2018 to be a Busy Year in Space

Lots of interesting new missions, every few months.

The headliner is SpaceX attempting its first launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket later in January. Falcon Heavy is billed as "the world's most powerful rocket" and the payload in the first launch is Elon Musk's personal Tesla roadster, which he hopes to place into a Mars transfer orbit. (He wants to crash his car into Mars!) There's widespread suspicion (even inside SpaceX) that the first attempt to launch the Heavy might fail spectacularly. (This launch will probably be live-streamed, keep checking the Spacex website.)

SpaceX also plans to fly an unmanned test flight of its crew Dragon capsule in April, with a manned flight in August. (This schedule is expected by many to slip.) It will use the proven Falcon 9 rocket.

They were talking about a manned mission around the Moon by the end of the year, using Falcon Heavy and the crew Dragon, but they haven't said anything more about that and most observers doubt that it will actually happen. (Certainly not in this 2018 time-frame.)

Boeing plans to make an unmanned test flight of its new Starliner crew capsule in August with a first manned flight in November.

Blue Origin will probably attempt a manned test flight of its New Shepherd space tourism suborbital capsule this year.

Virgin Galactic will likely start manned powered testing of its own suborbital space tourism rocket plane. They were doing glide tests earlier this year. This group is taking it slow after the crash of a prototype vehicle and the death of a test pilot a while back during a powered test.

NASA is planning to launch its new Insight Mars lander in May. It should arrive on Mars this November. (Mars is in a favorable position for quick transfer orbits.) This one is intended to investigate Mars' subsurface 'geology', determining the size, thickness and density of Mars' core, mantle and crust. Mars is interesting to planetary scientists in its own right and to Earth geologists since it's Earthlike enough to have probably had a very similar early history, but is small enough to have cooled and more or less frozen at an earlier stage. So investigating Mars today might give us insights into the earlier stages of the Earth. Insight was scheduled for launch several years ago but problems developed in its instruments, and now it's ready to go.

NASA plans to launch its new TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) exoplanet hunter satellite (using a SpaceX Falcon 9) in March (with backup dates out to June). This one works like the existing Kepler satellite by observing transits, but promises to survey some 200,000 stars in our galactic neighborhood with an accuracy able to detect transits of anything from Earth-size planets to super-giants orbiting a variety of stellar types. I get the impression that it's less about getting lots of data on each one than about getting a more complete catalog of what's out there and locating likely candidates for further investigation.

NASA plans to launch the Parker Solar Probe during the summer, intended to orbit the Sun at very close range, well inside Mercury's orbit (in 'hot Jupiter' territory).

NASA's Osiris Rex asteroid sampling mission should arrive at its target asteroid in August. The plan is for it to carefully maneuver in and slowly survey the asteroid this year (probably lots of cool photographs) and the actual sampling won't come until next year.

NASA's New Horizons vehicle that imaged Pluto should arrive at the small Kuiper belt object that it's now headed towards. This one seems to have an interesting shape, perhaps two smaller objects stuck together.

The European Space Agency and Japan's Bepicolumbo mission to Mercury is scheduled to launch in October. It will eventually put two orbiters in orbit around that planet.

Rocketlab, the New Zealand/US group that tried and failed to orbit a satellite last year from their NZ launch site is ready to have another go "early" this year (no date announced yet) after making some improvements to their vehicle. (They plan to live stream this launch.)

The latest X-prize competition to land a rover on the Moon reaches its target date this year. There are several credible teams working on it, but none look anywhere close to being ready to launch.
Thanks, Yaz. Nice to have someone in here who keeps up with the industry schedules and forecasts. Especially since the eventual downside to spaceflight becoming more widespread, frequent and routine is that it may become as non-special as conventional air travel. Only captivating the public when a jetliner blows-up, crashes into the sea, a mountainside, or the Twin Towers.

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The Osiris Rex asteroid sampling mission should be interesting. It's visiting a tiny 500 meter asteroid called Bennu. Apart from being close and relatively easy to reach, Bennu is a comparatively rare 'Type B' asteroid, composed in part of carbonaceous material. Since Bennu dates back to the time the Earth is believed to have formed (some 4.5 billion years ago), it's believed to provide a sample of the kind of organic chemicals in existence at that early time. These are believed to include organic polymers.

RNA, DNA and proteins are organic polymers, along with lots of simpler things not necessarily related to life. So determining what's on and under Bennu's surface should be interesting for origin of life studies. I've always been fond of panspermia, so speculating about what kind of organic chemicals might have existed out in space makes me wonder whether signs of very ancient microbial life might be found on Bennu. (I'd rate that exceedingly unlikely, but if it happened it would really set biological science on its ear.)
The Falcon Heavy is on the pad at Cape Canaveral. I believe that this is for static-fire tests, where they run all the engines (there are 27 - each core has 9) at low power to test them, while the vehicle is clamped down and doesn't leave the pad. The actual launch date may be a few weeks off.


Photos here of the Falcon Heavy on the pad and of Elon Musk's car that will be headed for Mars atop it. Apparently the auto won't crash into that planet but will just pass by. (No interplanetary reckless driving.) He says that his car should orbit the Sun for billions of years. (I can imagine aliens eventually finding it and waving their tentacles in consternation when their instruments tell them it's 5 billion years old.)
SpaceX is scheduled to launch one of the totally mysterious Zuma satellites with a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral this afternoon at 5:00 PM PST, 8:00 PM EST on Sunday Jan 7, and 1:00 AM UTC Jan 8. The booster is intended to return to a pad at Cape Canaveral for a night propulsive landing. (Should look pretty cool.) There's a two hour launch window tonight and another 2 hour window in 24 hours if the launch doesn't go.


The night launch should be live-streamed here:


The Zuma satellites are a mystery. Northrup Grumman booked the launch and appear to be the satellite prime contractor. The satellite itself belongs to the US government, but nobody will say what the satellite is supposed to do or which government agency owns it. That is very unusual, since basic information like the owner (USAF, National Reconnaissance Office or whatever) is given out even for secret satellites. Aviation Week (the authoritative aerospace trade publication) asked the National Reconnaissance Office (they run the photographic imaging and SIGINT spy satellites) if Zuma was theirs, and the NRO said 'no'.

An earlier Zuma satellite passed close to the space station and based on the close approach I'm speculating (that's all it is) that the Zumas might be maneuverable vehicles designed to check out what unknown satellites put up by other nations are all about (and maybe disable the threatening ones).

Edit 1. - about 10 minutes to 8 EST - The livestream is on. Launch is just a few minutes off. Tanks are being topped off with fuel and oxidizer and pressurized. Rocket is sitting on the pad, illuminated by spotlights. They say that pursuant to a request by their customer (Northrup Grumman) they won't have any video of the 'primary mission' (the second stage and payload separation) subsequent to first stage separation. The customer apparently doesn't want anyone to see the Zuma satellite once the payload fairing comes off and the satellite is exposed. That suggests that there's something about its appearance they don't want people to see. (That would be the case if my maneuvering-vehicle hypothesis is correct.)

But... the attempt to propulsively land the booster back at Cape Canaveral at night will be televised.

Edit 2. - 8:07 EDT - Launch was successful, satellite deployed (with no images to show what it looks like) and the booster returned to Cape Canaveral successfully where it nailed its landing in the middle of the pad. Unfortunately, since it was dark, the camera on the booster didn't show very much. And annoyingly, the SpaceX narrrator's voice was on tape delay and he talked over himself the whole time. (Was the delay intended so that a security guy could bleep him if he accidently said something about Zuma he shouldn't? If so, his live voice was going out too, so they screwed it up.) They seem to have the engineering down, but as far as sci-fi (non-fi?) entertainment, I've seen better.

[Image: DS-w4PCVoAA5Auc.jpg]
Nobody's talkin', but according to "sources" the Zuma satellite may (or may not) be a total loss, after failing to properly separate from the Falcon 9 second stage.

(Jan 9, 2018 07:12 AM)Yazata Wrote: Nobody's talkin', but according to "sources" the Zuma satellite may (or may not) be a total loss, after filing to properly separate from the Falcon 9 second stage.

Heh. Or so they want us and the world to believe. Wink

Quote:A highly classified U.S. government satellite appears to have been totally lost [...] SpaceX did not reveal the purpose of Zuma because it is classified [...]

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(Jan 9, 2018 06:41 PM)C C Wrote: Heh. Or so they want us and the world to believe. Wink

Apparently lots of people are saying that. Jonathan McDowell (the Jonathan's Space Report guy) doesn't think that it's very plausible though. If it went into orbit, it would be observed up there.


Here's Jonathan's Twitter page with lots of comments:


The question is who is responsible for the failure. The news media (full of schadenfreude at hugely popular SpaceX) seems to be blaming it on SpaceX (it was their launch vehicle, the launch didn't succeed, so...)

But it appears that while SpaceX normally builds the adapter that fixes the satellite to the launcher rocket (and has to release the satellite into orbit), in this case Zuma was so secret that Northrup Grumman supplied their own adapter.

The second stage appears to have completed 1.5 orbits and then deorbited as previously planned. It's a robot and not the brightest bulb, so it probably wasn't even "aware" that the Zuma satellite was still attached to it. So everything burned up over Sudan, reportedly.

Here's a photo taken by a Dutch airliner pilot that appears to show the second stage venting fuel vapor prior to reentry over Khartoum. (Another one of MR's dimensional portals!)


So if the fault that led to the failure can be traced to the adapter, then it isn't on SpaceX at all.


That's important since perceptions of reliability are very important when SpaceX is trying to book launch customers and losing a customer's billion dollar satellite doesn't look good.
SpaceX's static test fire of its Falson Heavy rocket was to have happened today. Vapors were seen coming from the vehicle, implying that cryogenic propellant and oxidizer were being loaded, but then that stopped and it was announced that the static firing was scrubbed for today. Dunno what went wrong and dunno when the test firing's been rescheduled to.

This isn't an actual launch, but the idea is to run the engines for a few seconds while the rocket is securely clamped to the pad, to make sure that everything works.

Falcon Heavy's static firing now scheduled for Friday. Lots of speculation (even among SpaceX employees) about what is causing the delays. Nobody who knows seems to be saying.

In other news, the Chinese have apparently tried and failed to land a rocket. It never seems to have initiated its final landing burn.

What struck me (even harder than the booster landed) is that they apparently tried to land it on a mountain in a populated area. (There's probably a little landing pad in a valley over there.) The shallow angle that it comes in at suggests (to me anyway) that it wasn't coming all the way down from space. Probably a smaller scale ballistic test shot. Video of it here:


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