The Coming Year in Space: New launch Vehicles, New Inter-Planetary Probes and maybe America’s return to Manned Spaceflight.

A new year always brings in with it the hope for a year full of new and exciting advances and in space the year 2018 could very well fulfill much of that promise. Not only do NASA and America’s commercial space companies have a long to-do list but also the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese, Japanese and India all plan ambitious space ventures.

Let’s begin with the possibility of manned space flight returning to American soil as the private companies Space X and Boeing are scheduled to make unmanned test launches of their new crew capable space capsules. Space X is currently scheduled to test launch their Dragon capsule around March while Boeing’s Starliner capsule is scheduled to launch around July. Depending on the success of these unmanned test flights, manned flights could begin before the end on the year. The images below show the Dragon and Starliner capsules.

Dragon (right) and Starliner Capsules (Credit: Robert Fisher, America Space)

Meanwhile Space X also intends to perform the first test launch of its new Falcon Heavy launch vehicle this very month. When successfully launched the Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful rocket in operation anywhere in the World. Also, since the Falcon Heavy is designed to be reusable like its little brother the Falcon 9 it will also help to bring down the cost of getting into space. The image below shows the Falcon Heavy on its launch pad being prepared for its test flight.

Falcon Heavy on the Launch Pad (Credit: Derrick Stamos)

As far as NASA itself is concerned its main emphasis in 2018 will be on inter-planetary probes like the InSight Mars lander (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), which will be launched in May and is expected to reveal many of the details of the interior structure of Mars. Another probe scheduled for a July launch will be the Parker Solar Probe which will come closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft and actually become the first to enter and study the Sun’s atmosphere or Corona. Also in August of this year the OSIRIS-Rex space probe (which was launched on 8Sept2016) will reach its destination of the asteroid Bennu to begin a three-year mission that will include collecting a sample of the asteroid for return to Earth. The images below show the InSight, Parker Solar and OSIRIS-Rex space probes.

InSight Mars Lander (Credit: NASA, JPL)
Parker Solar Probe (Credit: NASA)
ORIRIS-REx (Credit: NASA)

The space agencies of the rest of the World have an equally busy schedule with the ESA launching its BepiColombo spacecraft on a seven-year voyage to the planet Mercury, arriving in 2024, see image below. Meanwhile Japan’s JAXA space agency is anticipating the rendezvous of its Hayabusa 2 probe with the asteroid Ryugu in June. This mission also includes a sample return with the sample arriving on Earth in 2020.

Bepi-Colombo Mercury Probe (Credit: ESA, Airbus)

On the other hand China and India have both set their sights on exploring the Moon with China’s Chang’e 5 attempting the first ever landing on our satellite’s dark side. The Chang’e 5 is also a sample return mission so we may learn a great deal about that relatively little know side of our nearest neighbor.

India’s Chandrayaan 2 vehicle, scheduled for a March launch, is a combination of an orbiter and lander with a lander also carrying a small rover down to the lunar surface. Once on the surface the rover’s instruments will study the lunar soil.

Now remember, these are the scheduled space events. You never know, there could be important discoveries by the Juno spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter or the Kepler exo-planet hunting telescope. All in all 2018 looks to be an exciting year.

Space News for June 2017

It seems as if every time I decide to write an update on new events happening in our exploration of space SpaceX corporation has to get a mention. Every month it seems like Elon Musk and his engineers are achieving some new goal toward increasing humanity’s access to outer space.

First Reused Dragon Capsule Docking at ISS (Credit NASA)

This month SpaceX has not only launched its 11th resupply mission to the International Space Station. Not only successfully landed the rocket’s first stage for the 11th time. But the pressurized Dragon capsule that was launched and is now docked at the ISS is itself a reused capsule from SpaceX’s fourth resupply mission back in 2014. This means that only the rocket’s second stage was lost in the mission, a degree of reuse not achieved since the Space Shuttle. Progress, progress.

The nation of India has also achieved a milestone in the past week with the first launch of its new heavy GSLV Mark III rocket, see picture below. The GLSV Mark III is the Asian nation’s attempt to catch up to the space big shots in the growing space industry and India even plans on using the rocket to begin manned launches starting in 2024!

India’s New GSLV Mark III Rocket (Credit BBC)

There is also some tantalizing news from NASA’s Curiosity Rover which is still exploring Gale Crater on the Martian surface. Now NASA’s three rovers; Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity have already found a considerable amount of evidence that Mars once possessed large bodies of water that could have supported life 3.1 to 3.8 billion years ago. Recently however Curiosity has been able to show that the lake that once filled Gale Crater had different levels of oxygen at different depths, a type of environment similar to lakes on Earth and providing multiple opportunities for many forms of life.

Sedimentary Rock on Mars in Gale Crater (Credit NASA)

Before you get too excited it is likely that these conditions occurred naturally on Earth and life evolved to fit those conditions but it is still strong evidence that conditions favourable to life existed on Mars some 3 billion years ago.

But to my mind the big news in space exploration is NASA’s announcement of a spacecraft that will be sent much closer to the Sun than any probe has ever gone. The Parker Solar Probe is named for Doctor Eugene Parker who named and studied the solar wind starting in the 1950s. The spacecraft is expected to come as close as 6 million kilometers to the Sun, even dipping inside the Sun’s ‘Atmosphere’ which is called the corona.

Mission Patch for the Parker Solar Probe (Credit NASA)

As a comparison the Earth orbits about 150 million kilometers from the Sun and even Mercury, the nearest planet maintains a distance of 60 million kilometers. That means Parker will come ten times closer to the Sun than boiling hot Mercury!

Getting so close to the Sun means that the Parker Solar Probe is going to require special protection for it’s vital instruments and equipment. This is provided by an 11.5cm thick shield made of carbon composite materials. This shield will allow Parker to survive temperatures as high as 1400 degrees Celsius.

The Parker Solar Probe will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center between 31July and 19 August of 2018. This timing is especially critical because the probe’s mission includes seven, count’em seven flybys of Venus to use the planet’s gravity to alter the spacecraft’s obit bringing it ever closer to the Sun. Unfortunately that many gravity boosts are going to take seven years to accomplish so this is going to be a long mission.

If you’d like to read more about the Parker Solar Probe, and keep track of the mission as I plan on doing, click on the link below to go to the official NASA site for the mission.

https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/parker-solar-probe

That’s Space news for this month. Till next time.