[Updates: Jan 5 – 2015 add Venus Express.]
What are the important developments of space development and exploration to expect over the next few years?
The lists below are roughly divided into the expected and the possible/probable.
The expected events of 2015 and a few for 2016-2017 are presented in vaguely chronological order. Many of them are based on current missions which are close to completion.
A more open-ended set of lists are then provided for: spacecraft development, human space flight, launch vehicle development, and exploration mission concepts. It is impossible for these lists to be comprehensive; some of it is a matter of opinion as to importance. There is certainly a myriad of things that could be added, but the lists would then be of no use for focusing reader attention.
Furthermore, there are a lot of concepts that I would like to see pursued. In my opinion, many of them have considerable technical and economic merit. But they currently lack the critical mass of techincal and financial support to make them viable. As a result, I have not included them in the lists below. There are also a lot of good efforts which are operating “below the radar”. Depending on how they mature, they may show up on a future annual list.
- SpaceX mission CRS-5 to the ISS is currently planned for Jan 6. Following initial main engine cut-off of the first stage, the stage will maneuver itself to a controlled landing on a floating platform.
- The Deep Space Climate Observer (DSCOVR) will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 NET (no earlier than) Jan 29.
- The ESA Venus Express is expected to fall into the Venusian atmosphere in January or February after 8 years of science data.
- The Dawn spacecraft will arrive at asteroid Ceres on Mar 6, after a voyage from Vesta, which it visited from Jul 2011 to Sep 2012.
- The Messenger spacecraft, has been in space for over 10 years, and conducted three flybys of Mercury before entering into orbit around it in March 2011. With its maneuvering propellant nearly exhausted, it is expected to impact the planet’s surface in March 2015.
- As comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko rounds the Sun this spring, there are hopes that the Philae lander’s solar panels will re-charge, and bring it back to life.
- LightSail-A, a test version of LightSail-1, is expected to launch in May 2015 as a NASA ELaNa CubeSat payload on an Atlas V. The spacecraft is built by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and funded by the Planetary Society.
- Scott Kelly will spend a year on the International Space Station starting in Spring 2015 while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly remains on Earth. The pair gives scientists the opportunity to evaluate the effects of extended microgravity and space flight on the human body.
- New Horizons is expected to perform a flyby of Pluto and its moons on Jul 14, 2015. Following the flyby, it will be on its way to other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs); a few candidate KBOs have been identified.
- The Cygnus missions to the ISS in 2015 will be launched on a ULA Atlas V, while Orbital Science re-outfits its Antares rocket with a new engine.
- A Falcon Heavy may see a demo flight in 2015. (See more under “Launch Vehicle Development.”)
- Cassini is almost out of maneuvering propellant. It has been in space since October 1997, and arrived at Saturn on Jun 30, 2004. In Jan 2005, it dropped the Huygens lander onto the surface of Titan. Cassini will start its Grand Finale in late 2016, with several orbits between the planet and the innermost ring; in Sep 2017, it will dive into the planet’s atmosphere, probing the last secrets that the gas giant can offer it.
- The Google Lunar XPRIZE plans to award $30 million in prizes for private teams that manage to land a robotic probe on the Moon and perform a series of specified tasks. The deadline was the end of calendar year 2015. On Dec 16, the XPRIZE organization extended the deadline to the end of 2016.
- A massive satellite constellation is being planned by WorldVu, a company with ties to either Google or SpaceX. (It seems to be in transition between the two.) In November, it asked manufactures to bid on 640 satellites of 125 kg each. The targeted use is global Internet coverage.
- In pursuing its model of “agile aerospace”, Planet Labs will launch more flocks of Dove spacecraft, rapidly evolving the design to improved capabilities. Several were lost on the Antares launch failure in Oct 2014; however, Planet Labs has been able to rapidly fabricate additional spacecraft for an alternate launch.
- Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are both working on spacecraft designs to scout near Earth asteroids, and eventually mine them. A Planetary Resources Arkyd spacecraft was manifested on the failed Antares launch in Oct 2014.
Human space flight
- Contracts for the NASA Commercial Crew program were awarded to SpaceX and Boeing on Sep 16, 2014; both were capsule designs. The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser was not selected; nevertheless, it has interest from U.S. private and European parties. The SpaceX design is its Dragon Version 2, unveiled on May 29, 2014, and is based on experience with the first Dragon design. The Boeing CST-100 is being developed in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace.
- The Mars One candidate pool has been reduced to 663, down from 1,058 at the beginning of 2014, and from 202,586 when the program first opened. A final round in 2015 is expected to select six teams of four people each. These teams will then spend a few months a year training together. Mars One currently has a Mars lander mission planned for 2018. In Dec 2014, ten university payloads for selected for the lander.
Launch vehicle development
- Orbital Sciences will replace Antares rocket’s Aerojet AJ-26 engines (which are refubished Soviet NK-33 engines) with more powerful Russian Energomash RD-181 engines.
- Falcon Heavy is essentially a Falcon 9 core vehicle with a couple of Falcon 9 first stages strapped to its sides. In doing this design, SpaceX has dramatically reduced the amount of launch vehicle development needed to bring it to launch. Whereas Falcon 9 can lift 13 metric tons to low Earth orbit, Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 53. A demo launch is expected sometime in 2015.
- Firefly Space Systems, a launch start-up based on Texas, hopes to lift payloads up to 400 kg on its Alpha rocket in 2017.
- The Blue Origin BE-4, a LOX/liquified natural gas (LNG) rocket engine still under development, has been selected to succeed the current RD-180 LOX/kerosene engines used on the ULA Atlas V.
- Ariane 6 is expected to be a smaller rocket than Ariane 5, but more efficient and less costly to operate. It is now under pressure to streamline its development and manufacturing even further so that it can compete with SpaceX. The design is being done by a newly formed joint venture of Airbus and Safran, which develops solid rocket motors for Ariane.
- Stratolaunch Systems, which is building the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, expects it can air-launch its three-stage rocket in 2018.
- The British company Reaction Engines Ltd has been developing its SABRE engine technology, to be integrated into its Skylon single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, with possible visits to the ISS by 2022.
Exploration mission concepts
- NASA is interested in a Europa mission. It wants to select instruments in April 2015, for development by 2016. Meanwhile, the mission needs to pass Congressional funding hurdles.
- The Asteroid Redirect Mission is the NASA mission of record to redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the Moon, where humans will study it, and return samples. The mission is targeted for the 2020s. NASA is using it as a means to develop new technologies and gain spaceflight experience so that it can send humans to Mars in the 2030s.