New Horizons is the name of the Pluto mission that reached its climax in 2015, but the name also provides an apt two-word description for the year’s big news in aviation and space exploration.
You could argue that New Horizons’ revelations about the dwarf planet – including never-before-seen, up-close pictures of ice mountains (and perhaps volcanoes), nitrogen glaciers, weird plains and a bright heart – rate as the year’s biggest story in the cosmos. That’s exactly what Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute who headed up the mission, argued during the buildup to the July 14 flyby.
“The last time anybody did anything like this was in 1989, with Voyager,” he told me in January. “If you weren’t at least 6 years old in 1989, you probably don’t remember Voyager. So it turns out that about half the country has no recollection of a first-time planetary encounter like this.”
Stern won’t get any argument from me. After all, I literally wrote the book on “The Case for Pluto.” But New Horizons’ story is far from finished: Over the course of the coming year, the piano-sized probe will continue to send back high-resolution pictures and data gathered during the July flyby. And before you know it, New Horizons could well be gearing up for its next encounter in the Kuiper Belt, the broad ring of icy worlds that lie beyond Neptune.
Is Pluto a “planet”? That’s a game of semantics. This year, Pluto has been a star.
I’ve been counting down the top stories in space every year since 1997, long before the word “listicle” was added to the dictionary. This time, I’m adding a few stories about aviation to the traditional year-end review – and year-starting preview. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, and then take a look at the road ahead:
New horizons from 2015
Year of the dwarf planets: Sure, Pluto got its close-up – but NASA’s Dawn spacecraft also started taking a close look at Ceres, the smallest known dwarf planet and the biggest world in the main asteroid belt. Dawn’s data heightened the mystery surrounding Ceres’ alien-looking bright spots, and eventually offered up the best explanation for the mystery as well.
The rockets have landed: SpaceX and Blue Origin both demonstrated that they could shoot a rocket into space and bring it back intact for a vertical landing, just like what we saw in 1960s cartoons. Kent-based Blue Origin, founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, did it in November with the suborbital New Shepard rocket ship. SpaceX did it in December with the first-stage booster of its much larger, much more powerful Falcon 9 rocket, after sending a payload into orbit. The achievements sparked a little trash talking between Bezos and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk, but that’s only to be expected in a commercial space race, right?
Searching for aliens: The search for extraterrestrial intelligence got a $100 million boost from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking in July with the unveiling of the Breakthrough Listen initiative. In September, anomalous patterns in the brightness of a star called KIC 8462852 got people talking about alien megastructures – but the evidence gathered since then suggests the patterns were caused by a comet storm instead of an E.T. construction project.
Water on Mars: For more than a decade, Mars rovers have been sending back evidence that the Red Planet was warmer and wetter in ancient times, but in September, readings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provided the best evidence yet that trickles of salty water still occasionally flow over the surface.
Attack of the drones: 2015 was marked by high-profile drone fails, ranging from a White House intrusion to an Oklahoma prison caper to a Seattle Great Wheel crash. The incidents, plus the fact that there are hundreds of thousands more drones out there now than there were a year ago, led the Federal Aviation Administration to hustle up an online system to register recreational drones.
Boeing takes it to the MAX: The Boeing Co. rolled out the 737 MAX, a more fuel-efficient version of its stalwart single-aisle 737 jet, at its Renton factory in December. Test planes are scheduled to start flying by mid-2016, and Boeing already has almost 3,000 orders. A well-received debut for the MAX should take some of the sting out of the problems that Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners have encountered.
Battle over a bomber: Boeing and Lockheed Martin lost out to Northrop Grumman in the competition to win the Pentagon’s nod for the Long Range Strike Bomber, a stealth aircraft that would replace the Air Force’s decades-old B-52s. More than $20 billion in business was at stake, with the potential for an eventual total payout of $80 billion. The battle isn’t quite over: Boeing and Lockheed Martin have filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, and a ruling is expected in February.
Next horizons for 2016
The shape of rockets to come: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is due to have its maiden launch next spring. SpaceX says the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world (that is, until NASA’s Space Launch System comes onto the scene) and should restore “the possibility of flying missions with crew to the moon or Mars.” Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is expected to roll out its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, more than a year after the first one was destroyed in a fatal flight test. There’s expected to be progress as well on Virgin Galactic’s plans for LauncherOne and Paul Allen’s plans for the monster Stratolaunch airplane.
Launching to Mars … or not: The European Space Agency’s ExoMars orbiter is set for launch in March and arrival at the Red Planet in October. The orbiter will analyze the Martian atmosphere, focusing on methane and its potential source. Is biology involved? The orbiter will also eject a prototype lander called Schiaparelli. NASA had planned to send its own InSight lander in 2016, but put off the launch due to a persistent leak in one of the spacecraft’s key scientific instruments.
Ending a year in space: In March, NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko are scheduled to finish up nearly a year in orbit. The yearlong mission is being conducted to gain additional insights into what it will take to send astronauts on a longer-lasting mission to Mars and back. There’s a bonus to this experiment: Scott Kelly’s twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, is being studied as a control subject to gauge the effects of life in space on the aging process, genetic fitness and other health factors.
Game of drones: After dealing with recreational drones, the FAA is planning to issue its rules for commercial drone operation next spring. The big question is whether the rules will let drones fly beyond the operator’s line of sight. That’s currently not permitted, but Amazon sees beyond-line-of-sight operation as a key part of its strategy for deliveries by drone. Amazon’s not the only one planning drone deliveries: Walmart and Google are in the game as well.
Jumping to Jupiter: If 2015 was the year of the dwarf planets, 2016 is the year of the giant planet. Jupiter, that is. Five years after its launch, NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft is due to go into orbit around Jupiter on the Fourth of July. The orbiter is designed to study Jupiter’s composition, its mass distribution and its powerful magnetic field.
Solar Impulse returns: Speaking of solar power, the Swiss-built Solar Impulse 2 airplane should be back in the air by next spring. The ultra-light, solar-powered plane took off from Abu Dhabi last March and made a series of eastward flights to get as far as Hawaii in July. The plane’s batteries suffered too much thermal damage, however, and a planned round-the-world circuit had to be suspended. The Solar Impulse team plans to test the repaired aircraft in Hawaii and then resume the globe-girdling trek in April.
Boeing turns 100: The Boeing Co. was founded in Seattle in 1916, and there’ll be plenty of opportunities to celebrate the centennial in 2016. Watch for the past and future of aerospace to be on display at the Museum of Flight in the form of Boeing’s “Above and Beyond” exhibition, starting in May, and stay tuned for more centennial events in the months ahead.
What do you think should be added to the list? Or maybe subtracted? Feel free to weigh in with your comments, and check out a few of my past “Year in Space” roundups.