Missions

The biggest rocket launches and space missions we’re looking forward to in 2018

 

Next year is already overflowing with exciting missions to space. NASA is launching a new lander to Mars, as well as a spacecraft that will get closer to the Sun than ever before. And two of NASA’s vehicles already in space will finally arrive at their intended targets: one will rendezvous with a nearby asteroid, while another will pass by a distant space rock billions of miles from Earth.

But it’s not just NASA that has a busy year ahead; the commercial space industry has a number of significant test flights planned, and the launch of one of the world’s most anticipated rockets, the Falcon Heavy, is slated for early 2018. And if all goes well, people may finally ride to space on private vehicles.

Here are all the missions and tests we’re looking forward to in 2018 and when you can expect to see them take off.

JANUARY 2018: FALCON HEAVY LAUNCH

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first announced plans for the giant Falcon Heavy rocket in 2011 — a vehicle consisting of three reusable Falcon 9 rocket cores strapped together. Originally, the Falcon Heavy was due to launch in late 2013, but the vehicle’s inaugural flight has been consistently pushed back. In July, Musk admitted that engineering the rocket has been harder than expected.

Now, five years after the launch’s original target date, the Falcon Heavy’s flight seems imminent. Musk tweeted out pictures of the rocket almost fully assembled at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it’s due to start its maiden voyage. The payload for the mission — Musk’s red Tesla roadster — has been enclosed in the rocket’s nose cone. Now all that’s left is to test fire the rocket and then actually launch it. SpaceX claims all of this will happen in January. Whenever the vehicle does get off the ground, it’s guaranteed to be one of the most watched flights in years.

EARLY 2018: ROCKET LAB TEST LAUNCH

US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab is still testing out its experimental rocket, the Electron, designed to send small satellites into orbit. There was already one test flight in May, though the rocket didn’t achieve orbit. Rocket Lab intended to do a second test flight in December, but the weather and some technical snags prevented the launch. Now, the company plans to launch again in early 2018, and if the flight goes well, Rocket Lab may stop test flights and go straight to commercial missions.

Rocket Lab launches out of its own facility on a remote cliff in New Zealand. And the company plans to livestream this mission, too.

MARCH 31ST, 2018: DEADLINE FOR GOOGLE LUNAR X PRIZE COMPETITION

Finally, we’ll find out which of the five remaining teams in the Google Lunar X Prize will complete their mission to the Moon before March 31st, 2018, the competition’s deadline — and the answer may be none. To win, a robotic spacecraft must land and explore the Moon. The first team to reach the lunar surface and complete all of the contest’s requirements before the deadline will receive a grand prize purse of $20 million.

However, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone will even launch before the deadline. Four of the five finalist teams have yet to complete their landers, and two still aren’t fully funded. A fifth team — Hakuto from Japan — has completed its lunar rover, but the vehicle is meant to ride to the Moon on another team’s unfinished lander. It’s unlikely we’ll see any X Prize missions before the deadline at all.

MARCH 2018: TESS LAUNCH

NASA’s next exoplanet-hunting spacecraft, TESS, is going up this year. Like the space agency’s Kepler probe, TESS will look for planets as they pass in front of distant stars and slightly dim the stars’ light. But TESS will study stars throughout the entire night sky, expanding Kepler’s limited range. The plan is for TESS to find the closest rocky exoplanets to Earth, so that astronomers can figure out the types of atmospheres these worlds have and if they can potentially host life. TESS’s launch is currently planned for no earlier than March and no later than June on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

APRIL – NOVEMBER: COMMERCIAL CREW TEST FLIGHTS

This year could be the first test of two vehicles that are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the space agency’s initiative to launch astronauts on privately made spacecraft. Both SpaceX and Boeing have been developing capsules to carry passengers to the space station — the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively. SpaceX is scheduled to do an uncrewed test flight of the Dragon capsule in April, followed by the first crewed flight test in August. Boeing is targeting August for an uncrewed flight of the Starliner and a crewed flight for November.

These test flights were originally scheduled for 2017, though, and it’s possible that they’ll be delayed again. In fact, the Government Accountability Office thinks that astronauts probably won’t fly on SpaceX or Boeing vehicles until 2019. The target dates stand for now, and Musk says he is confident the company will fly people in 2018.

ALL YEAR: TESTING AT BLUE ORIGIN AND VIRGIN GALACTIC

Many other commercial space companies will likely do big test flights of their own in 2018, too. Just before the end of 2017, Blue Origin pulled off another launch and landing of its New Shepard — a rocket designed to take paying customers to space to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Testing should continue into the new year, and it’s possible test pilots will start flying on board the rocket in 2018.

Meanwhile, fellow space tourism company Virgin Galactic should soon begin powered test flights of its spaceplane, VSS Unity, which is also designed to give passengers a short weightless experience in space. The company has been taking it slow with this vehicle, though. Virgin Galactic’s last powered test with Unity’s predecessor, VSS Enterprise, ended in failure: a test pilot was killed and the spacecraft was destroyed. So the company has only done a few unpowered glide flights with Unity since the vehicle’s debut in 2016. But Virgin has been preparing to ignite the spaceplane’s engine, and this may be the year.

Virgin Galactic’s offshoot company, Virgin Orbit, also has big plans for the new year. The company has been developing a rocket launcher, which is designed to drop from the wing of an airplane, and then ignite — putting small satellites into orbit. The first test flight of the rocket could happen in early 2018, according to a vice president for Virgin Orbit.

MAY 5TH, 2018: LAUNCH OF NASA’S INSIGHT MARS LANDER

NASA’s InSight spacecraft is designed to land on the surface of Mars, where it will study the interior of the Red Planet and figure out how the world formed billions of years ago. The lander was originally supposed to launch in 2016, but the mission was delayed after a leak was spotted in one of the spacecraft’s instruments. Now the instrument, meant to analyze quakes on Mars, is fixed and the spacecraft is nearly ready for its trip. InSight’s launch on top of an Atlas V rocket is planned for sometime within a 30-day launch window that opens on May 5th. It should land on Mars around seven months later, on November 26th.

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