Space Highlights From 2018
BepiColombo at Mercury (artist impression). Credit: Airbus

Space Highlights From 2018

26/12/2018Written by Toby Raine

The best bits from an exciting year in space!

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The time has come again where we look back and reflect upon the events of 2018. In space, it certainly hasn’t been quiet! With over 100 spacecraft launches, surpassing all yearly tallies since 1991, there are plenty of top moments to choose from.

Here are our favourite space highlights from 2018:

SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy for the first time

SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy for the first time
Falcon Heavy launch. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy for the first time
Falcon heavy booster landing. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy for the first time
Elon Musk's Roadster in space. Credit: SpaceX

In 2018 we finally saw the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. The US-based private space company built upon their reusability successes last year, constructing the Heavy variant of their Falcon rocket using two previously flown Falcon 9 first stages attached as boosters to a strengthened first stage core. This added firepower put the Falcon Heavy on top, having the highest payload capacity of any current launch vehicle.

Streaming the launch to an audience of over 2.3 million, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk caught the attention of the media by using this first flight to send his car into space!

At the wheel was a mannequin nicknamed ‘Starman’ (a reference to the David Bowie song) dressed in a SpaceX pressure suit that will be worn by astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon 2 capsule, scheduled for first launch in 2019.

As this was the maiden flight for Falcon Heavy, the risk of the rocket failing was much greater, so SpaceX used this ‘dummy payload’ to simulate the characteristics of loads it could carry in the future. SpaceX then managed to simultaneously land the two boosters on their launch pads!

SpaceX has made incredible progress in developing and demonstrating their capabilities, but they are just one of the companies in this new space race of private spaceflight.

Just this month, UK entrepreneur Richard Branson led his spaceflight business Virgin Galactic to a successful manned test flight of their spacecraft SpaceShipTwo, reaching an altitude of 82.7km. This was high enough for the pilots to be classified as astronauts by the US government, and even more is planned in 2019.

NASA hopes for InSight into Mars’ interior

NASA hopes for InSight into Mars’ interior
InSight on Mars (artist impression). Credit: NASA
NASA hopes for InSight into Mars’ interior
InSight places an instrument on Mars' surface. Credit: NASA

In May 2018, NASA launched their latest Mars mission: ‘Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport’, or InSight for short. NASA based the design of the lander on the already flight-proven Phoenix lander that landed in 2008.

In November 2018, InSight successfully landed on the surface of Mars in the area known as Elysium Planitia after a 483-million-kilometre journey to the planet.

The landing site was chosen for its practicality rather than for any specific surface features to study. This is because unlike every spacecraft we’ve previously sent to Mars, InSight is the first to look under the surface at the interior structure of the red planet. InSight’s main mission is to measure the movement of vibrations and heat within the planet to provide accurate models of Mars’ interior. This could allow us to better understand the formation of terrestrial planets like Mars and Earth.

To complete these goals, InSight is equipped with lots of sophisticated equipment, including a heat probe that will burrow as deep as five metres below the Martian surface and a seismometer that will take precise measurements of quakes and any other activity in the interior of Mars. The seismometer is so sensitive that even the tiny vibrations from the electronics on the lander will be detected, so InSight has a robotic arm to pick up the instrument and place it on the surface as far as possible from the lander.

BepiColombo sets off for Mercury

BepiColombo sets off for Mercury
BepiColombo at Mercury (artist impression). Credit: Airbus
BepiColombo sets off for Mercury
BepiColombo's first image from space. Credit: ESA
BepiColombo sets off for Mercury
MIXS on display at the National Space Centre, courtesy of the University of Leicester.

In October 2018, the European Space Agency, in cooperation with the Japanese space agency JAXA, launched the BepiColombo spacecraft on its seven year journey towards the planet Mercury.

As the planet closest to the Sun, Mercury is a hostile place to send satellites. Light intensity at Mercury is about ten times that at Earth, meaning BepiColombo will experience temperatures more than 450°C.

BepiColombo will also have to decelerate against the massive pull of the Sun, which will only increase as it heads towards Mercury. Amazingly, more energy is needed to get to Mercury than to send a mission to Pluto! To help with this BepiColombo will use a technique called an “interplanetary gravity-assist manoeuvre”, which was first implemented by the name sake of the spacecraft, Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo during the 1974 Mariner 10 mission. Mariner 10 was the first of only two spacecraft to have visited the planet so far, followed by MESSENGER from 2011-2015. The technique involves utilising the gravity of a planet to speed up or slow down the spacecraft as it passes by.

BepiColombo will perform nine of these manoeuvres with one Earth flyby (April 2020), two Venus flybys (October 2020 and August 2021) and six Mercury flybys between October 2021 and January 2025 before arriving in orbit at the end of 2025.

Once at its destination, BepiColombo will split into independent spacecraft, namely the Mercury Planetary Orbiter built by ESA and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter built by JAXA. Once the orbiters are in their own orbits, they will launch a comprehensive analysis of Mercury which will include characterisation of its magnetic field, magnetosphere, and both interior and surface structure.

One of the many instruments that will be used was built here in the UK by the University of Leicester. The Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) will measure x-rays emitted from the surface of Mercury to find out what its composed of.

A flight spare of the MIXS instrument is currently on display here at the National Space Centre.

Notable Mentions

Notable Mentions
Kepler. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Wendy Stenzel
Notable Mentions
Artist impression of Mars Express finding liquid water. Credit: ESA, INAF

With so much space news in 2018, it’s been hard to narrow down our highlights list!

Here are some other notable mentions:

After having used up all its fuel, we said goodbye to the Kepler space telescope. Over nine years, this telescope continuously monitored the stars, searching for any periodic dimming that indicates a planet (or planets) moving in front of the star. In total, Kepler managed to detect 2,662 new planets, completely revolutionising our catalogue and understanding of exoplanets.

Luckily, a new mission called TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), was launched in April 2018 and is ready to take up the mantle from Kepler

This summer, European researchers found evidence of liquid water on Mars. Using Marsis, a radar instrument aboard ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, the team found what they believe to be a lake about 20 kilometres across and as thin as 1 metre.

This provides an additional piece in the puzzle as we search for life elsewhere in the Solar System. As far as we know, water is the key ingredient for life.

This year has truly been a blast! We hope 2018 has left you feeling inspired about space and what we can achieve through international cooperation and exploration.
Join us on New Year’s Day as we anticipate the space highlights of 2018.
Happy Christmas!

About the author: Toby Raine is a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre, with a physics degree from the University of Leicester.