When NASA's first mission to Mars kicks off in 2018, the goal is to make sure that their new rocket can make it out there, before they start sending people. So instead of a crew, this first mission will be filled with equipment for 13 science projects, including a gigantic laser flashlight that will orbit the Moon. Although the Space Launch System is headed out towards Mars, these "cube satellite" missions will be released along the way to hit different destinations — one towards an asteroid, several to the Moon and several others to drift in deep space.
Among the projects is a highly-concentrated laser that will fly above the Moon, scanning it for water. This "Lunar Flashlight" will eventually give us a map of where to find water sources. Why should we care just where the water on the Moon is located? Because someday, we might need it.
"In a future mission, we'd have to live off the land," Jitendra Joshi, head of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems, explained during a press conference today. "This map could help find good sites for that."
There is also a solar sail mission that will fly out to Asteroid 1991BG and hover above it, to essentially spy on the asteroid and send us back photos and data. Called the NEA (Near Earth Asteroid) Scout, it's not just for the pretty pictures — Joshi described this mission as a "precursor scout mission for a human mission".
In addition, there were five other named projects, which included another project also designed to look for lunar ice (dubbed the "Lunar IceCube"), a space weather monitor station headed out to deep space, a hydrogen mapper which will look at what's hiding in the Moon's permanent shadows, a lunar surface mapper and a deep-space yeast project that will measure space radiation.
Beyond that, there are still six open slots out there. Three of them are reserved for other international space agencies, but there are also three that are going to be filled by "citizen investigators" through NASA's (still open) Cube Quest Challenge.
Although these missions seem like they hit a lot of different areas, there's actually a common thread running through them: preparing for a life in space, of finding the means to meet our basic needs (water, good land) and to avoid the dangers of deep space (radiation, space weather). For a mission designed to someday send us to Mars, dedicating part of it to figuring out how we might survive once we get there makes sense.
All images are from NASA press conference. In order: Lunar Flashlight; Cube sat deploying over the Moon; NEA Scout; Artist's concept of SLS launch