The current COVID-19 pandemic is making the scheduled launches of interplanetary missions a little trickier.
As these launches can only occur when the positions of the planets are just right, officials are scrambling to make sure that the missions can get off the ground in a timely manner.
NASA’s next planetary mission—the Perseverance Mars rover—remains on schedule for launch in mid-July from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA has given this particular Mars rover a top-priority tag, and is estimated to cost roughly $2.7 billion. It will be NASA’s first rover launched to the Red Planet since 2011.
There are sizeable financial ramifications if the launch doesn’t happen on time. This mission comes with a 20-day window to leave Earth in July or August. If there is a postponement, the next suitable planetary alignment won’t occur until 2022—and such a delay could cost upwards of $500 million. The already cash-strapped agency would like to avoid those extra expenses.
Another important launch, scheduled for October 2021, is called the Lucy mission, which will send a probe to study a previously unexplored group of space rocks called Trojan asteroids that orbits in tandem with Jupiter.
The probe, expected to conduct close flybys of seven different asteroids from 2025 through 2033, will depart Earth on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
Lockheed Martin is slated to start building the spacecraft in August. Like other major aerospace contractors, Lockheed Martin’s facility in Denver doesn’t have to follow local and state stay-at-home directives. The work on Lucy’s internal components, however, is all done remotely.
Perhaps the most intriguing upcoming mission is the launch of the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or JUICE.
Despite currently having most of the scientists and managers working remotely, the agency is confident that it will successfully launch during the window of late-May in 2022 to mid-June. JUICE is set to launch on an Ariane 5 ECA or Ariane 64 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana.
JUICE is expected to reach Jupiter in October 2029, and then will conduct a series of flybys of three of Jupiter’s moons—Callisto, Europa and Ganymede—which may hold deep subsurface oceans beneath their icy crusts.
For the mission’s final phase, it will enter Ganymede’s orbit in December 2032, becoming the first spacecraft in history to orbit around the moon of another planet.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV. He currently resides in Minneapolis.