The Year Ahead in Space

The BEAM module docked at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
The BEAM module docked at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Update: Added Falcon Heavy flight test to the list.

A number of very cool space missions are set to unfold in the coming year. Here’s a brief rundown:

Jan. 6: Falcon 9 Barge Landing Attempt. SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a barge. The goal is to recover the stage intact for later relaunch. Success could lead to significantly lower launch costs in the years ahead.

March 5: Dawn Arrives at Ceres. Having completed an exploration of the asteroid Vesta, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is due to arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres on March 5. The vehicle will enter orbit around the unexplored world, which is the largest object in the Asteroid Belt.

March 27: Year-Long ISS Mission Commences. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) for a one-year mission in space to test the long-term effects of microgravity on the human body. NASA will conduct medical studies on Kelly and his twin brother, Mark, a former astronaut who will remain on Earth.

1st Quarter: Dragon Abort Tests. SpaceX is set to conduct two abort tests for its crewed Dragon spacecraft. The first will be a pad abort test at Cape Canaveral. This test will be followed by an in-flight abort test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The commercial crew milestones are scheduled to be completed by the end of March.

Second Quarter: Lynx Flies. Although the exact timing is uncertain, XCOR might get its Lynx suborbital space plane flying in the first half of the year. Flight testing on the two-seat Lynx Mark I will begin with taxi tests and runway hops and progress from there.

New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)
New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)

July 14: New Horizons Flies By Pluto.  The exploration of this never explored dwarf planet and its five moons by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft should be the highlight of the year. Although the closest approach will be in mid-July, we will be receiving ever better pictures of the Pluto system in the months that proceed it.

Sept. 2: BEAM Launch to ISS.  The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is set for launch to ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. The inflatable module will be attached to the space station to provide additional space for the crew and to test out the technology. For Bigelow, this will be a significant step toward its plans to launch private inflatable space station later in this decade.

Third Quarter: Debut of Falcon Heavy. Three first stages clustered together, 27 engines, the first use of Pad 39-A since  the space shuttle program. Will it work? Or fail spectacularly? The stakes are definitely high.

Sarah Brightman. (Credit: Eckhard Pecher)
Sarah Brightman. (Credit: Eckhard Pecher)

Fall: Brightman Visits Space Station. Orbital space tourism will make a return as British soprano Sarah Brightman makes a brief visit to ISS. Such trips have not occurred since 2009 because of the doubling of the space station’s permanent crew to six and the retirement of the American space shuttle. The year-long mission planned by Kelly and Kornienko opened up a seat on the Soyuz transport used to ferry crews to and from the station.

Continuous: Rosetta Orbits a Comet. ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft will continue to orbit Comet 67P/Churyumov- Gerasimenko throughout the year as it gets closer to the sun and develops a tail. It’s possible that the Philae, whose batteries ran out after it landed in a shaded region, will be revived later this year as the comet rotates. If so, it will be able to continue its observation’s from the comet’s surface.