The Year Ahead in Space

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.

A New Direction for NASA?

NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.

Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.

It would be easier for the United States to find international partners for a return to the moon than for sending astronauts to Mars. The Europeans, Russians and Chinese have all said they want to focus on lunar exploration in the decade ahead. ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Wörner has been promoting the concept of an international lunar village to which nations could contribute.

Orion and the NextSTEP habitat in the cis-lunar proving ground – the next step from low Earth orbit on the way to Mars. (Credit; Lockheed Martin)
Orion and the NextSTEP habitat in the cis-lunar proving ground – the next step from low Earth orbit on the way to Mars. (Credit; Lockheed Martin)

There’s another important consideration that has received little public attention thus far. NASA’s Orion spacecraft was originally designed for sorties to the moon, which is only three days away from Earth. The vehicle would require a significant redesign for months-long voyages to Mars.

A refocus on the moon could be beneficial to billionaire Jeff Bezos. The Amazon.com founder’s Blue Origin company is developing its New Glenn boosters with the goal of moving people and industry out into cislunar space. He is not a big fan of sending people to Mars.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has introduced its Cislunar 1,000 Vision, which foresees 1,000 people living and working in space and on the moon by 2045. The company is partnered with Blue Origin on the development of a new engine for ULA’s Vulcan booster.

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)
A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

A NASA refocused on the moon doesn’t bode well for Elon Musk and SpaceX. In September, Musk rolled out his vision of placing a million settlers on Mars using giant ships capable of carrying 100 to 200 people at a time.

Musk made it very clear that public funding would be required to make the vision a reality. With all the other space agencies focused on the moon, NASA is Musk’s main hope for a public partnership.

Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. (Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. (Credit: NASA)

The question of how to get to the moon or Mars also looms large. Trump’s transition landing team at NASA has been split between supporters of NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep space vehicle and those wanting a focus on commercial alternatives such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin’s New Glenn boosters.

Although the team appears split, there is a strong consensus in Congress in support of SLS and Orion in spite of — or perhaps because of — their high cost. The programs employ a lot of people in key states and Congressional districts. Any attempt to cancel these programs would meet fierce resistance in Congress.

ISS Commercialization

BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)
BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)

One thing to watch this year is how NASA moves forward with an initiative to allow companies to attach commercial modules and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).

In October, NASA and the White House announced there had been a strong response from industry to a request for information (RFI) issued earlier in the year. The capabilities NASA is offering include:

Currently Available

  • Common Berthing Mechanism ports, if the user provides equivalent capability to maintain ISS functionality;
  • Trunnion pins where hardware can be attached;
  • Other unique interfaces or capabilities of the ISS as suggested by the offeror.

Future Availability

  • Common Berthing Mechanism attachment site at Node 3 Aft.

Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM module is currently attached to the docking port at Node 3 Aft as part of a two-year study of inflatable habitation technology. BEAM will be detached from the station to burn up in the atmosphere in 2018, freeing up the berthing mechanism for other modules.

Several proposals have already been made public. Bigelow Aerospace has proposed attaching a much larger B330 expandable module to the space station.

Axiom Space, led by former NASA ISS manager Michael Suffredini, has also  unveiled plans to attach a module to the station in which commercial research and development would be conducted.

Axiom would separate its module from ISS when the facility is decommissioned to form the core of a commercial space station. NASA and its international partners have agreed to continue ISS operations until 2024; an extension to 2028 is possible.

SpaceX

Credit: USLaunchReport.com
Credit: USLaunchReport.com

Musk and SpaceX enter 2017 under a great deal of pressure. The company needs to successfully return the Falcon 9 to flight after suffering the second catastrophic failure of the vehicle in 14 months on Sept. 1. The next launch is scheduled for Jan. 9 pending FAA approval.

Having failed to meet its own ambitious launch schedules for the past four years, SpaceX begins the year with a backed up manifest of about 70 launches that includes communications satellites, Dragon resupply ships and various government payloads.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Weldment Structure (Credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX Crew Dragon Weldment Structure (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is also running about 19 to 20 months behind schedule on the Crew Dragon, a vehicle designed to take astronauts to ISS. The first test flight to the station without a crew, which was originally scheduled for March 2016, is now set  for November 2017. A flight test with astronauts aboard would follow in May 2018.

SpaceX remains ahead of Boeing in commercial crew. Boeing’s flight tests of its CST-100 Starliner vehicle are currently set for June and August 2018.  Given how both schedules have slipped over the past two years, additional delays are possible.

SpaceX is expected to hit two milestones this year. Satellite fleet operator SES has agreed to become the first customer to fly aboard a Falcon 9 that uses recovered first stage. The launch of the SES-10 is currently scheduled for February.

Artist's conception of a Falcon Heavy launch. (Credit: SpaceX)
Artist’s conception of a Falcon Heavy launch. (Credit: SpaceX)

After a four-year delay, SpaceX also plans to conduct the inaugural launch of its Falcon Heavy during the second quarter of 2017. The rocket uses three Falcon 9 core stages as its first stage. It will be the most powerful booster in the world when it flies.

Suborbital Space Tourism

New_Shepard_flight4_rocket_landing
Blue Origin had a successful 2016 with four suborbital flights of its reusable New Shepard booster and capsule. These tests will continue throughout 2017, with plans to fly test subjects to space by the end of the year.

Virgin Galactic began glide flights of its second SpaceShipTwo, Unity, in 2016 with two tests in December. Officials have said they expect to conduct about 10 drop flights before beginning powered tests later this year. A source has told Parabolic Arc the company expects to be in powered flights by June.

Small Satellite Launchers

LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Will 2017 be the year of the small satellite launcher? Maybe. Or maybe not. In the crazy world of launch vehicle development, delays are the only real certainty. Well, delays and spectacular explosions. There’s been more than a few of them over the years.

A survey released last summer found more than 50 boosters under development around the world to serve the booming micro- and small satellite market.  According to the survey and other publicly available information, the following rockets could begin flight tests in 2017:

  • Electron — Rocket Lab (USA/New Zealand)
  • LandSpace-1  — LandSpace (China)
  • LauncherOne — Virgin Galactic (USA)
  • Neptune — Interorbital Systems (USA)
  • Prometheus-1 — SpaceLS (UK)
  • Sagitarius Space Arrow — Celestia Aerospace (Spain)
  • SS-520-4 — JAXA (Japan)
  • Vector-R — Vector Space Systems (USA)
  • zero2infinity — Bloostar (Spain)

How many of these boosters will actually fly this year? We’ll see.

So far, JAXA’s SS-520-4 is the only booster with a firm launch date. It is set to lift off on its inaugural flight with the TRICOM 1 CubeSat  aboard on Jan. 10 from the Uchinoura Space Center.

Two teams in the Google Lunar X Prize have booked rides on a pair of these boosters. Synergy Moon has a launch contract to fly on Interorbital Systems’ Neptune N8 rocket. Moon Express is booked aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher.

XS-1 Program Move Forward

XS-1 concept vehicle (Credit: Masten Space Systems)
XS-1 concept vehicle (Credit: Masten Space Systems)

DARPA is expected to announce the selection of a contractor this year to build the ambitious Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1), a vehicle designed to fly 10 times in 10 days at a cost of no more than $5 million per flight.

The defense agency has given Phase 1 contracts to three groups to date: Boeing, partnered with Blue Origin; Northrop Grumman, partnered with Virgin Galactic; and Masten Space Systems, which has partnered with multiple companies.

A call for Phase 2 proposals issued last May was open to all U.S. aerospace companies, not just the three groups funded in Phase 1. DARPA has given no date for announcing the winning proposal, but the agency could do so early in the year.

Google Lunar X Prize

Moon Express MX-1 spacecraft orbits the Moon in preparation for landing. MX-1 will deliver commercial, academic and government instruments to explore the Moon for science and resources. (Credit: Moon Express)
Moon Express MX-1 spacecraft orbits the Moon in preparation for landing. MX-1 will deliver commercial, academic and government instruments to explore the Moon for science and resources. (Credit: Moon Express)

After 10 years and multiple extensions, the $30 million moon race is coming to an end in 2017. Teams must launch their rovers to the lunar surface by the end of the year or the competition will cease with no winner.

To win the $20 million first prize, a team’s rover must travel 500 meters across the lunar surface while beaming high resolution video back to Earth. The second team to accomplish this task will win $5 million.

Teams had to have launch contracts by the end of 2016 to continue in the competition. The table below shows the four competitors with verified contracts and a fifth, PT Scientists, whose contract is still under review by prize officials.

TEAMLOCATION
LAUNCHER
ORBITAL LAUNCH FLOWNCONTRACT VERIFIED
IndusIndiaISRO PSLVYY
HakutoJapanISRO PSLVYY
Moon ExpressUSARocket Labs ElectronNY
SpaceILIsraelSpaceX Falcon 9YY
Synergy Moon (partnered with Independence-X, Omega Envoy, Team SpaceMeta & Team Stellar)InternationalInterorbital Systems Neptune N8NY
PT ScientistsGermanyUnknownUnknownN

Team Hakuto is flying on the same PSLV launcher that has been booked by Team Indus. The launch is scheduled at the end of December.

Synergy Moon and Moon Express are depending upon launch providers that have yet to place payloads into orbit.

Last month, Synergy Moon announced it was partnering with four c0mpetitors — Independence-X, Omega Envoy, Team SpaceMeta and Team Stellar — that do not have launch contracts. Its not clear exactly what the partnership entails, or whether the Google Lunar X Prize will allow the four teams to stay in the competition without a ride to the moon.

Will NASA’s Earth Science Budget Be Gutted?

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

The future of NASA’s Earth Science budget and climate change research remains cloudy. Republicans in Congress have said they want to transfer this research over to NOAA to allow NASA to focus on deep-space exploration. However, there’s more too it than that.

The real problem is NASA’s climate research, which keeps returning data that show the Earth is warming and that humans are a major cause of it. Republicans in Congress do not believe these conclusions, viewing them as exaggerated at best and utterly false at worse.

This skepticism is shared by the incoming administration. Trump once called global warming a hoax invented by the Chinese to destroy American industry. A Trump advisor, former Republican Congressman Robert Walker, has attacked climate research as “politicized science” and said other agencies should conduct Earth science research.

Bridenstine, a top candidate for NASA administrator, is a global warming skeptic who has attacked the Obama Administration for spending far more on climate change research than improving weather forecasting. The Oklahoma Congressman is particularly focused on reducing deaths from tornadoes in his home state.

China’s Lunar Ambitions

China’s Chang’e-5 mission, set to launch later this year, aims to return the first soil samples from the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.

China, which launched 22 times in 2016, is looking to raise that total to nearly 30 this year. One notable mission will be the launch of the Tianzhou 1 automated supply ship to the Tiangong-2 space station. The flight will test technologies for the nation’s permanent multi-module space station, which is set to begin launches around 2018.

Global Satellite Internet Beams Down

Planned OneWeb production facility in Exploration Park, Fla. (Credit: OneWeb)
Planned OneWeb production facility in Exploration Park, Fla. (Credit: OneWeb)

We can expect continued progress in 2017 on various plans to provide Internet and communications services through large constellations of satellites.

Last year, companies filed applications with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 8,731 spacecraft into non-geosynchronous satellite orbits (NGSO). While most of the spacecraft would provide broadband and communications services, others would collect Earth observation data.

Leading the pack in sheer satellite numbers is Musk’s SpaceX with constellation of 4,425 satellites that would provide global Internet services. Boeing came in second with a proposal for 2,956 satellites.

NGSO APPLICATIONS BEFORE FCC
COMPANYLOCATION
NO. OF SATELLITES
BANDSSERVICES
SpaceXHawthorne, CA4,425Ka, KuGlobal broadband
BoeingSeattle, WA2,956VAdvanced communications, Internet-based services
WorldVu (OneWeb)Arlington, VA720KuGlobal broadband
Kepler CommunicationsToronto, ONT140KuMachine-to-machine communications (Internet of Things)
Telesat CanadaOttawa, ONT117KaWide band and narrow band communications services
Theia Holdings A, Inc.Philadelphia, PA112KaIntegrated Earth observation and communications network
Spire GlobalSan Francisco, CA100KaMaritime monitoring, meteorological monitoring, and earth imaging services
LeoSat MAPompano Beach, FL80KaBroadband services
BoeingSeattle, WA60KaVery high speed connectivity for end-user earth stations
O3bWashington, DC60KaBroadband services
ViaSat Carlsbad, CA24Ka, VBroadband services
Karousel LLCAlexandria, VA12KaCommunications
Audacy CommunicationsWalnut, CA3K, VData relay constellation providing satellite operators with seamless access to NGSO satellites
Space Norway ASOslo, Norway2Ka, KuArctic broadband

Greg Wyler’s OneWeb is moving ahead with plans to build 720 spacecraft at a manufacturing facility in Florida. Last month, the company announced it had raised $1.2 billion in financing for the program.

None of these big constellations is set to begin launching this year. However, it will be interesting to see which projects obtain funding and move forward, and how the FCC works through proposals for satellite constellations of unprecedented size.

The End of Cassini

NASA-ESA Cassini Huygens Mission
NASA-ESA Cassini Huygens Mission

NASA will say goodbye to one of its most successful spacecraft this year. Controllers will intentionally steer the Cassini orbiter into Saturn’s atmosphere to end the orbiter’s 13-year exploration of the ringed gas giant.

Launched in 1997, Cassini is running out of maneuvering fuel; destroying it in Saturn’s atmosphere will prevent it from crashing into and contaminating any of the planet’s more than 60 satellites.

Cassini carried ESA’s Huygens probe, which in January 2005 parachuted through the atmosphere of the cloud shrouded moon Titan and returned images from the icy surface. The Cassini-Huygens mission discovered lakes and seas of ethane and methane on Titan’s surface.

Will Stratolaunch Roll Out This Year?

This year could see the roll out of the world’s largest aircraft.

Stratolaunch Systems has been building the aircraft in a hangar in Mojave. Calif., for several years now. The twin fuselage plane, designed to air launch satellite boosters, has a wingspan of 385 feet and is powered by six Boeing 747 engines.

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