What’s Happening in Space in 2018
Falcon Heavy launch (artist's impression). Credit: SpaceX

What’s Happening in Space in 2018

01/01/2018Written by Josh Barker

At the start of 2018 we look forward to see what exciting space adventures await us.

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mascot Telescope Right
The Pad Abort Test of the SpaceX dragon 2 capsule, a vital feature in human rated spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

It’s that time of year again where we reflect on the space highlights of 2017 and look forward to those coming up in 2018. This coming year promises to be a year of epic missions to extreme locations, but also an expansion to the way we send people into space.

Over the next 12 months humanity will attempt to send probes to some of the most extreme destinations in our Solar System, locations like the Sun and deep space asteroids. While these endeavours will push the limits of our technology we will also be looking to develop our human spaceflight abilities. Private organisations like Boeing and SpaceX are both looking to test their first human rated vehicles this year with both ambitiously targeting 2018 as the year they fly their first astronauts.

Private Human Spaceflight

Private Human Spaceflight
Boeings Starliner undergoing its airbag drop test. Crew safety is one of the hardest areas to master when it comes to spaceflight. Credit: Boeing
Private Human Spaceflight
Mock up of the finished CST-100 Starliner. Credit: Boeing

Human spaceflight conducted by private organisations is something that seems to have been just on the cusp of reality for the last few years. However, ambitious schedules met with the cold, hard difficulty of spaceflight and key dates slipped. Despite setbacks, tests and checks have been completed and we are moving ever closer to full flights becoming a reality. In fact the two main players, Boeing and SpaceX have both said that crew-less flights will be conducted this year and both have declared an ambition and plan to fly crews before 2018 is over.

Many of you may have been following the SpaceX story, as an organisation they are quite active when it comes to sharing their ambitions and progress. Boeing however, have been a little more reserved but that doesn’t stop their plans being equally impressive. They spacecraft they are looking to fly is their CST-100 Starliner. This 4.5 metre spacecraft sits just a little larger than the Apollo command module that carried astronauts to the Moon, although this craft has a very different goal.

The Starliner targets locations such as the International Space Station. These short range journeys have allowed for a design that can carry a total of seven astronauts, more than twice its spiritual inspiration. Boeing’s last update to their schedule sets the automated flight taking place in the 3rd quarter of 2018 and if all being well, a crewed flight in December. As the private organisation space race heats up, the next 12 months will be interesting to watch.

Falcon Heavy maiden flight

Falcon Heavy maiden flight
Artists impression of Falcon Heavy separation after take off. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has its proverbial hand in many pies at the moment – 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.

Disappointingly for SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy rocket has featured several setbacks delaying their planned test flight so much that they had to push it back to 2018. However, all signs are pointing to them being very confident about their planned test in January 2018. SpaceX recently called for press pass applications and encouraged people to make plans to come and see the launch. This indicates that they are very confident the launch will go ahead.


The MIXS instrument flight model in the clean room at the University of Leicester. Credit: University of Leicester.

In October a mission will leave the Earth with its sights set on one of the most extreme planets in our Solar System.  The European Space Agency’s mission BepiColombo will head towards Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. This journey towards the centre of the Solar System will be a tricky one. The flight will take around seven years as the probe loops around the inner planets, slowing its velocity to match Mercury’s.

The mission itself technically consists of two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. Between them they will study the magnetic field of Mercury, the resultant magnetosphere, the surface and the interior of the smallest member of the Solar System.

Here at the National Space Centre we have a strong connection with this mission as part of it was built just up the road. The Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) instrument has been built by the University of Leicester.

Parker Solar Probe

Parker Solar Probe
Artist's impression of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. Credit: NASA

In July 2018 NASA is hoping to launch a mission that will ‘touch’ the Sun. The Parker Solar Probe will begin its journey to pass closer to the Sun than ever before. This extraordinary mission aims to go to one of the most extreme and unexplored locations in our Solar System, the Sun’s corona.

As the probe travels within six million kilometres of the Sun’s surface it will fly through the corona. The corona is part of the Sun’s upper atmosphere  and one of the most perplexing regions of space we know of, due to it being inexplicably hot. It can be millions of degrees hotter than the surface of the Sun, which makes very little sense when considering traditional methods of heating. Imagine, the air around your radiator hotter than the radiator itself. There have been a couple of ideas that may help solve this conundrum but data gathered by the probe will provide a basis to work from.

These are just some of the amazing space events that await in 2018. As always, the unexpected news is often the most spectacular, and we look forward to sharing them with you all next year. Have a great New Year!