Humans are well on their way to exploring strange new worlds. We’ve made it to the moon, and landed or crashed probes on other bodies in our solar system–from the valleys of Mars to the alien shores of Titan. But there are still so many worlds that we have yet to explore. Here are a few exciting candidates for future exploration.
This image, taken by Cassini shows some of Enceladus’ most distinctive features, stripes that frequently spew ice into space. Credit: NASA
Saturn’s sixth largest moon is one of the more explored items on our list. Information about the tantalizing moon was briefly gathered by the Voyager 2 mission in 1981 and then again by the Cassini mission which took gorgeous pictures of mysterious plumes of ice being shot out from the planet deep into space. Enceladus is thought to have a liquid layer underneath its icy crust, and researchers would like to explore the mysterious oceans up close. A potential mission called the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) has been proposed by NASA to look for life in the underground oceans.
A composite image of potential water plumes erupting on Europa. Credit: NASA
Like Enceladus, Europa is believed to have a salty ocean just under its surface, which is just the kind of place where astrobiologists would look for signs of life in our solar system. Future missions to Europa (which might also be tectonically active) would seek to confirm the presence of that ocean.
An image showing the planet and its faint rings. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory (Marcos van Dam)
Uranus is a bit of an oddball. It’s a sideways planet, orbiting the sun at a tilted angle compared to the other planets in the solar system. It has a bizarre toxic atmosphere of compressed gasses and 27 moons that we know very little about. But just because it’s strange doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. The blue-green planet is an appealing research target because scientists believe many exoplanets in other solar systems may share similar traits. Thus, the more we learn about our neighborhood planet, the better we can speculate about planets further out there.
Neptune and Triton
The planet Neptune and its largest moon, Triton as seen by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Like Uranus, Neptune is another one-hit wonder, only visited by Voyager 2 on its way out of the solar system in 1989. Neptune is the fourth largest planet in the solar system, an ice giant that we still know very little about. Its moon, Triton, is intriguing too. It orbits Neptune in the opposite direction from most other moons and has a surface of frozen nitrogen. It’s believed to be one of the coldest places in the Universe. A proposed mission to Neptune—Argo—was mothballed due to a shortage in nuclear batteries for the craft, but we hope to see these targets on future exploration missions.
An artist’s impression of the dwarf planet Haumea and two of its moons. Credit: NASA
This dwarf planet is roughly the size of Pluto and occupies the same space deep in the Kuiper belt towards the edge of the solar system. Unlike Pluto, Haumea was only discovered in 2004, so very little is known about the object. What we do know is tantalizing. The dwarf planet rotates faster than many large objects in the solar system, spinning once on its axis in just 4 hours. It is believed to be nearly solid rock with a thin coating of ice on its surface. Traveling to the planet would be difficult without an atmosphere to brake the spacecraft in, but creating a spacecraft that could travel to the dwarf planet and then go into orbit would be a huge technical achievement.