What’s Happening in Space in 2017
At the start of 2017 we look forward to see what exciting space adventures await us.
It’s that time of year again where we reflect on the space highlights of 2016 and look forward to those coming up in 2017. This coming year promises to be a year of maiden flights, but also a bittersweet end to a spectacular space mission.
If all goes to plan we should see some debut flights from private space company SpaceX, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. This program helps private enterprises develop the means to launch crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2011, America has been without a human-rated space capsule. SpaceX have spent much of their career working with NASA by ferrying cargo to and from the ISS, so their involvement in the human transport is the next logical step.
Dragon 2 maiden flight
In November 2017, SpaceX plans a maiden orbital flight of Dragon 2, their new crew-carrying spacecraft. Dragon 2 is a redesigned version of their already-flown Dragon cargo capsule, fitted with side mounted thruster pods for landing, a launch escape system, redesigned solar panels and larger widows.
This test flight will be unmanned, but a manned flight is scheduled for mid-2018. SpaceX’s eventual goal is to ferry up to seven astronauts to the ISS and beyond.
SpaceX is not the only company hoping to become a commercial provider of human space flight. Boeing is also entering the fray with their CST-100 Starliner. Test flights (both unmanned and manned) are currently scheduled for June 2018 and August 2018, respectively.
Falcon Heavy maiden flight
SpaceX is actually attempting two maiden voyages in 2017. Not only will they fly Dragon 2, but they are also looking to debut their new heavy lifter rocket, Falcon Heavy. This rocket will more than double SpaceX’s launch capabilities and will allow the company to pursue its goal of launching humans to the Moon or even Mars.
The Falcon Heavy is based on the SpaceX’s successful Falcon 9 rocket. Falcon 9 will make up the main core of the Heavy launch system, augmented by two large strap-on boosters to increase the rocket’s lifting capacity.
SpaceX had hoped to have the Falcon Heavy operational by now, however recent rocket failures and design delays have slowed the development of this spacecraft. SpaceX plans to launch Falcon Heavy on a test flight in early 2017 and are already making plans for further launches towards the end of 2017 and into 2018.
China collects a piece of the Moon
Another 2017 mission that we are getting excited about is China’s Chang’e 5. This is a mission that is currently still in development but is China’s first attempt at a Lunar sample return mission.
The goal is to send an unmanned spacecraft to the Moon and return a sample. This will be the first time samples have been returned from the Moon since the 1970s. China’s space programme is still quite young, having only been established in 1993, but they have been quick to make huge advances. They have already built rockets, flown people in space, built space stations, and conducted lunar missions. With such rapid development China have made a big impact on the global space exploration stage and this mission will no doubt be watched closely as we once more explore our nearest neighbour, the Moon.
End of Cassini
Our final event to look forward to in 2017 is actually the final highlight of one of NASA’s most successful missions. On the 15 September 2017, the Cassini space probe will reach mission end by flying into Saturn’s atmosphere. This mission has spent more than 12 years orbiting Saturn and has revolutionised our understanding of the second largest planet in our Solar System.
The probe also carried the Huygens probe which touched down on Saturn’s largest moon Titan in 2005 giving us a first view of this mysterious cloudy moon. Having returned stunning images of Saturn for over a decade, Cassini is now reaching the end of its life. It has begun its final swan song, which consists of an ever-reducing orbit before eventually plunging below the clouds of the gas giant. But Cassini will gather data as it goes, hopefully giving us more amazing close-up views and brand-new data during the conclusion of this great mission.