The year 2018 saw some great moments in spaceflight, such as the dazzling launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket in February and the flight of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft to 82 km above the Earth’s surface. But in many ways 2018 was a development year for what could be some great spaceflight achievements in 2019.
So with the dawning of a new year, we look ahead to what may come in 2019 for those eagerly awaiting as government and private spaceflight push back toward the final frontier.
Start race on small Saturdays
Rocket Lab made huge strides in 2018 by launching its Electron booster three times, twice in the past two months. The company has targeted a dozen launches in 2019 with its rocket, optimized for boosting small satellites and CubeSats in low Earth orbit. Given last year’s progression, it’s hard to bet Rocket Lab will be at least close to that goal.
Rocket Lab’s success likely leaves room for maybe two more dedicated small satellite launch vehicles, and there are literally dozens of companies looking to acquire a slice of this commercial, civilian space, and national security market. One of the frontrunners heading into the new year is Virgin Orbit, which has conducted captive testing of its air-launched rocket; Vector launch; and Firefly, which aims to launch its first Alpha rocket before the end of 2019.
Seeing how these companies, and others operating in stealth mode, perform in 2019 will be one of the most compelling stories of the year. After years of development, it’s been a make-or-break year for much of the nascent small satellite launch industry.
This is likely to be the year NASA’s commercial crew program finally gets off the ground. Originally, the agency focused on launching private spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX to the International Space Station in 2015, but chronic underfunding by Congress hampered development. However, since 2017, the delays are the result of a combination of technical challenges, over-optimistic schedules and a somewhat cumbersome government review program.
However, the steady work of engineers at the companies and NASA seems to have passed the technical challenges and paperwork problems, and now we are getting closer to flight. SpaceX looks set to be the first, with the possible launch of a demonstration of its Dragon spacecraft later this month. If this test flight goes well, a launch with astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken could follow as early as July or August of this year.
Boeing is also approaching its test flight and is likely to launch a human crew later this year as well. As of July 2019, it will be eight years since the space shuttle retired. Since that time, NASA has relied on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft to get people into space, so launching people from Florida into orbit this year will be a big deal.
As mentioned above, Virgin Galactic reached space in December (although the definition of space varies). With this landmark flight, the company looks on track to begin flying customers sometime in 2019, making it the first company to offer suborbital space tourism rides to paying customers.
However, Virgin may soon be followed by Blue Origin later this year. The company has postponed an unmanned test flight from December to this month, but officials say it is still on track to fly “test passengers” in 2019, although it’s not clear when commercial flights will follow. Blue Origin’s launch system will carry passengers over 100km, so there won’t be any debate as to whether customers will “reach space”.
In any case, after more than a decade of promises, this is likely to be the year when space tourism really takes off.
The New Horizons mission sparked a New Year’s Eve with the successful flyby of Ultima Thule, a distant solar system object. This flyby will provide a wealth of data over the year about the mysterious peanut-shaped rock as it trickles back in from the spacecraft. This truly represents the exploration of an undiscovered land.
Meanwhile, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has also entered orbit around the Bennu asteroid, and it will fly a series of closer passes of the asteroid this year. Although the spacecraft won’t attempt to sample the asteroid’s surface until 2020, OSIRIS-REx will study the asteroid in great detail and map the topology of the space rock at a resolution greater than even Earth’s surface. Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft will also continue to study the asteroid Ryugu this year.
On Mars, NASA’s InSight lander has made steady progress since landing in November. Soon InSight will deploy its heat probe, and six days later, the lander will begin hammering its probe five meters below the surface of Mars. Finally, by March 2, all of the lander’s instruments will reach their scientific configurations, and we should be treated to some real Mars geology.
Closer to home, the Chinese Chang’e-4 spacecraft will attempt a landing on the far side of the moon very soon. This mission should provide scientists (as far as China releases data) their best ever window into the lunar surface at the relatively unexplored far side of the moon in 2019.
Over the Christmas and New Year holidays, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted out some details about the design of the Starship vehicle SpaceX is developing to fly atop its “Super Heavy” rocket. One of the details Musk shared is that the company has gone with stainless steel for its Starship vehicle because of its optimal strength-to-weight ratio.
Musk also said the company is pushing forward “hopper” test flights of the Starship vehicle, possibly to the second quarter of 2019. After some testing, Musk said he would reveal more technical details about the new vehicle.
Any test flight of Starship would be significant, as it appears that SpaceX will need to demonstrate some hardware before investors (and possibly government customers) step forward with the money needed to bring the Starship and its large rocket to completion. One of the big questions of 2019 is whether there will be additional customers for this ambitious spacecraft and launch system.