carry out its inaugural launch this summer from the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands, UK. Onboard will be Ukraine’s Lunar Research Service mission, which will head to Sun-synchronous orbit to test technologies for successive Moon missions.

Active Mission Flybys

Beyond launches, there will also be plenty of rendezvous to anticipate this year as well.

NASA’s Juno mission will complete the closest flyby of Jupiter’s moon Io on February 3rd, passing just 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from the moon’s surface. That flyby will also tighten the spacecraft’s orbit. Juno’s mission has been extended until September 2025, and during this extended mission, NASA is taking more risks with the spacecraft in order gain more science. Those risks include approaching closer to Jupiter and its intense radiation field.

Next, JUICE will approach Earth for a flyby on August 23rd, a maneuver that will feature the first-ever double Lunar-Earth Gravitational Assist. JUICE will pass just 750 kilometers (466 miles) from the lunar surface, and about 6,800 kilometers (4,225 miles) from the Earth, close enough to track with binoculars or a small telescope.

NASA’s Lucy mission will also make its second Earth flyby on December 13th as it continues en route to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. BepiColombo, ESA and DLR’s mission to Mercury will complete its fourth and fifth flybys of its target planet this year, on September 5th and December 2nd, respectively. (It won’t insert into Mercury orbit until December 2025.)

Finally, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will complete its seventh Venus flyby on November 6th at just 317 kilometers (197 miles) distant before completing its 22nd and closest perihelion on December 24th.