Reaching for the stars: The year in space, 2017
It was a year of endings, beginnings, and new promises in the field of space travel in 2017. New records were set, new launchers were tested, and new "kingdoms" were founded. Meanwhile, veteran space missions took their last bows, old ideas were revisited, and aging spacecraft showed that they can still perform as in the days of their youth. Here are the highlights of space for 2017.
As usual, the single biggest space project of 2017 was the International Space Station (ISS). Among the many experiments that were carried out by its various crews over the past 12 months, one that has a lot of potential for building future space stations orbiting the Earth and other planets is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which completed its first year on the ISS. The inflatable experimental module was delivered to the station and deployed in 2016 and was originally the focus of a two-year test, but now Bigelow and United Launch Alliance have agreed to set up a more advanced version in Low Lunar Orbit as the foundation for an orbital exploration outpost.
On a more human note, US astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth after a record-breaking tour aboard the ISS. Selected for the US astronaut program in 1996, Whitson has made three visits to the station since her first in 2002. On her 2008 expedition, she became the station's first female mission commander, but this year on April 24 she broke the cumulative space time for a US astronaut and for any female astronaut with 534 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes. By the time she returned to Earth, she'd clocked up 665 days – the eighth highest total.
But the ISS wasn't the only place where progress in manned spaceflight was being made. With both Boeing and SpaceX working on spacecraft to ferry crews to and from the ISS, they've also been work on spacesuits to protect the astronauts in the event of an emergency. How well they work is something we're not sure of, but they certainly are stylish.
Meanwhile, NASA powered up its latest Orion crew capsule as the space agency prepares for the next three-week unmanned test flight in 2019. However, NASA says that the first Orion manned mission has been pushed back until 2021, but that didn't stop Russia signing a statement saying that the US deep space gateway that the Orion spacecraft will serve is a common goal for the two countries.
SpaceX had a busy year in 2017, with 18 launches that included not only a secret spaceplane and a recycled Dragon cargo ship revisiting the ISS, but followed it up by launching a recycled Dragon on a recycled Falcon 9 booster. Small wonder that Elon Musk is showing such confidence in his plans for colonizing Mars using a revolutionary heavy lifting rocket and that he wants the payload on his first Heavy Falcon launches to be a red Tesla sports car that he wants to send into orbit around the Sun.
But SpaceX isn't the only game in town when it comes to commercial launchers. New Mexico-based ARCA Space Corporation is working on a single stage to orbit launcher that replaces conventional engines with a linear aerospike engine, which the company claims is 30 percent more efficient than those used today. Further weight savings come from extensive use of composite materials in the rocket's construction.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin's Crew Capsule 2.0 made its maiden flight that included transporting the company's first dozen commercial payloads into space during the capsule's 11 minute suborbital journey. And, on the other side of the world, Space Lab's Electron booster took off for the first time from its New Zealand spaceport. The flight was a fifty percent success – it reached space, but a ground error in some telemetry equipment resulted in the rocket being ordered to self-destruct by the range safety officer.
With all this going on, NASA is looking to its past glories and small wonder that the space agency is responding to chemical competition by reviving its own atomic rocket program.
Getting away from Earth, deep space made the news in 2017 in a big way. US President Donald Trump ordered NASA to focus on sending astronauts back to the Moon as the next step in reaching Mars. With the prospect of commercial exploitation of the Moon, the question was raised as to who owns it and whether current international treaties can protect property rights.
It's not a moot point because there may be more water on the Moon than thought. NASA claims to have seen frost and the great lava planes may have given the ancient Moon a watery atmosphere. It's no surprise that the US wants to set up its own Space Corps to protect its interests.
Mars was also busy with the missions from the United States, Europe, and India busily studying the Red Planet. But it hasn't all been plain sailing. NASA's MAVEN orbiter had to interrupt its observations of the Martian atmosphere and alter its orbit to avoid colliding with the moon Phobos, while the veteran Mars rover Curiosity was showing that its aluminum wheels are its Achilles heels as they started to break down under years of punishment rolling across the Martian sands.
But there was also closure as we learned the cause of the crash of ESA's Schiaparelli lander. It turns out it was due to a sensor malfunction that caused Schiaparelli to shut down its engines thousands of meters in the air because it thought it was on the ground already.
Out around Jupiter, NASA's Juno probe completed its first year in orbit around the gas giant. It made the closest flyby ever of the Great Red Spot when it came within 2,200 mi (3,500 km) of the cloud tops. So promising have been the returns from Juno and other recent missions that NASA is looking into seeking life on the Jovian moon Europa. What the late Sir Arthur C Clarke's fictional aliens will think of this, we have yet to determine.
The news from Saturn in 2017, on the other hand, was bittersweet. After a remarkably successful 20 years, NASA's Cassini orbiter mission to Saturn came to an end as the unmanned spacecraft ran out of the propellant needed to control its trajectory. After making a Grand Finale tour of the Saturnian system, its rings and its moons, the probe came to a fiery end as it plunged into the atmosphere on September 15.
The reason for this dramatic climax was that NASA feared that once it ran out of propellant, there was a chance that Cassini may one day, years from now, crash into one of the moons of Saturn. Since some of these are considered capable of harboring life, scientists prefer to avoid the chance of them being contaminated with terrestrial microbes, so the historic orbiter was given a 21st century Viking funeral.
The search for intelligent life beyond our Solar System went on in 2017, despite the depressing argument that if our species is typical, then statistics say we are alone. As has been the case for the past 60 years, most efforts have concentrated on modest programs to scan the skies for radio emissions, though one new endeavor is on the lookout for laser-wielding ETs.
But there was a moment of excitement in October when it looked as if we might be receiving visitors after the first interstellar object was detected by a telescope in Hawaii. At first it was thought to be a comet, but a plot of its trajectory showed that it was on an open-ended hyperbolic loop through our Solar System from interstellar space, to which it is now returning.
Scientists were intrigued by the object, called 'Oumuamua, and even worked out what it would take to catch it, but what really captured the imagination was that the object was a spindle ten times longer than it was wide. Was this a probe from another civilization?
To find out, scientists turned radio telescopes and spectrographs on 'Oumuamua. But no signals were heard and the spectra showed that the object was a rocky asteroid with an icy interior protected by a layer of organic compounds produced by millions of years of exposure to cosmic radiation. So the "Welcome ET" banners were a bit premature.
One journey continues and another begins
This year, a venerable spacecraft came briefly out of retirement as Voyager 1 fired its thrusters for the first time in 37 years. The exercise by NASA was part of an effort to keep the unmanned probe, which is now in interstellar space, functioning and able to communicate with Earth until its nuclear power source fails around 2025.
In Earth orbit, there was an odder story as the "space nation" of Asgardia declared itself open for business with the launch of its first satellite into orbit serving as its toehold on sovereignty. Though Space King Igor Ashurbeyli claims that Asgardia already has 200,000 citizens, a pro-tempore constitution, flag, coat of arms, calendar set to the year 01, currency, and national anthem, it's entire "territory" consists of a CubeSat measuring 10 x 10 x 20 cm (3.9 x 3.9 x 7.9 in) and weighing 2.8 kg (6.2 lb). This could make things a teensy cramped in the short term.
Raise a glass
And just to show that engineering students at the University of California San Diego have their priorities straight, they've come up with an experiment to brew beer on the Moon. It's purpose is to see if it's possible to ferment yeasts on the Moon for not only beer, but also bread and pharmaceuticals, among other things. It may be one small step for man, but it's one giant leap for happy hour at Tranquility Base.
Stay tuned to New Atlas in 2018 for news of all the latest advances in space exploration and aerospace technology.