Things to come: 2016 and beyond

Below are lists of “important” trends and events that are expected for space development and exploration over the next few years.

  • The expected events of 2016 and a few years beyond are presented. Many of them are based on current missions which are close to completion.
  • A more open-ended set of major development efforts are then presented for: spacecraft, human space flight, launch vehicles and propulsion, and exploration mission concepts.

It is impossible for these lists to be comprehensive; some of it is a matter of opinion as to importance. A myriad of things could be added, but the lists would then be of no use for focusing reader attention. There are a lot of other concepts that I believe have considerable technical and economic merit. But they currently lack the critical mass of technical 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.

Upcoming calendar

These are events which are scheduled, funded, and thus have a fairly high level of probability of happening.

[Updates: Jan 3 – add ISS one-year mission to 2016.]


  • Jan 17 – Jason-3, a NOAA satellite to study the Earth’s oceans, is set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg AFB.
  • Jan – LISA Pathfinder, a technology demonstrator for gravitational wave detection, is expected to reach its destination, Sun-Earth L1.
  • Mar 14 – The ExoMars-1  spacecraft is expected to launch from Baikonur, and reach Mars in October. The spacecraft includes an orbiter looking for trace gases and lander demonstrating new entry, descent, and landing technology. ExoMars is a joint ESA/Roscosmos program. The prime contractor for the spacecraft is Thales Alenia Space Italia, but involves 134 companies from ESA countries.
  • Mar -Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will complete their one-year mission on the ISS and return to Earth.
  • Q2 – The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) is expected to launch to the ISS. Built by Made In Space, it was originally target for a Q4 launch on a Falcon 9, but preempted by the rocket’s return-to-flight activities.
  • Q2 – The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is expected to make its maiden flight. (Possibly Apr-May.)
  • Jul 4 – The NASA Juno spacecraft arrives at Jupiter. It will go into polar orbit, and study the planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields. As opposed to earlier missions to Jupiter, Juno uses solar arrays for power.
  • Oct – ExoMars-1 arrives at Mars.
  • Dec – OCO-3 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3) will be built from spare parts for the currently operating OCO-2, but will be installed on the Japanese module of the ISS.
  • 2016 – Irish technologists hope to launch Cumar (Irish word for “confluence”).  It would be the first Irish space mission.
  • 2016 – The Antares launch vehicle is expected to return to flight. Built by Orbital-ATK, it will use Energomash RD-181 engines rather than the original Aerojet AJ26 (Kuznetsov NK33) engines.


  • Sep 15 – Cassini will complete its mission by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere.
  • 2017 – The ISRO Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission is expected to launch.
  • 2017 – GLXP team Moon Express will use an Electron rocket, developed by Rocket Lab USA, for its bid to land its MX-1E lander on the Moon in 2017.
  • 2017 – GLXP team SpaceIL will launch it lunar lander on a Falcon 9.


  • Jul 30 – NASA’s Solar Probe Plus spacecraft will launch. It will fly into the Sun’s corona, as close as 95 solar radii.
  • Sep 30 – Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) is the first planned flight of the Space Launch System (SLS). It will carry an uncrewed Orion on a circumlunar seven-day flight.
  • Oct – Solar Orbiter will launch, and investigate now the Sun creates and controls its heliosphere, getting as close as 0.28 AU.
  • 2018 – ESA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on an Ariane 5. A joint NASA/ESA/CSA project (C for Canadian), it will be located near Sun-Earth L2, 1.5 million km behind the Earth. It utilizes a sunshield to keep the temperature below 50 K, thus enhancing infrared observations.
  • 2018 – ExoMars-2 rover mission is launched to Mars, carrying an autonomous rover. It uses the orbiter from the ExoMars-1 2016 mission as its data relay.
  • 2018 – The InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission should be ready to launch to study the deep interior of Mars. It was originally scheduled for March 2016, but has delayed the launch due to a leak in a primary instrument.


  • Jan – New Horizons will arrive at 2014 MU69.
  • 2019 – The ULA Vulcan launch vehicle should make its maiden flight.


  • 2020 – The Mars 2020 mission, using the same chassis as Curiosity, is expected to launch. Among the planned components is a sample return element.
  • 2020 – Ariane 6 should make its first flight.


  • 2022 – The Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission (formerly Europa Clipper) mission is expected to launch.

In development

Some projects/efforts have significant popular or political backing, or committed funding; but development projects rarely proceed on the schedule adopted at project kick-off. Nevertheless, this is where the next set of technology and missions come from.


  • Internet satellite constellations: More than half the world’s population does not have Internet access.  A couple of competing efforts are planning constellations for global coverage. OneWeb, which has investments from Virgin Group and Qualcomm, expects to put up 700 satellites. SpaceX, with investments form Google and Fidelity, expects to put up 4000.
  • Skybox Imaging, now owned by Google, has launched Skysat-1 and SkySat-2. It has contracted to SSL to build a constellation of satellites for them.
  • Planet Labs continues to build, launch, and deploy its Dove CubeSats. It now has over 100 in orbit.

Human space flight

  • NASA is accepting new applications for astronauts between Dec 14, 2015, and Feb 18, 2016. Final selection will be announced in mid-2017. To apply, see the posting on USAJobs. In 2012, NASA received over 6,000 applications, from which 8 were chosen in 2013. (The usual application number is over 2,000.)
  • Anticipating a need for commercial astronauts on both orbital and suborbital vehicles, Astronauts4Hire now has about 170 members who pursue professional disciplines and build skills for vehicles and missions in development. [ A4H site ]

Launch vehicles and propulsion

Multiple classes of launch vehicles have come into demand.

  • The Space Launch System (SLS), which evolved in part out of the cancelled Ares vehicles, which in turn evolved Space Shuttle technology, occupies the heavy lift class of launch vehicles. The Block 1 and 2 configurations will carry 70 and 130 metric tons to LEO respectively.
  • SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which is expected to fly in Q2, will carry 54 metric tons. It is composed of a Falcon 9 core, and a couple of Falcon 9-derived strap-on boosters. The
  • Falcon 9 recently completed its first successful landing while delivering a payload to orbit. An expendable vehicle, the  F9 v1.1 can lift 13,150 kg to LEO. A reusable vehicle would carry less.
  • Orbital ATK Antares is expected to return to flight in 2016, with a LEO payload capacity of 6,120 kg (6.12 metric tons).
  • The ULA Vulcan rocket is the planned successor to the Atlas and Delta rockets.  Its features a pair of Blue Origin BE-4 engines, which should be recoverable, and a Centaur upper stage. A single core Vulcan would send 15.1 metric tons to GTO, and a triple core, 23.0 metric tones.
  • Ariane 6 is being designed to places satellites on GTO trajectories. Two configurations are proposed: Ariane 62 carrying 5,000 kg, and Ariane 64 carrying 11,000 kg. First flight is scheduled for 2020. A partially reusable version, utilizing the Adeline rocket, is being worked out, with possible first flight in 2025-2030.
  • Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS): To deal with the growing backlog and massive rise of interest in very small satellites such as CubeSats to LEO, in October 2015, NASA awarded VCLS contracts to three companies: Firefly Space Systems for their Alpha rocket, Rocket Lab USA for Electron, and Virgin Galactic for LauncherOne.
  • Stratolaunch Systems is building a large carrier vehicle out of two used 747-400 aircraft. It would air-launch a rocket capable of sending 6,100 kg to LEO. The rocket was to be built by SpaceX, later by Orbital ATK; it is currently undefined.

A couple of protoype systems for CubeSat high specific impulse propulsion have arisen in recent years, and bear watching.

  • Accion Systems, a spin-off of MIT, has developed an ionic electrospray liquid propulsion system.
  • Phase Four, a spin-off of U. Mich., has developed the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT) plasma engine.

Exploration mission concepts

  • Mars 2020 builds on vehicle technology proven by Curiosity, and address key questions about the potential for life on Mars.
  • Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission (formerly Europa Clipper) will orbit Jupiter, but make many flybys of Europa.
  • ARM (Asteroid Redirect Mission) will collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid, and redirect it to orbit around the Moon. In the mid-2020s, astronauts would visit it and return with samples.
  • Journey to Mars” is the name of a NASA vision and report for creating the building blocks that would lead to humans exploring Mars.

There and back again

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the SpaceX Falcon 9 return-to-flight and landing-on-land that happened on December 21.  But if not, here’s what you missed.

In general, SpaceX webcasts can be fairly educational. But here we’ve jumped immediately into the action. Here are some associated timestamps (mm:ss):

  • 22:00 – T minus 1 minute to launch
  • 30:20 – Coming up on first stage entry burn
  • 31:30 – Some cool math on return of the first stage, crowd at SpaceX starts to  go crazy
  • 32:45 – Landing happens, crowd is really crazy, with views of SpaceX mission control and Gwynne Shotwell (CEO) in the center

You can take your pick of watching a lighted ball descend on Times Square to mark the new year,  or a Falcon 9 first stage landing.

I was visiting a space start-up holiday party at Moffett Field, CA, when it happened. We made sure to project the launch and landing on the wall as we celebrated the holidays, solstice, etc. Nothing like being in a crowd of space entrepreneurs when you think history is being made.