A Look Back at the Space Year That Was

Total solar eclipse photographed from NASA Armstrong’s Gulfstream III. (Credit: (NASA/Carla Thomas)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

I realize it’s a bit late, but here’s a look back at the major developments in space in 2017.

I know that I’m probably forgetting something, or several somethings or someones. Fortunately, I have eagle-eyed readers who really seem to enjoy telling me just how much I’ve screwed up. Some of them a little too much….

So, have at it!  Do your worst, eagle-eyed readers!

Launches

A total of 90 orbital launches were attempted in 2017, with 84 successes, five failures and one partial failure. U.S. launch providers flew 29 launches without a failure, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX providing 18 of them. Several small satellite launchers made their debuts, not all successfully. Blue Origin returned to flight, Virgin Orbit debuted and nearly 300 nanosats were launched.

SpaceX Soars

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Credit: NASA Television)

The numbers for Elon Musk’s space company speak for themselves:

  • 18 launches
  • 14 recovered first stages
  • 5 re-flown first stages
  • 4 Dragon missions to the International Space Station (ISS)
  • 2 re-flown Dragon supply ships
  • 48 communications satellites launched

SpaceX also returned launches to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Rockets roared off Pad 39A for the first time since the final space shuttle mission in 2011.

The company plans to increase its launches in 2018 by 50 percent. Also on the manifest for this year is a Falcon Heavy launches and two commercial crew flight tests with Dragon 2 spacecraft to the space station.

Blue Origin Returns to Flight

Mannequin Skywalker — an instrumented test dummy — flew aboard the New Shepard capsule. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin returned to flight with an upgraded version of the New Shepard suborbital system in December after a 14-month gap. The capsule contained a dozen experiments and an instrumented test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker. It was the first commercial flight of the system under a FAA launch license.

The company also tested its BE-4 engine for its New Glenn booster and neared completion of its rocket factory on Florida’s Space Coast.

Smallsat Launchers Debut

Electron lifts off on maiden flight from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Four boosters aimed at the small satellite market debuted last year, two successfully and two not.

China’s Kuaizhou 1A (KZ-1A) rocket made a successful maiden flight in January. The launcher, an upgraded version of the Kauizhou 1 rocket, is capable of lifting payloads weighing up to 300 kg (661 lbs) into low Earth orbit (LEO).

China’s Kaituozhe-2 (KT-2) rocket successfully launched a payload for the first time in March. The booster is capable of launching a 350-kg (772-lb) payload to LEO or a 250-kg (551-lb) payload to a 700-km (435-mile) sun synchronous orbit (SSO).

In January, a Japanese attempt to launch the SS-520 microsat rocket ended in failure. The booster is an upgraded sounding rocket capable of lifting about 140 kg (309 lb) to an altitude of about 800 km (497 miles). Another attempt is expected in early 2018.

Rocket Lab conducted the first flight test of its new Electron booster in May. he rocket reached space but failed to place its inert payload into orbit in the first ever orbital launch from New Zealand. A second flight test was successful on Jan. 21, 2018.

Electron is capable of lifting payloads weighing up to 225 kg (~500 lb) to a 500-km (311-mile) SSO.

Year of the NanoSats

CubeSats STMSat-1, CADRE and MinXSS are deployed from the International Space Station during Expedition 47. (Credit: NASA)

A record total of 295 nanosats were launched in 2017, including 287 CubeSats, according to the Nanosat Database. The total was more than the previous two years combined. Planet led the way with 104 satellites, followed by Spire with 46 and the QB 50 project with 36.

In February, an Indian PSLV booster lofted a record 104 satellites into orbit. The CartoSat 2D remote sensing satellite was accompanied by 103 secondary payloads from India and foreign customers, including 96 spacecraft from the United States.

Planet completed what the company calls Mission 1, which was to launch a sufficient number of satellites to image the entire Earth once per day. Approximately 160 satellites are returning 1.4 million images per day at a resolution of 29 megapixels.

Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl air launch 747 (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Galactic’s project to launch satellites from a modified Boeing 747 using the LauncherOne became a separate company named Virgin Orbit. The new company debuted a modified 747 named Cosmic Girl. Virgin Orbit is planning the first flight test of LauncherOne later this year.

Human Space Exploration

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson set a new spaceflight record, China prepared for the launch of a permanent space station, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) named new astronaut candidates, Elon Musk unveiled  revised plans for sending humans to Mars, the Trump Administration’s focused on returning humans to the moon, and NASA went most of the year under a caretaker administrator.

Peggy Whitson Sets New Record

Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Whitson set a new American record for time spent in space of 665 days 22 hours 22 minutes when she returned from ISS on Sept. 3, 2017. It was also a new record for female astronauts. Whitson also previously served as the first female commander of the space station. She has launched twice on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and once on the space shuttle.

China Launches to Space Station

In April, China launched the Tianzhou-1 resupply ship to the unoccupied Tiangong-2 space station. The cargo ship carried out multiple dockings and refueling exercises with the space station. The mission helped to set the stage for the construction to begin construction of a permanent multi-module space station beginning in 2019.

New Astronaut Candidates Selected

NASA astronaut candidates of 2017. (Credit: NASA)

NASA announced the selection of seven men and five women as astronaut candidates in June. The group was culled from a total of 18,300 applicants. The candidates include Kayla Barron, Zena Cardman, Raja Chari, Matthew Dominick, Bob Mines, Warren Hoburg, Jonny Kim, Robb Kulin, Jasmin Moghbeli, Loral O’Hara, Frank Rubio and Jessica Watkins.

The following month, CSA announced the selection of two new astronauts, Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey, on Canada Day.

Mars Ho!

BFR servicing the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)

In September, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled a new version of his Mars transportation architecture at the International Astronautical Conference (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia.

Musk’s Big (Expletive Deleted) Rocket was smaller than the one he had unveiled at the IAC in Mexico a year earlier. But, Musk pitched it as being able to much more, including servicing lunar bases and the International Space Station and providing rapid point-to-point travel on Earth.

Musk also announced the cancellation of Red Dragon missions that were to have tested propulsive landing techniques on Mars. The first of those missions had been set to launch in 2018. The decision allows SpaceX to focus on BFR.

Back to the Moon

President Donald Trump signs an executive order reviving the National Space Council. (Credit: The White House)

In December, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD-1) to refocus NASA on returning astronauts to the moon and eventually sending them off to Mars. Details of exactly how to achieve that goal are likely to emerge next month when the Administration releases its FY 2019 budget proposal.

The Trump Administration also revived the National Space Council after a 24-year absence to better coordinate space activities across the government. Vice President Mike Pence is head of the revived NSC with Scott Pace serving as executive director.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine

NASA Leadership Vacuum

The Trump Administration nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to serve as NASA administrator in September.

Bridenstine had a rough confirmation hearing, with questions being raised about his positions on global warming research, social issues and the wisdom of putting a politician in charge of an agency that enjoys broad bipartisan support.

Bridenstine’s confirmation vote in the closely and bitterly divided Senate could be very close.

Space Science

The venerable Cassini mission came to an end, a total eclipse of the sun occurred over North America, scientists discovered many exoplanets as well as an oddly shaped exo-solar visitor, and a trio of historic spacecraft marked significant anniversaries.

Cassini Takes a Final Bow

NASA-ESA Cassini Huygens Mission

The world bid a sad farewell to the Cassini spacecraft in September. Launched in 1997, the spacecraft revolutionized our understanding of Saturn as it orbited the planet for 13 years.

A key highlight of the mission was the delivery of ESA’s Huygens probe, which in 2005 became the first spacecraft to land on the surface of Saturn’s cloud-shrouded moon, Titan.

With Cassini running out of fuel, controllers directed it to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere rather than risking it crashing into and contaminating one of the planet’s moons.

Exoplanets Discovered

Seven Earth-sized planets have been observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope around a tiny, nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of these planets are firmly in the habitable zone. (Credits: NASA)

It was a great year for finding planets orbiting distant stars. In February, NASA announced that its Spitzer Space Telescope had revealed the first known systems of seven Earth-size planets orbiting around the nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of the planets are located in the habitable zone.

Other teams around the world found planets of various sizes orbiting other stars.

Interstellar Visitor Spotted

Artist’s concept of interstellar asteroid 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) as it passed through the solar system after its discovery in October 2017. The aspect ratio of up to 10:1 is unlike that of any object seen in our own solar system. (Credit: European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser)

In October, astronomer Robert Weryk discovered the first known interstellar object to pass through our Solar System using the Pan-STARRS telescope at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii.

Known as 1I/2017 U1 (`Oumuamua), the extra-solar visitor measures an estimated 230 by 35 meters (755 ft × 115 ft)  and spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. The discovery led some people to speculate the object is an artificial one constructed by an alien civilization.

Space Anniversaries

The Space Age turned 60 on Oct. 4 as the world marked the anniversary of the launching of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union.

The American Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft marked their 40th anniversaries in space in August and September. Both spacecraft continue to function and send back data. Voyager 1 fired backup thrusters in late November for the first time in 37 years.

Total Solar Eclipse

Total solar eclipse photographed from NASA Armstrong’s Gulfstream III. (Credit: (NASA/Carla Thomas)

On Aug. 21, the heavens treated North America to a total eclipse of the sun. Millions of people went outside wearing protective eye gear to view the rare event.

Development Milestones

Dream Chaser glided and landed safely, DARPA awarded a contract for XS-1, Stratolaunch began taxi tests, Made in Space launched a space manufacturing experiment, and Virgin Galactic continued test flights of SpaceShipTwo.

Dream Chaser Flight

Dream Chaser lands (Credit: NASA)

Sierra Nevada conducted a successful glide flight of its Dream Chaser space shuttle in November at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It was the first flight of the vehicle since it crashed on the same runway in 2013 when part of its landing gear failed to deploy.

Sierra Nevada is developing the vehicle to deliver cargo to the space station under a contract with NASA.

XS-1 Contract Awarded

In May, DARPA selected Boeing to build and fly the XS-1 reusable experimental space plane, with Aerojet Rocketdyne providing propulsion. The vehicle is designed to provide short-notice, low-cost access to space.

Stratolaunch Begins Taxi Tests

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The company rolled out the world’s largest airplane by wingspan (385 feet or 117.3 meters) and took it on taxi tests at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The aircraft will air launch satellites into orbit.

Made in Space Launches Fiber Optics Facility

The California company launched a 3D printer designed to produce extremely high-quality optical fiber to the ISS aboard a Dragon resupply ship in December. The machine is designed to produce at least 100 meters (328 ft) of the optical fiber known as ZBLAN for analysis back on the ground.

The manufactured material was returned on the same Dragon spacecraft in January. If the results are acceptable, the company plans to produce ZBLAN in larger quantities in space for sale on Earth.

Virgin Galactic Progresses

SpaceShipTwo glides over the Mojave Desert after being released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic continued glide flights of its second SpaceShipTwo, Unity, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. An additional glide flight was performed in early January that is expected to be the final one before powered tests begin.

Investment & Entrepreneurial Developments

It was a record year for equity investment in the space industry. The Virgin Group signed a big deal, Northrop Grumman announced plans to acquire Orbital ATK, and XCOR and Orbital Outfitters ended up out of business.

Investment Hits Record High

Space Angels report that commercial space crossed another inflection point in 2017, with a record total $3.9 billion of non-governmental, equity investment flowing into 303 companies. The launchers and landers segment accounted for 72 percent of the capital investment last year, overtaking the satellite sector.

More than 120 venture capital firms made investments in the industry, accounting for more than 40 percent of the total investment for 2017. That figure was an increase from 12 percent in 2016.

Saudi Arabia Investment Deal with Virgin Group

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

In October,  Richard Branson announced the Virgin Group had signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia for a $1 billion investment in the group’s three space companies – Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — with an option for $480 million more. In exchange, the Virgin Group has agreed to invest in a new Saudi mega-city called Neom and other projects in the kingdom.

Northrop Grumman Acquires Orbital ATK

Northrop Grumman announced in September that it would acquire Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion. The deal is expected to close in the first half of this year.

XCOR Aerospace Folds

XCOR’s senior test pilot Brian Binnie and senior engineer Erik Anderson performing a Lynx mission in the Simulator. (Credit: XCOR)

Struggling XCOR filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November. XCOR had stopped work on its two-person Lynx suborbital vehicle in 2016. The fatal blow came after United Launch Alliance (ULA) ended an engine contract with the company in the spring of 2017.

XCOR’s failure is a blow to the city of Midland, which provided a $10 million financial package for the company to move its headquarters to the west Texas city.

Orbital Outfitters

Midland also provided a financial package to Orbital Outfitters, a company that was building spacesuits for XCOR. That company is also out of business.

Departures

Astronaut Bruce McCandless II, STS-41B mission specialist, uses his hands to control his movement above the Earth – and just few meters away from the space shuttle Challenger – during the first-ever spacewalk which didn’t use restrictive tethers and umbilicals. Fellow crewmembers aboard the Challenger used a 70mm camera to expose this frame through windows on the flight deck. (Credits: NASA)

The world said goodbye to a number of prominent space explorers in 2017.

Eugene Cernan: The last man to step off the moon, Cernan walked in space on Gemini 9, orbited the moon on Apollo 10, and commanded the final lunar mission, Apollo 17, in December 1972.

Richard Gordon: The astronaut walked in space on Gemini 11 and orbited the moon as command module pilot on Apollo 12.

Paul Weitz:  He spent a  then-record 28 days in space with Pete Conrad and Joseph Kerwin as the first crew to occupy the Skylab space station in 1973.

Bruce McCandless II:  The two-time space veteran became the first human satellite when he tested the Manned Maneuvering Unit during the STS-41B mission in February 1984. McCandless also flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery on the STS-31 mission, which deployed the Hubble Space Telescope in April 1990.

Viktor Gorbatko: The Soviet cosmonaut flew the Soyuz 7 mission, which was a joint flight with Soyuz 6 and Soyuz 8. Gorbatko also flew to the Salyut 5 space station aboard Soyuz 24 and the Salyut 6 space station aboard Soyuz 37. He spent a total of 30 days in space.

Georgy Grechko: The three-time space veteran spent nearly 135 days in space on missions to three different space stations. Grechko flew to Salyut 4 on Soyuz 17, Salyut 6 on Soyuz 26, and Salyut 7 on Soyuz T-14. He was one of the cosmonauts selected to train for lunar missions that were never flown.

Igor Volk: He flew to Salyut 7 on Soyuz T-12 and also trained to fly Buran, the Soviet space shuttle that made a single automated flight before being mothballed.