The new year, like the last, has the potential to be an amazing one for space exploration and space technology development. 2015 saw tremendous strides, as well as setbacks. 2016 is poised for similar successes, should the various entities plans go unhampered.
Already, some important developments have been made that impact the future of spaceflight. NASA selected contractors for the second round of Commercial Re-Supply (CRS) missions to the International Space Station (ISS) on January 14th. With contracts to support flight operations aboard the orbital space platform until 2024, SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Space Systems have been selected to demonstrate the ability to resupply ISS using commercially developed space vehicles. (Click here for more)
On a negative note, the development of the pending Mars science mission InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) has been delayed indefinitely following discovery of issues to the primary instrument. InSight was originally to be launched in March of 2016, and then postponed until 2018, doubt have been expressed that that spacecraft may not be ready before that launch window either. (For more information, go to the JPL mission site here)
My top ten list that follows is only a sample of the various events and possibilities that may happen in 2016. I won’t be including annual events such as conferences or awards, nor will I speculate on the unveiling of designs that companies have not yet scheduled. I chose not to include astronomical events as the lists for those are widely available and for any matter are natural events, un-impacted by human actions.
But I preface this again- this is *MY* Top ten list. These are the events that excite me the most, not necessarily what everyone is interested in. But feel free to discuss!
10. SpaceShipTwo Redux (Virgin Galactic)
Undeterred venture spaceflight company Virgin Galactic will receive the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle from partner manufacturing firm The Spaceship Company, on or about February 19th. The new craft incorporates the changes recommended by the NTSB findings following the October 31st 2014 accident of the first SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. Professor Stephen Hawking, famed author and physicist, will be present for the unveiling and has been asked to confer a name upon the finished aerospace craft.
9. Juno space probe reaches Jupiter (NASA/JPL/SwRI)
Launched August 5th, 2011, Juno is planned to reach Jovian polar orbit July 5th. The spacecraft is has been designed and configured with a sensor suite to investigate the chemical composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, structure of the planet’s magnetic field, gravitational variations, and polar phenomena. This will be the first spacecraft specifically designed to investigate Jupiter since the Galileo probe entered the Jovian atmosphere at the completion of it’s mission in 1995.
8. The Nexo Launch (Copenhagen Suborbitals)
Crowd-funded start-up Copenhagen Suborbitals has made steady progress since the company was started in 2008. The Nexo rocket was scheduled for initial flight tests in 2015, but tests of the motor forced the CS team to delay a launch attempt. Nexo stands 5.6 meters high and will be the first liquid-fueled design the company has produced. It an incremental phase of the company’s plans to launch a human occupant on a suborbital trajectory. (The program website is here)
7. EXO Mars Part 1 (ESA/Roscosmos)
Exo Mars is a joint scientific mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia, represented by the state-controlled Roscosmos space agency. Designed to investigate potential signs of life, the mission will consist of multiple spacecraft working in concert. The first element to launch will be the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) which will carry an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) called ‘Schiaparelli’. The TGO is scheduled to launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on March 14th.
6. Stratolaunch Unveiling (Vulcan Aerospace)
This may be a stretch- there is not much to indicate, as the company has proposed, that a test flight of the massive “Roc” carrier aircraft will fly in 2016. However, with vehicle construction underway in Mojave, California, we may see the craft unveiled later this year. Not unlike the WhiteKnight series carrier aircraft flown by Virgin Galactic, the Stratolaunch airplane is planned to air-launch payloads of the mass similar to traditional rockets. It will be the largest aircraft ever flown.
5. Tiangong-2 (Peoples Republic of China)
The slow but steady progress of the Chinese space program is a little understood and controversial topic. China is poised to launch the second space laboratory sometime this year, according to announcements made by Beijing. The first Tiangong was launched in 2011, and served as a demonstration of the technologies necessary to maintain a multi-module station not unlike the Soviet Salyut stations. Tiangong-2 will likely be capable of receiving automated cargo resupply craft that are currently being developed. The Chinese program is methodical, and continues to succeed in every endeavor they attempt. If slowly.
4. OSIRIS-REx joins the space probe fleet (NASA/UALPL)
The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer mission is set launch in September 2016. It’s not so much the launch date that is interesting, but the return date (!) OSIRIS-REx is to rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2019, and return a sample to earth in 2023. This isn’t the first spacecraft to rendezvous with an asteroid, nor is it the first to attempt the goal of returning a sample from one. This mission has the advantage of incorporating the lessons learned from the ESA and JAXA asteroid study spacecraft that came before it. It could serve as a precursor to a future mission using similar architecture to collect and return samples from the moons of Mars.
3. Falcon Heavy (SpaceX)
Although there are commercial spaceflight companies that I follow more closely than SpaceX, the presence of another American Heavy Launch Vehicle (HLV) has the potential to significantly drive down the costs of “pound to orbit” prices. Presently, entities looking to launch massive payloads are limited to government subsidized launch services. A commercial contender to the market could change the accessibility to space by driving down costs. SpaceX has announced that they intend to conduct a test launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket this spring.
2. BEAM installation (Bigelow Aerospace)
Although this particular event has the least immediate impact on space technology or exploration progress, I’m extremely interested in it as it represents a potential for great things to come. Bigelow Aerospace is to launch a technology demonstrator known as BEAM to ISS this March. BEAM stands for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module- it’s a cylindrical workspace constructed of flexible material that inflates into shape under positive pressure. Bigelow has tested similar structures on uninhabited, scale mock-ups of expandable space habitats in orbit. This will be the first test in cooperation with NASA. (BEAM site link)
1. XCOR Lynx flight tests (XCOR Aerospace)
Of all the possible events that may yet still take place in 2016, the flight test of XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx Mark I is the one I’m looking forward to the most. XCOR is constructing the prototype of their internally designed suborbital spacecraft and has announced their intent to test fly it sometime this year. The date has not been firmly established, and has been pushed “to the right” as development progressed slower than expected. Pending the success of the test program, the company hopes to build an operational variant of the craft (mark II) and begin commercial flights carrying space tourists and scientific research payloads in the near future.