Space in 2018: Big rockets, asteroid hunting and a close shave with the Sun
The year just gone was a momentous for furthering our understanding of the universe. SpaceX now routinely lands its rockets, NASA's Cassini craft crashed into Saturn in a spectacular and invaluable mission finale and researchers proved once and for all the existence of gravitational waves. 2018 will also bring some landmark moments in space, beginning with the biggest bang the industry has seen in nearly half a century, the maiden launch of the world's most powerful operational rocket later this month.
Coming right up
SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket has been a long time coming. In simple terms, it is three of the company's Falcon 9 first stages banded together, with a second stage fixed to the top of the middle rocket. But as that old adage tells us, rocket science is anything but simple, and engineering challenges have continually pushed back the launch date of Falcon Heavy. Though now the stage is set.
The rocket will finally launch from Kennedy Space Center later this month, lifting off from the same pad used by the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s. Its 27 engines in all can produce a maximum thrust of 5.1 million pounds, the same as 18 747s, and CEO Elon Musk has said there is a good chance of explosions, being the first launch and all. So whether or not it is a successful one for SpaceX, the first launch of the Falcon Heavy will make for a hell of a spectacle.
Ten years after its maiden mission to the Moon, India is set to return this year, and this time it plans to land on the surface for the first time. The Chandrayaan-1 launch in 2008 saw the spacecraft enter orbit around the Moon, and the Chandrayaan-2 mission lifting off in March will take things one step further, carrying both an orbiter and a soft lander with a rover to study the lunar surface.
All things going well, it will be joined by teams taking part in the Google Lunar XPrize, who are competing to put the first privately funded spacecraft on the Moon and explore its surface before the March 31 deadline. We've not heard a whole lot about their progress since this delayed deadline was announced last year, however, so a near-term arrival does seem unlikely at this stage.
The launch window for NASA's Insight Mars lander is set to open on May 5. The so-called "Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport" will touch down on the Red Planet in November, and will use scientific instruments to study its deep interior. NASA plans to use Insight to go further than previous Mars landers by investigating the size, thickness, density and structure of Mars' core mantle and crust. By peering beneath the surface in this way, it hopes to learn more about the evolutionary formation of rocky planets.
Also aiming to touch down on the Moon is the Chinese National Space Administration, which will launch its Chang'e 4 lunar exploration mission in June. The first part of the mission involves placing a satellite beyond the Moon in order to establish a communications link with its far side. That in turn will allow it to put a lander on the far side's surface, the second component of the mission that is slated for lift off later in 2018. Landing on the dark side of the Moon is something that hasn't been achieved before.
Three and a half years after lifting from Tanegashima Space Center, Japan's Hayabusa-2 spacecraft will finally latch onto its target, the Ryugu asteroid. There it will stay for around a year and a half, collecting valuable samples before returning to Earth in December 2020.
The year will also see a couple of new exoplanet hunting tools come online. Lifting off in June is NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will live in high-Earth orbit and use a transit method similar to the Kepler Space Telescope to search for planets outside our solar system. With more powerful cameras onboard, however, TESS will study stars 30 to 100 times brighter and cover an area of sky 400 times larger than Kepler.
Also slated for lift-off sometime before the end of 2018 is ESA's Cheops spacecraft, which is designed specifically to use the transit method to study what are known as super-Earths, planets outside our solar system with a mass a few times that of our home planet.
Scientists have known for decades that the sun shoots supersonic streams of subatomic particles out in every direction, interfering with the atmosphere of our planet and that of Mars. Learning more about the mechanisms behind these solar winds involves sending a probe through the Sun's atmosphere, called the corona, and into temperatures of nearly 2,500° F (1,377° C).
And 2018 will be the year that NASA finally chances its arm. It says that advances in thermal engineering have made such a feat possible, and it will send its Parker Solar Probe on a seven-year journey into orbit around our star. Here it will use its instruments to image and study the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles, and where they transition from subsonic to supersonic speeds. Launch is slated for July or August aboard NASA's Delta IV Heavy rocket.
August will also see a rendezvous between spacecraft and space rock, with NASA's OSIRIS-REx set to arrive at the asteroid Bennu after an almost-two-year journey. Here it will map the asteroid, study its chemistry and mineralogy and grab a sample weighing between 60 g and 2 kg (2.1 to 70 oz) to return to Earth in 2023.
Eleven years after receiving the go-ahead, the European Space Agency's BepiColombo mission will finally set off for Mercury. The mission had originally involved a lander touching down on the planet's surface, but that component has been cancelled due to budgetary constraints.
Two types of orbiter will instead do the mission's heavy lifting. The Mercury Planetary Orbiter and Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will circle the planet in polar orbit and use their scientific instruments to study its composition, interior structure, magnetic field and test Einstein's theory of relativity.
Other space adventures to keep an eye on
NASA's Commercial Crew Program will be taking some big steps forward in 2018, if all goes to plan. This is the agency's effort to tap into the private sector and use its spacecraft to carry astronauts into space.
One of these spacecraft, Boeing's CST-100 Starliner is set to undergo unmanned test flights later in the year, and then following that, a crewed test flight. This will be Boeing's first commercial spaceflight to the International Space Station and if all goes well, it will receive NASA certification and be free to regularly fly astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.
SpaceX, another partner of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, has a series of 2018 test flights planned for its Crew Dragon spacecraft. This starts with unmanned test flights in the second quarter of the year, ahead of its first crewed test flights later in the year. These will see two NASA astronauts travel to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon as a precursor to routine crew rotation missions for NASA thereafter.
We can also expect some progress in the field of space tourism. Virgin Galactic is continuing with the development of its VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane, built to one day offer passengers a zero gravity experience. Today it logged its seventh glide test flight, which Richard Branson said will hopefully be the final glide test before progressing to powered test flights.
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, meanwhile, which also promises passengers a zero-gravity experience, recently flew its Crew Capsule 2.0 for the first time. With a dummy called "Mannequin Skywalker" aboard, the team was able to learn more about the capsule's capacity to carry folks to an apogee of around 100 km (62 mi) for three-minutes of weightlessness.
And rival SpaceX has made some bold claims around space tourism in 2018, namely a promise to fly people around the moon late in the year aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. It has been pretty quiet on this front since the announcement last February, however, so we wouldn't be surprised if these jaunts are pushed back a bit.
Back on the commercial front, the progress of New Zealand space startup Rocket Labs is also worth keeping an eye on, who bills its Electron booster as the world's first battery-powered rocket. Its inaugural test launch didn't exactly go to plan, but the company this week announced plans to fire it up again for another test launch later this month.
And then there's the slow and not-so-steady progress of NASA's Orion spacecraft, which is built to take humans further into space than they've ever gone before. The agency is aiming to set Orion off on its first mission in 2019, but will undergo its final abort system tests this year to prove its readiness for flight.
The timing of these mission launches and science goals could very well be delayed as researchers navigate the unknowns of space exploration. But even if some don't materialize, we're certainly set for an acton-packed year. Keep tuning in to New Atlas throughout 2018, as we do our very best to bring you all the important developments.