New frontiers: The year ahead in space
2016 was a busy year in space, and things aren't going to slow down in 2017. It's a year that will see new US space priorities, a dramatic ending to a veteran space probe, new missions launched, an orbital cliff hanger, and a free space spectacle for if you happen to be in the US in August. New Atlas looks at the highlights of the coming year in space exploration.
New US president, new US policies
One of the peculiarities of the US space program is the effect that a change of administration has on it. John F Kennedy set America on the road to the Moon in 1962, Richard Nixon authorized the building of the Space Shuttle while canceling the Mars mission it was meant to support, and Ronald Reagan gave it a new destination with what later became the International Space Station.
Just as the election of Barack Obama put paid to much of George W Bush's space ambitions, the incoming Trump administration promises new goals for NASA in 2017. Though no official policies will be set until after the inauguration, Mr Trump has already expressed interest in moving NASA away from its emphasis on low-Earth orbit missions in favor of deep space exploration, and handing over Earth science projects to other federal agencies. In addition, his appointment of Nanoracks businessman and Moon colony supporter Charles Miller could see NASA may abandon its Journey to Mars initiative and turn its attention to establishing a lunar outpost.
Last Days of Cassini
On September 15, 2017 at 8:07 am EDT, the space agency's Cassini Saturn orbiter mission will come to a dramatic close. After 20 years, the unmanned nuclear-powered deep space probe will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, where it will burn up to ensure that none of the moons of the gas giant are contaminated by Earth microbes.
This swan song will be the climax of a busy year. In its "Grand Finale" Cassini will spend make detailed maps of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields to gain a better understanding of the planet's interior, continue a series of close flybys of the famous rings, sample icy ring particles, and take ultra-close images of the rings and clouds of Saturn.
In a maneuver taking longer than it took to get to Mars, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) of the joint Russo-European ExoMars 2016 mission will spend this year carrying out an elaborate aerobraking maneuver to place it into its final orbit around the Red Planet.
Since its arrival in October the TGO has been in a highly eccentric orbit between an altitude of 250 km (155 mi) and 98,000 km (60.895 mi) with a period of four Earth days. ESA wants it to be in a circular orbit of 400 km (250 mi). To achieve this, the orbiter will spend the year making a series of intricate maneuvers, where it will graze the outer reaches of the Martian atmosphere to slow it down and alter its orbit while expending very little fuel.
Dragon test flights
Back on Earth, SpaceX is looking forward to sending its Falcon 9 launcher back into space after being grounded for the last quarter of 2016 due to a spectacular launchpad explosion. Having just been cleared for flight, the company is prepping for an Iridium satellite launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on January 8.
In the meantime, the Falcon 9 accident is having knock-on effects. Though the company still expects to make an orbital flight of its Crew Dragon capsule this year, a manned mission has been set back until 2018.
Exosolar planet hunters will get a boost in December 2017 when NASA launches the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Placed in a high-Earth orbit, TESS will carry out exoplanet surveys similar to those conducted by the Kepler Space Telescope, except that Tess will use wide-field cameras for all-sky surveys instead of concentrating on one segment of the sky.
The focus will be to seek out small, rocky Earth-like planets orbiting the nearest and brightest main sequence stars, which will then be more closely examined by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Also launching in December 2017 will be ESA's CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS), which is similarly tasked with seeking planets beyond our Solar System. The first of the space agency's "small" missions, the joint venture by ESA and the Swiss Space Office will work in cooperation with ground stations to measure dips in the light from nearby bright stars that could indicate the presence of orbiting planets.
Meanwhile, there's some nail biting going on in the People's Republic of China as the Tiangong-1 space lab continues to orbit the Earth out of control. In 2016, China admitted that it had lost the ability to control the trajectory of the 8.5-ton space station as it circles the Earth at an altitude of 370 km (230 mi) in a rapidly deteriorating orbit.
Officials say that the spacecraft, which has been in service for almost five years, will enter the Earth's atmosphere sometime in 2017. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict when this will happen, where, or if any debris will survive re-entry to reach the ground.
On a more positive note, China plans to launch its latest lunar mission in 2017. The Chang'e 5 is slated to land on the surface of the Moon, collect samples, and then send them back into lunar orbit, where a return module will intercept them and carry them back to Earth for analysis.
Google Lunar X Prize
It looks like the Moon could get a bit crowded this year. 2017 marks the launch date for the US$30 million Google Lunar X-Prize's 16 teams to send their missions to our satellite where they will be expected to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, deploy a rover to travel 500 m (1,600 ft), and send back high-resolution images. It's a deadline that's already been pushed back before, but fingers crossed this year.
Total solar eclipse, USA
One event that won't be pushed back is the total solar eclipse that will pass over the continental United States from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21. The cosmic show will pass over several metropolitan areas, including Kansas City, St Louis and Nashville, and the path will certainly be dotted with telescopes from around the world as well as crisscrossed by scientific and chartered chase planes.
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