Jupiter, asteroid samples and Mars preparation: what to look out for in Space, 2016

Between SpaceX’s reusable rockets, NASA’s Dawn craft arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres, and New Horizons whiffing past Pluto, 2015 was something of a bumper year for spaceflight. But 2016 is already shaping up to rival it. We’ll orbit Jupiter, launch a spacecraft to bring back material from an asteroid, and begin testing the rockets that will take the first human colonists to Mars. Let’s take a deep zoom into the calendar for the coming year in space exploration.

Jupiter, asteroid samples and Mars preparation: what to look out for in Space, 2016

Mark your calendar for 4 July, because that’s the date that Juno arrives at the solar system’s largest planet – Jupiter. The probe, which launched in 2011, will take some amazing photos of the gas giant, as well as studying its composition, gravity field, magnetic field and polar regions to try to get an insight into how it formed. By understanding that, we’ll better understand the origins of the entire solar system. Expect to hear a lot about Jupiter this year.

But Juno isn’t the only big NASA project in 2016. Another worth keeping an eye on is OSIRIS-REx – a seven-year mission to study an asteroid named 101955 Bennu and bring back a sample of its surface. As with the Juno mission, the results will tell us more about the formation and evolution of the solar system, and perhaps hint at the source of the organic compounds that led to the beginnings of life. It’ll blast off in September.jupiter_juno

The European Space Agency will have its focus on Mars for much of the next few years, starting in March with the launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter. The spacecraft, which will arrive at the Red Planet on 19 October, is the first part of the ExoMars programme, a collaboration with the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos. It’ll be equipped to hunt for sources of methane – which is primarily by living organisms produced on Earth – and will collect samples throughout the Martian atmosphere. In 2018, it’ll be followed by an ExoMars rover, which will continue the hunt for life.

“While GPS is run by the US military, Galileo will be under civilian control.”

This year should also see the debut of Europe’s Galileo satellite-navigation network. The constellation of 30 satellites will provide location data to objects on the surface of Earth, just like the GPS network does. But while GPS is run by the US military, Galileo will be under civilian control, making it rather more reliable for the rest of the world in the event of the United States doing something scary and weird. It will interoperate with both GPS and Russia’s similar GLONASS system.

Other than ExoMars, Russia’s Roscosmos doesn’t have any major flagship missions planned for 2016, beyond launching a lot of satellites for other people. In fact, the agency hasn’t had a successful interplanetary mission since 1984’s launch of Vega 2. Its most recent failure was 2011’s Phobos-Grunt, which was left stranded in low Earth orbit. This year, argues Eric Berger in Ars Technica, will likely be make or break for the once-mighty Russian space programme.tiangong_2

“China, on the other hand, is planning 20 missions for the coming year, including tests of the Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets and the launch of the Tiangong-2 space station.”

This leaves plenty of room for newcomers such as India and China. The former has about ten planned missions for 2016, completing a regional GPS system of its own along with a heavy-lift rocket called the GSLV-Mk III and a cluster of Earth-observation satellites. China, on the other hand, is planning 20 missions for the coming year, including tests of the Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets and the launch of the Tiangong-2 space station – a forerunner to a much larger, multi-module space station that will begin launching in 2018 and become operational in 2020.

On 18 March, Expedition 47 will begin on the International Space Station with the arrival of cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, and astronaut Jeffrey Williams. They’ll join Timothy Kopra, Yuri Malenchenko and Timothy Peake, who’ll depart later in the year with the arrival of Expedition 48. Supplies for those expeditions will be shipped up by SpaceX, which is due to resume its resupply missions on 7 February after the catastrophic failure of one of its rockets in June 2015. You can bet that first flight in February will be a nail-biter for the private space firm, which has enacted multiple new safety measures since.

Speaking of SpaceX, 2016 could become the first year in history in which a rocket is used twice. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been working for years on the development of a reusable rocket that can be fired into orbit again and again, slashing the cost of spaceflight. Towards the end of 2015, he managed it, and you can bet that he’ll be wanting to repeat the feat and get a reusable Falcon 9 into commercial service as soon as possible.falcon_heavy_space_in_2016

SpaceX also has another rocket that will begin testing in 2016 – the Falcon Heavy. At some point in April, the 68-metre-tall monstrosity will blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, carrying the dreams of wannabe Martian colonists with it. The rocket is a pivotal part of Musk’s Mars colonisation plans, capable of lifting a whopping 53 metric tons into orbit. That makes it the most powerful booster in the world today, but rather less powerful than the huge Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo programme to the Moon but was decommissioned in the 1970s.

“Getting people to Mars, however, requires more than just a rocket, and in 2016, SpaceX will continue testing version two of its Dragon capsule.”

That first Falcon Heavy flight may end up making history twice. It’ll carry a smaller, crowdfunded spacecraft called LightSail-1, equipped with a revolutionary propulsion system that lets spacecraft “sail” on the solar wind. The technology is cheap, has no moving parts or propellant, and may one day propel cargo around the solar system. A subsequent Falcon Heavy flight, later in the year, will carry another experimental rocket propellant mission along with a Deep Space Atomic Clock, crucial technology for navigating among the stars.

Getting people to Mars, however, requires more than just a rocket. In 2016, SpaceX will continue testing version two of its Dragon capsule, which will perch on the end of the Falcon Heavy. It’s a remarkable piece of technology, equipped with environmental-control touchscreens and an emergency escape system that should make manned launches far safer than they have been in the past. It can land, SpaceX claims, with the precision of a helicopter – and with recent progress it’s not out of the question that the capsule’s uncrewed maiden voyage may take place before the end of the year.spaceship_2

Other private space firms aren’t far behind either. Expect to see further testing in 2016 of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx spaceplane, Blue Origin’s interestingly shaped New Shepherd, Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser microshuttle. Oh, and look out for SETI starting to ramp up its activities following its massive funding boost in 2015, and a vast increase in the number of exoplanets we’ve discovered. The total stood at 2,041 at the end of 2015. Universe Today’s David Dickinson reckons we’ll be at 10,000 by the end of 2016.

“This year was supposed to have been the end of the lifespan of the International Space Station, but in 2010 the five space agencies that govern it agreed to extend the mission until the early 2020s.”

This won’t just be a year of beginnings, of course. We’ll also lose a few long-serving spacecraft in impressive, explosive or actually rather dull circumstances. This year was originally supposed to have been the end of the lifespan of the International Space Station, but in 2010 the five space agencies that govern it agreed to extend the mission until the early 2020s. Thanks to its modular nature, it’s possible to replace individual chunks as they age, so it could still live on for many decades – making it mankind’s very own Spaceship of Theseus.

In June, the Dawn probe is expected to run out of hydrazine fuel and lose contact with Earth. But that orbit is fairly stable, so it should remain as an artificial satellite of the dwarf planet Ceres for decades, if not centuries. Then, on 30 September, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe will suffer a slow-motion crash landing onto the surface of the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it currently orbits.

Finally, starting late in the year, NASA’s Cassini probe will be commanded to use its remaining fuel to perform a series of dangerous, acrobatic orbits that will eventually end in a deliberate plunge into Saturn’s thick atmosphere in 2017. There’s already a conspiracy theory that the incredibly high pressure inside Saturn will detonate Cassini like a nuclear bomb, triggering fusion and turning the gas giant into a second sun. There’s very little scientific basis for those claims, but hey, you never know. My advice would be to enjoy 2016’s lineup of space exploration before we’re all burnt to a crisp.

READ NEXT: What else is happening in science this year?

Images: oewf, NASA, טל ענבר, SpaceX photos, Jeff Foust,  used under Creative Commons

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