Spaceflight Insider

2016: The edge of tomorrow

Commercial_Crew_program logo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The coming year should be a busy year in terms of the normal flow of launches – as well as some key events that could revolutionize how space exploration is carried out. Image Credit: NASA

The year 2016 should be one of quiet change and renewal in terms of space exploration and innovation. Both of NASA’s core crewed efforts are poised to have critical milestones carried out before conducting test flights and lifting off in their envisioned configurations. The coming year should also see the usual itinerary of commercial and security payloads sent aloft. In short, the next 12 months will be busy ones for the space industry.

The normal manifest of launches of navigation, communications, and research satellites, as well as several cargo runs to the International Space Station (ISS), are slated to take place during that period. On top of that, there are several planned tests of systems that are planned for use to send crews to low-Earth orbit and beyond.

Commercial Space Rage

Commercial Crew Program Earth as seen from Internatioanl Space Station Photo Credit Scott Kelly NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Commercial efforts could see as many as five resupply runs to the International Space Station. The coming year should also see a number of milestones for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Image Credit: Scott Kelly / NASA

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX is planning on conducting its second flight from Space Launch Complex 4E located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Jason-3 mission will be launched on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This mission is slated to lift off on Jan. 17, but an even more important comeback is currently scheduled to take place a little less than a month after this mission is launched from the Western Range.

On Feb. 7, NASA and SpaceX are planning to send the first Dragon spacecraft to the ISS since the June 28, 2015, loss of the CRS-7 Dragon. SpaceX has already returned the Falcon 9 booster to service—suggesting the failed strut that was the likely cause of the accident has been correctly modified. The company founded by Elon Musk is not alone in terms of getting back to this particular business, however.

Orbital ATK’s upgraded “enhanced” Antares rocket is being prepped for a spring launch from Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The return-to-flight mission for the combined Antares and Cygnus stack is currently slated for May 5.

It is SpaceX, however, that has the greatest potential in terms of achieving the most in 2016. In terms of expanding the NewSpace company’s capabilities and offerings, late spring could be a pivotal period for the firm.

The Heavy version of the Falcon 9 rocket could launch as soon as May of this year, but it is likely to take flight later. When it does take to the skies, it will mean the weight range of payloads SpaceX is capable of lofting will increase considerably.

SpaceX Full Thrust Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 with the Orbcomm OG 2 mission Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

2016 could be a very important year for California-based SpaceX. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

It also will be the first time that SpaceX will launch from the pad at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. NASA leased the historic site over to SpaceX in April of 2014; this will be the first use of the pad at 39A since July of 2011 when the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on mission STS-135.

SpaceX is also planning on carrying out another critical milestone from 39A: an in-flight test of the crewed Dragon’s abort system.

NASA and SpaceX have already conducted a Pad Abort Test. The May 6 demonstration was one of the first visible signs of progress being made under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. This upcoming flight, however, will serve to validate the system with the rocket in flight (as opposed to a test taking place from the pad).

Both Boeing and SpaceX will have to meet key milestones in 2016 if their individual spacecraft, the Starliner and Dragon (respectively), are deemed ready to carry out test flights in 2017. NASA has selected four astronauts to carry out these flights and they are working to familiarize themselves with the spacecraft’s operating systems.

“We have been learning about the spacecraft displays through slideshows. It’s great to finally see what we are actually going to train on,” said NASA astronaut Eric Boe, one of the quartet selected to conduct the first commercially crewed flights to the ISS.

Boe’s comments came after having the opportunity to review the trainers for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

In short, the next twelve months should be a busy time for contractors working under NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Programs. While not all of these may be overtly visible, these efforts still are important in terms of the long-term goal of ceding management of sending cargo and supplies to the ISS to private firms.

NASA has been actively supporting commercial efforts for the better part of the past decade and public-private partnerships have become all the “rage” in the aerospace community.

Navigation and Communications

United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket Cape Canaveral Air FOrce Station Space Launch Complex 41 GPS IIF 11 photo credit Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

One of the first navigation satellites to be sent aloft in 2016 will be the final spacecraft of the Block IIF constellation – GPS IIF-12. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider (Archive Photo)

The coming year should also see an array of navigational spacecraft launched from points across the globe. The final Block IIF Global Positioning System satellite is currently set to be launched no earlier than Feb. 3. It, however, is far from alone in terms of navigation spacecraft that are poised to arc skyward in 2016.

Russia is looking to field the Kosmos M-51 (GLONASS) satellite this month, kicking off a potentially busy year for the newly-minted Roscosmos State Corporation.

Meanwhile, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning to send one of its own navigational satellites to orbit. Approved in May of 2006, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) is designed to be compatible with Europe’s Galileo and the United States’ Global Positioning Systems. When all is said-and-done, some seven satellites will make up the IRNSS. Each IRNSS spacecraft is equipped with navigation and CDMA payloads (as well as a laser retro-reflector). The IRNSS-1E spacecraft is scheduled for liftoff on Jan. 20 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre located in India.

While launch manifests alter throughout the course of any given year, it is likely that the greatest amount of missions will be launched in 2016 for communications purposes.

If the current 2016 launch manifest holds, the first of these satellites to be sent aloft will do so via a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral sometime this January. The SES-9 mission should provide communications services in Northeast Asia, South Asia, and Indonesia.

Ariane 5 ECA launch from Kourou, French Guiana photo credit Photo Service Optique Video CSG / ESA CNES / Arianespace

The Intelsat 29E satellite is scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, on Jan. 27. Photo Credit: Photo Service Optique Video CSG / ESA CNES / Arianespace

Later in the month, on Jan. 25, the Eutelsat 9B satellite should be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Proton-M rocket.

This should be followed by the flight of the Intelsat 29E satellite just two days later, on Jan. 27, from the SLA-3 launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, atop the powerful Ariane 5 rocket.

Eutelsat is working to have a second satellite, the 65 West A spacecraft, launched slightly more than a month after the 29E satellite is placed into orbit. That flight is currently scheduled for a late February liftoff.

The U.S. military will also be sending a communications payload into orbit when a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket launches the fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-5) narrowband tactical satellite to orbit. That mission is currently set to take to the skies in May. Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive officer, noted his company is set for a very busy year in 2016.

“I cannot wait for another spectacular year of launches with ULA,” Bruno told SpaceFlight Insider. “We are the nation’s premier launch service provider because of our focus on mission success, unmatched reliability, schedule certainty and cost reduction for our customers. We will maintain that focus as we continue to transform the space launch industry in 2016. These missions are so important for keeping our service members safe around the world, enhancing our GPS capabilities and enabling scientific research in space that will inspire the next generation of rocket scientists and astronauts.”

According to SpaceFlight Now, ULA currently has 15 launches scheduled to take place in 2016.

Points Beyond

NASA InSIght mission on the surface of Mars Image Credit NASA JPL

While NASA’s InSight mission will not be launching in 2016, several other exploratory missions will be. Image Credit: JPL / NASA

NASA and other space agencies will not be slowing their efforts to explore the Solar System and the universe in the coming year.

While NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport or “InSight” mission will not be launching in 2016, other probes are still slated to begin their missions this year.

One of the more interesting missions—NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission to the asteroid 101955 Bennu—is currently scheduled to launch in September. The spacecraft will not only travel to what was formerly known as 1999 RQ36, it will also collect a sample that will then be sent back to Earth. The U.S. space agency is not alone in efforts to explore the Solar System and the universe.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is planning on launching the X-ray astronomy satellite ASTRO-H from the Tanegashima Space Center on an H-IIA rocket on Feb. 12.

Meanwhile, after having NASA back out of its agreement to launch the mission, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission is getting closer to its March 14 launch date. The mission consists of a Trace Gas Orbiter plus an Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM). The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases.

What Goes Up…

Scott Kelly Mikhail Kornienko one year mission International Space Station NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left) and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (right) will be concluding their one year mission in March of this year. Photo Credit: Bill Stafford / NASA

Not every important aspect of space exploration is relegated to sending things into the sky; in fact, one of the biggest events of 2016 will involve something returning to Earth. As noted in a report appearing in the Los Angeles Times, in this case, it is more about who will be coming home than what.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, along with Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in their Soyuz spacecraft in March of 2015. They are scheduled to return to Earth in a similar spacecraft this March.

“Scott Kelly’s mission is critical to advancing the administration’s plan to send humans on a journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in March of 2015. “We’ll gain new, detailed insights on the ways long-duration spaceflight affects the human body.”

Their one-year mission was conducted to learn more about the effects of the microgravity on the human body during long-duration missions into deep space. It comes at a time when several members of the ISS project have stated that they are looking for an exit from their involvement with the outpost.

Turn the Page…

According to a recent report appearing on Space News, both France and Germany’s interest in the International Space Station appears to be waning and, in fact, other ISS partners (ESA and JAXA have both expressed increasing interest in deep space exploration initiatives) appear to be losing interest in the station with even NASA’s William Gerstenmaier stating the agency is planning an exit from the orbiting lab—parts of which have been circling some 260 miles overhead since 1998.

Astronaut at the International Space Station NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Recent and past reports from partners involved with the International Space Station program suggest that the partners involved with the effort may be losing interest in the station. Photo Credit: NASA

As was noted in a recent report on Popular Mechanics, Russia has made statements that it will work to finally achieve the goal of sending cosmonauts to the Moon (a locale that many space agencies except NASA appear to be targeting in the coming two decades). However, given the numerous failures encountered by the Russian Federal Space Agency in the past three years alone, and the fact that the organization has undergone a rather significant restructuring, the goal of sending crews to the Moon will likely remain out of their grasp for the foreseeable future.

As was reported on both Science Alert and The Space Reporter, Gerstenmaier stated on Dec. 11 of last year (2015) that NASA is working to get out of the ISS program “as quickly as we can”.

NASA has been granted $55 million to develop space habitats. The agency has been directed to send astronauts to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.

The U.S. space agency received a substantial boost in funding to help accomplish this and NASA appears to be rearranging what resources it has to help accomplish this. Part of that will likely be a tiered draw down from the ISS.

In the meantime, NASA and several of the Agency’s contractors will continue work to get the massive new super-heavy-lift rocket—the Space Launch System—ready for its maiden voyage.

NASA and Orbital ATK are planning to carry out the second Qualification Motor test from the company’s test site located in Promontory, Utah, this spring. This will be the final test of the five-segment booster’s design before the first planned test flight, Exploration Mission 1, currently scheduled for late 2018.

This comes at a time when the Chinese are ramping up their efforts on orbit. The coming year should see the flight of China’s Tiangong 2 space station. This, along with other missions planned by the emerging Chinese space program, should define 2016 as the starting point—the “edge” of when pivotal programs and efforts will either see their start or fail to gain the traction they need to survive.


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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