Launches, launches, launches! 2018 was a big year for liftoffs, particularly for SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. The past year also saw a number of notable trips to interplanetary destinations, including the Martian surface and two asteroids. What’s up for next year? More of the same, only way different.
For more than two decades, I’ve been writing year-end roundups of the top stories in space science and exploration, with a look-ahead to cosmic coming attractions. 2019 could well bring about developments I’ve been predicting on an annual basis going as far back as a decade, such as the rise of commercial human spaceflight.
Other trends are easier to predict, because they’re based on the cold, hard facts of celestial mechanics. Check out these tales from 2018, expected trends for 2019 and my year-end space roundups going back to 2001 (with lots of failed predictions). Then feel free to weigh in with your comments to tell me what I missed.
Five space tales from 2018
Falcon Heavy takes flight: After years of development work, SpaceX’s super-powerful Falcon Heavy rocket made a spectacularly successful debut in February’s test launch, which sent billionaire CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and a mannequin driver named Starman into an orbit stretching out beyond Mars. The Falcon Heavy can send big payloads almost directly out to geostationary orbit, which is a selling point for heavyweight satellite operators ranging from ViaSat to the U.S. military. But it won’t be certified to carry people to far-flung destinations. For that, Musk intends to turn to SpaceX’s Starship (see below).
Fresh and fading Mars missions: On the plus side, NASA’s InSight lander touched down on the flat plain of Elysium Planitia and started deploying scientific instruments to monitor Mars’ seismic activity and internal heat flow. On the potentially minus side, the solar-powered Opportunity rover fell out of contact this summer amid a planet-covering dust storm and hasn’t been heard from since. In the year ahead, NASA will either have an amazing comeback story to tell — or read the rites and declare an end to Opportunity’s 15-year mission on Mars. NASA’s plutonium-powered Curiosity rover, meanwhile, just keeps going and going.
Big steps for small satellites: Speaking of InSight, that mission marked the first interplanetary CubeSat ride-along, featuring two MarCO nanosatellites nicknamed WALL-E and EVA. The pair worked perfectly, monitoring InSight’s descent and sending along their own Red Planet pictures. CubeSats and their ilk were a big deal on other space missions, including a 64-satellite launch managed by Seattle-based Spaceflight, a record-setting 104-satellite launch executed by India’s space agency in February and the first satellite launches by Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket from New Zealand.
Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight: For the first time since 2004, test pilots have broken through to the space frontier in the skies over California. December’s test flight carried Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, christened VSS Unity, above the 50-mile altitude mark. That’s below the 100-kilometer height currently used as the international standard, but it’s high enough to count for the more than 600 “Future Astronauts” that Virgin Galactic has signed up for suborbital space trips. “I used to think of space as a destination, but I now realize it’s a journey, with some amazing milestones along the way,” Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said in a video letter to his grandchildren.
Seeing asteroids up close: 2018 brought not just one, but two encounters with near-Earth asteroids. First, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft closed in on a half-mile wide space rock known as Ryugu and sent down three mini-probes. Then NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made its rendezvous with the quarter-mile-wide asteroid Bennu and began scientific observations. Both spacecraft will descend to the surface of their respective asteroids, gather up samples and carry them back to Earth. The missions should provide new insights into how the solar system formed — and how to divert potentially threatening asteroids like Bennu when the time comes.
Five space trends for 2019
New rides to space: Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight provided a “million-dollar view” for its test pilots, but if all goes well, passengers could start enjoying the view next year, paying $250,000 (more or less) for the privilege. And that’s not all: Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture is expected to start flying passengers as well on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship. SpaceX and Boeing are working on new rides as well. The current schedule calls for flights on SpaceX’s upgraded Dragon spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner capsule to start heading to the International Space Station next year. That would mark the first crewed flights to orbit from U.S. soil since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011.
Setting sights on the moon: NASA’s agenda for trips beyond Earth orbit calls for commercial robotic missions to the moon’s surface to begin as early as next year. There’s also likely to be further preparation for (and debate over) building a crewed platform in lunar orbit, known as the Gateway. 2019 should bring a heightened focus on the history of lunar exploration as well, with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing coming up in July. Seattle’s Museum of Flight will play a big role in the celebration, in part because the Apollo 11 command module is due to be on display there for the anniversary. But wait … there’s more: China’s Chang’e-4 lander should touch down on the moon’s far side in early January and deploy a rover to explore a new lunar frontier.
A ‘Starship’ for Mars: SpaceX is building a bright and shiny prototype for its Starship — the spaceship that was used to be known as the Mars Colonial Transporter, or Interplanetary Transit System, or Big F***ing Rocket. And Musk says short-hop tests could begin in Texas in March or April, with a “full technical presentation” to follow. SpaceX’s Starship and its Falcon Super Heavy booster are designed to take passengers around the moon in the early 2020s, transport settlers to Mars later in the decade, and basically do everything that SpaceX needs to do on the space frontier (including point-to-point travel between earthly destinations, spacecraft servicing and satellite constellation deployments). Speaking of satellite constellations, the next year could well see more progress for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband access network as well as rival networks planned by OneWeb, Telesat and other players.
Year in Science: Genetic breakthroughs make dreams (and nightmares) come true
Sky spectacles: It’s hard to top 2017’s total solar eclipse, but how about a total lunar eclipse? North and South America are perfectly positioned to see the full moon turn blood-red (or maybe smog-brown) on the night of Jan. 20-21. By some definitions, that event will mark a “supermoon” as well. But I reserve that term for the largest full moon of a given year (which occurs on Feb. 19 next year). There’ll also be a rare transit of Mercury on Nov. 11, which you’ll need your solar-safe viewing filters to observe. If you’re in the mood to travel, you can take a chance on a total solar eclipse that crosses over the Pacific Ocean, Chile and Argentina on July 2 — plus a “Ring of Fire” annular solar eclipse that passes across the Middle East and Asia on the day after Christmas.
The farthest frontiers: Three years after its Pluto flyby, NASA’s New Horizons probe is set to make history again on the New Year’s night of Dec. 31-Jan. 1. The piano-sized spacecraft will go through an even closer encounter with a mysterious object nicknamed Ultima Thule, 4 billion miles away on the solar system’s icy fringe. Because of the partial government shutdown, NASA’s coverage of the event will be severely limited. Fortunately, the New Horizons team has set up alternate coverage channels on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter (including the @JHUAPL account managed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory) and on the Web. I’ll also be sending back dispatches from Mission Control at APL, so stay tuned.
Years in space
- 2017 in review: An all-American solar eclipse
- 2016 in review: Gravitational waves found
- 2015 in review: Pluto revealed
- 2014 in review: Landing on a comet
- 2013 in review: Meteor blast sets off alarms
- 2012 in review: Curiosity rover lands on Mars
- 2011 in review: Farewell to the space shuttle
- 2010 in review: NASA changes course
- 2009 in review: Moon probe detects water
- 2008 in review: Planets spotted around alien stars
- 2007 in review: China makes big moves in space
- 2006 in review: Shuttle fleet gets back on track
- 2005 in review: A brief return to flight for NASA
- 2004 in review: Commercial Space Age dawns
- 2003 in review: Shuttle Columbia is lost
- 2002 in review: Rocket successes and failures
- 2001 in review: Reflections on a pale blue dot