Missions to Moon, Mars, Mercury & More Set for 2018

This artist’s concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft passing by Earth. (Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona)

Updated with SpaceX’s Red Tesla launch.

An international fleet of spacecraft will be launched in 2018 to explore the Moon, Mars, Mercury and the Sun. Two sample-return spacecraft will enter orbit around asteroids while a third spacecraft will be launched to search for asteroids that contain water that can be mined.

NASA will also launch its next exoplanet hunting spacecraft in March. And the space agency will ring in 2019 with the first ever flyby of a Kuiper Belt object.

And, oh yes, Elon Musk is launching his car in the direction of Mars.


Mars InSight

Mars InSight lander (Credit: NASA)

NASA is set to launch its Mars InSight lander in May for a late November landing on the Red Planet. The spacecraft is equipped with a probe that will burrow up to 5 meters (16.4 feet) below the Martian surface to measure heat flow. Mars InSight also has a seismic experiment to measure quakes and other activities on the planet. A problem with this instrument caused a two-year delay in the lander’s launch.

A pair of 6U CubeSats named MarCO A and B will be launch along with the lander to transmit entry, descent and landing data back to Earth.

Launch Date: May 5
Landing Date: Nov. 26
Launch Vehicle: Atlas V
Launch Site: Vandenberg

Red Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster surrounded by payload shroud. (Credit: Elon Musk via Instagram)

SpaceX CEO Musk’s original plan was to launch one — and then two — modified Dragon capsules to Mars in 2018. These Red Dragons would test propulsive landing on the Red Planet and prepare the way for human flights beginning in 2024.

But, the plan changed and now Musk’s is launching his red Tesla Roadster to Mars on the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy booster later this month. The automobile will not actually land on Mars or go into orbit around the planet. It’ll be in the cosmic neighborhood of Mars.

Anyway, it will be one helluva stunt, providing Falcon Heavy doesn’t fail spectacularly during launch — something that Musk has warned about in a bid to lower expectations.

Launch Date: January
Launch Vehicle: Falcon Heavy
Launch Site: NASA Kennedy Space Center



The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (left) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, with a sunshade module at center.

The BepiColombo mission, a joint project of Europe and Japan, includes sending the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) to the closest planet to the sun. The spacecraft will conduct a comprehensive survey of Mercury and its environment. Launch is scheduled for October with a December 2025 arrival at the planet after six flybys of Mercury, two flybys of Venus and a flyby of Earth.

Launch Date: October 2018
Arrival Date: December 2025
Launch Vehicle: Ariane 5 ECA
Launch Site: Guiana Space Centre


Credit: Douglas Messier


India’s second mission to the moon is its most ambitious to date, incorporating an orbiter, lander and rover.

The orbiter will carry five instruments, include a terrain mapping camera, large area soft X-ray spectrometer, l- and s-band synthetic aperture radar, imaging IR spectrometer, and a neutral mass spectrometer. The orbiter’s nominal mission will last one year.

The rover will carry a laser induced breakdown spectroscope and an alpha particle induced X-ray spectroscope. The lander’s payload include a seismometer, thermal probe, Lanmuir probe and radio occultation experiment. The rover and lander are expected to last 14 to 15 days.

Launch Date: March
Launch Vehicle: GSLV Mark II
Launch Site: Satish Dhawan


Aitken crater (Credit: NASA)

China’s Chang’e-4 mission will go where no spacecraft has gone before: the far side of the moon. The ambitious mission, which includes an orbiter, lander and rover, will explore the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a vast basin on the moon’s southern hemisphere that extends from Aitken crater to the south pole.

The rover will carry a panoramic camera, ground-penetrating radar, infrared spectrometer, an energetic neutral atom analyzer, and an active source hammer for seismic experiments.

The lander will carry a lunar dust analyser, electric field analyser, plasma and magnetic field observation package, lunar seismometer, neutron dosimeter, and a VLF radio interferometer for astronomical observations.

The lander will also include a container with silkworm eggs and the seeds of potatoes and Arabidopsis, a flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard. Scientists are hoping the silkworm eggs hatch, resulting in the larvae producing carbon dioxide. The plant seeds will produce oxygen as they germinate. If all goes well, the two processes will create a synergy within the container.

China will launch the orbiter in June to the Earth-Moon Lagrange 2 point to provide communications to the rover and lander.

Launch Dates: Orbiter, June; Lander & Rover, December
Launch Vehicle: Long March 4C
Launch Site: Xichang

Google Lunar X Prize

Lunar rover (Credit: TeamIndus)

The $30 million Google Lunar X Prize is set to end on March 31 after more than a decade in existence. It’s clear whether any of the five remaining teams will land a vehicle on the moon and travel 500 meters across the surface before the prize expires. See Time Running Out to Win Google Lunar X Prize for more details.



Hayabusa-2 spacecraft (Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita/ JAXA)

Japan’s second asteroid sample-retrieval mission will approach Ryugu in July and conduct a soft landing in December. The spacecraft is set to return a sample of Ryugu to Earth in December 2020. Hayabusa2 was launched in December 2014.


This is an artist’s concept of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to take a sample from asteroid Bennu. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Meaney)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is set to arrive at asteroid in August and begin its mapping mission two months later. The spacecraft is scheduled to return a sample of the asteroid to Earth in September 2023. The spacecraft was launched in September 2016.


Arkyd-6 spacecraft (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Planetary Resources’ Arkyd-6 spacecraft is designed to detect water on near-Earth asteroids that the company will attempt to mine.

Launch Date: Jan. 12
Launch Vehicle: PSLV
Launch Site: Satish Dhawan


Parker Solar Probe

Parker Solar Probe (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will be the first spacecraft to travel through the sun’s atmosphere, which will subject it to severe heat and radiation. Scientists expect the mission will revolutionize their understanding of the sun.

Launch Window: July 31 to August 19
Launch Vehicle: Delta IV Heavy
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station


TESS exoplanet satellite (Credit: NASA)


NASA’s latest planet hunting spacecraft, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), will monitor 200,000 stars for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. The space agency expects it to discover thousands of new exoplanets during its two-year all-sky transit survey.

Launch Date: March 20
Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station


New Horizons

One artist’s concept of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons mission. This binary concept is based on telescope observations made at Patagonia, Argentina on July 17, 2017 when MU69 passed in front of a star. New Horizons theorize that it could be a single body with a large chunk taken out of it, or two bodies that are close together or even touching. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker)

As the world is preparing to ring in 2019, U.S. scientists will be spending New Year’s Eve monitoring the progress of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The probe, which conducted the first flyby of Pluto in July 2015, is set to make a close flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. It will be humanity’s first look at an object in this distant region.