2017 was a fantastic year for aerospace, with the United States topping the world in rocket launches for the first time since 2003, new launch vehicles, new test flights, and one absolutely ridiculous aircraft. Spaceflight and aviation companies are set to outdo themselves in 2018, though. Here are the launches, first flights, flybys, and milestones coming in 2018.
SpaceX Falcon Heavy
To start the year, likely launching in late January or early February, is the debut of the much-anticipated Falcon Heavy. SpaceX launched 18 orbital flights in 2017, 10 more commercial missions than it completed in 2016. A successful Falcon Heavy launch would give SpaceX the most powerful rocket in service across the world and the ability to start launching missions beyond Earth orbit.
If everything goes off without a hitch, the most exciting part of the test launch should be the simultaneous landings of the two side boosters on land, followed by the landing of the center core on a drone ship at sea. Of course, Elon Musk has added his own personal flair to the test mission by making his Tesla Roadster the payload, bound for Mars orbit playing David Bowie's "Space Oddity" on the stereo.
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite
The James Webb Space Telescope launch may have slipped from 2018 to 2019, but NASA is poised to send another telescope into space in March 2018: the , or TESS. Led by MIT, TESS will serve as a successor to Kepler, a space telescope that has found orbiting other stars. The telescope will look for a periodic dimming of a star's light to locate planets passing in front. TESS will specifically focus on small terrestrial planets, like Earth, orbiting nearby bright stars, as they will be the planets best suited for follow-up observations. TESS will survey an area of sky 400 times larger than Kepler, and will find the nearby Earth-sized planets for future telescopes like James Webb and large ground-based observatories to search for signs of habitability.
NASA's newest X-plane is due to fly in its Mod II form in winter or spring of 2018. The all-electric X-57 Maxwell is a modified that will have its turboprops replaced with electric motors and an 850-pound battery pack. Future modifications of the X-57 will replace the current wing with a narrow composite wing and move the primary motors out to the wingtips.
As a final step, NASA plans to add 12 high-lift motors to the wing. These small electric props will accelerate air over the wing for increased lift on takeoff and landing, then fold out of the way during cruise. In the future, the X-57 could be modified as a hydrogen fuel cell aircraft or electric hybrid, testing new approaches to the longtime challenge of achieving electric flight.
Google Lunar X-Prize
The deadline for Google's Lunar X-Prize, with a total of $30 million in prize money to be awarded to the first teams to land private spacecraft on the moon, is now March 31. The deadline has been pushed back multiple times to give teams more times to complete their spacecraft.
Five teams currently have launch contracts for missions to the moon: California-based Moon Express, which plans to launch the MX-1E lander on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket; Israeli team SpaceIL, which has booked a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9; international team Synergy Moon, which hopes to launch on a NEPTUNE rocket from Interorbital Systems, currently under development; and Team Indus from India and Hakuto from Japan, which plan to share a ride to the moon on an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, India's flagship rocket. The teams might not make the March 31 deadline and it could be pushed back yet again, but 2018 looks like it might be the year we finally see a private mission to the moon.
Air Force T-X Trainer
The U.S. Air Force originally intended to select a winning design in 2017 for a new trainer plane to replace the Northrop T-38 Talon, a jet that fighter pilots have been training in for almost 60 years. The service is now expected to .
Boeing, partnered with Saab AG, and Lockheed Martin, working with Korean Aerospace Industries, are the assumed frontrunners of the race. Boeing is offering a clean-sheet design while Lockheed is putting forth a modified version of the used by South Korean and other air forces.
However, the U.S. subsidiary of Italian company Leonardo could steal the show with its twin-engine jet. A new company, Stavatti Aerospace, also has an outside chance of winning, as well as Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is working with Turkish Aerospace Industries, though Sierra Nevada has not formally confirmed or denied that it is part of the competition.
Hayabusa-2 Asteroid Sample Return
NASA is going for its first asteroid sample-return mission later this year, but the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) beat them to it for the first time in 2010. Japan's space agency is now prepared to carry out its second asteroid sample-return mission, Hayabusa-2. The spacecraft launched in December 2014 and is scheduled to arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu in July 2018.
Hayabusa-2 will drop a 5.5-lb. copper projectile containing a 10-lb. explosive to crater the surface of the asteroid. The low gravity will allow Hayabusa-2 to drop the charge and then fly around to the the other side of the asteroid before it detonates. The craft will then study the crater and collect freshly exposed material before it returns a sample to Earth in 2020.
Parker Solar Probe
NASA plans to launch the Parker Solar Probe in July 2018. Built by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), the spacecraft will fly into the outer corona, the atmosphere of the sun. The craft will measure properties such as magnetic field behaviors, solar winds, and the flow of energetic particles to better understand solar weather. NASA hopes to eventually learn enough about the sun's behavior to predict solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can send high-energy particles hurling toward Earth, potentially knocking out satellites and power grids.
The Parker Solar Probe will conduct multiple flybys of Venus as it makes its way out to the sun, and is scheduled to make its first close approach to our star in 2024. The spacecraft will become the fastest object ever built by humans as it hurls around the sun at speeds approaching 200 km/sec.
OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return
NASA's first asteroid sample-return mission is slated to arrive at the asteroid 101955 Bennu on August 17, concluding a journey that began nearly two years earlier at its September 2016 launch. The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, will orbit Bennu to scout a location to collect a sample. The spacecraft will then fly in low and use its Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) to shoot a burst of nitrogen gas that will blow sample regolith material up into a collection vessel on a robotic arm. The sample will then be returned to Earth, scheduled to arrive in September 2023. NASA hopes to use the sample to study the formation of the solar system and the distribution of organic chemicals that could have brought life to Earth.
BepiColombo Mission to Mercury
The European Space Agency (ESA) and JAXA have partnered on a mission to Mercury called BepiColombo, which would be only the third spacecraft to fly to the closest planet to the sun. The mission includes two orbiters that will launch together in October 2018, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). They should arrive at the planet in December 2025, when they will separate. The ESA's MPO will swing in for a close orbit to study the surface and interior while JAXA's MMO flies into a wider orbit to study the planet's magnetic field. The mission will explore how Mercury formed and will measure the planet's orbit with great accuracy to provide additional evidence of Einstein's theory of relativity.
Commercial Flights to the ISS
This could be the year that U.S. astronauts fly to the International Space Station on either the Dragon 2 from SpaceX or the CST-100 Starliner built by Boeing. The shows SpaceX conducting a test flight in April and its first crewed flight in August, and Boeing launching its first test flight in August and its first crewed flight in November. There is a good chance that SpaceX and Boeing will need more time to complete and certify their spacecraft, and SpaceX is also planning on using a new model of the Falcon 9 rocket for crewed flights, Block 5, that is still in development. NASA has yet to announce the first flight crews for the launches, which would be a solid indication that the program is progressing on schedule.
While SpaceX and Boeing might not actually launch people before year's end, there is a good chance they will conduct the first unmanned test flights of the Dragon 2 and the Starliner before the end of the year, setting them up for the first crewed flights in 2019.
InSight Mars Lander
NASA plans to launch a Mars lander in May for a November 26 landing on the red planet. InSight would be the eighth spacecraft from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to land on Mars (it is the only institution in the world that has ever pulled off a Mars landing).
Designed to study the interior of Mars, InSight, the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will carry a seismometer and a heat transfer probe. The heat probe will be attached to a self-hammering mechanism to burrow 5 meters below the surface. New data about energy transfer between Mars' core, mantle, and crust will help NASA learn about the formation of the rocky planets.
Boom and Spike Commercial Supersonic Jets
Two commercial aerospace companies hope to fly scaled demonstrators of their supersonic jet designs this year. Boom Technology, formerly Boom Supersonic, is working on the XB-1 "Baby Boom," a one-third scale, two-seat demonstrator of its 55-seat commercial supersonic passenger jet design. Both the demonstrator and the full-size aircraft will use a tri-jet configuration and composite materials.
Another company, Spike Aerospace, is working on a supersonic business jet, and also hopes to fly a scaled demonstrator in 2018. The first demonstrator flights for these two companies could easily slip to 2019 or later, as both have been pretty quiet about the progress of their aircraft. Subsonic flights will precede supersonic tests, and even if they don't fly this year, we could get our first glimpses of the demonstrator jets.
Chang'e 4 Mission to the Far Side of the Moon
China's space program has been advancing at a rapid pace, with multiple space stations and missions to the moon launched in the past decade. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) successfully landed Chang'e 3 on the surface of the moon in December 2013, and the lander then deployed a small rover called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit.
Chang'e 4 will be a similar mission, but to the far side of the moon—the first mission to ever visit the distant half of our natural satellite. To communicate with Earth from the far side of the moon, China will first need to launch an orbiter that can serve as a telecommunications relay. That part of the mission is slated for launch in June while the lander and rover will follow late in the year. The mission will study the moon's South Pole-Aitken Basin, an area of significant interest considering scientists believe the crater formed around the same time life appeared on Earth.
Paul Allen's Stratolaunch carrier aircraft looks like one of those photoshopped planes with too many engines, but the composite behemoth is real. Built for Stratolaunch Systems by Scaled Composites, the twin-fuselage, six-engine aircraft is designed to carry rockets up into the atmosphere and launch payloads to space from there.
Stratolaunch has been busy conducting engine tests and slow-speed runway tests as they confirm the performance of the giant airplane. A target date for first flight has not been announced, but high-speed runway tests are next on the to-do list, and we just might see this big bird fly in 2018.
Although New Horizons will not make its closest approach to its new target in the Kuiper Belt until January 1, 2019, the spacecraft will have given us a pretty decent look at MU69 before the year is out. Possibly an irregularly shaped object, possibly two objects, and possibly with at least one moon, MU69 is shaping up to be a fascinating encounter. Only 20 miles wide at most, MU69 will give us information about some of the most ancient material in the solar system, orbiting in the frigid realms beyond Neptune. After its flyby of Pluto in July 2015, New Horizons is ready for its encore on New Year's Day 2019.