SpaceFlight 2015: What to expect in the coming year
The year 2015 is already starting off to a very busy start with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) successfully launching the first supply run to the International Space Station just this past week. The company also, unsuccessfully, attempted to land the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket’s first stage on a uncrewed ship 200 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. With Commercial Crew now in full swing we should expect to see more development in this area as the two companies involved in the effort work to return . Boeing and SpaceX engineers are hard at work on their current milestones.
As mentioned, SpaceX started the year off with a cargo flight to the ISS. This 5th operational cargo flight (and the sixth mission for one of the company’s Dragon spacecraft overall) included the first attempt to land the booster’s first stage on a barge at sea, however, according to SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, the booster encountered a “hard landing.” Imagery of this historic event has, as of yet, not been released. The flight was originally scheduled for late 2014 but launch was delayed due to problems uncovered during a static engine test.
SpaceX also has just completed the first milestone under the Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The milestone, a certification baseline review was completed in December of last year. The next milestone that SpaceX has on its place is the certification of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and the Dragon v2 spacecraft.
Boeing continues its efforts with the CST-100, their winning entry in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Designed to hold 7 astronauts, three structural test articles of the spacecraft are already under development at their processing facility, the former Orbiter Processing Facility 3 (OPF3) located at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Orbital Sciences Corporation has been forced to make some big changes in terms of their Antares booster, the rocket that the Dulles, Virginia-based firm uses to launch the Cygnus spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. After the catastrophic failure of an Antares rocket’s AJ-26 rocket engine (at present it is believed that the cause of the failure was a turbopump in one of the two engines that power the upper stage) the company was forced to accelerate plans already in motion to replace the antiquated engines.
Orbital had announced that they will no longer be using the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines, which were first brought into usage 40 years ago. Orbital announced that the AJ-26, previously known as the NK-33, would be replaced by the RD-181. Antares will be undergoing engine testing later this year in preparation for a return to flight status sometime in 2016. In the interim, the company has tapped United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V 401 rocket to launch a Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS, that mission is tentatively scheduled to take place at the close of 2015.
This year should see the return of test flights at Virgin Galactic. According to a report written by Space News’ Jeff Foust, the team at Scaled Composites is working on SpaceShipTwo, tail number 2 and should have construction completed this summer. The first tests of the new craft are likely to be captive carry as they slowly ramp back up after the loss of their first vehicle over Mojave last year.
While the company has remained pretty quiet about the actual roll out date, XCOR is expected to debut their new Lynx Mark I vehicle later this year. While actual flights might be a bit of a stretch, the vehicle will probably undergo a series of ground and taxi tests in preparation for flight.
Rocket Launches (2015 first quarter)
NASA once again has a rather full launch calendar this year. The first quarter will see the launch of two cargo runs (number 5 and 6) from SpaceX. Additionally, NASA has a set of satellites for Earth observations slated for deployment. Both of these will be launched on ULA rockets.
Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) – Jan 29, 2015
SMAP is an Earth satellite mission designed to measure and map Earth’s soil moisture and freeze/thaw state to better understand terrestrial water, carbon and energy cycles. It will launch on a Delta II 7320 from Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) – March 12, 2015
Launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. on an Atlas V 421 launch vehicle, the Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, mission will study the mystery of how magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect, explosively releasing energy via a process known a magnetic reconnection.
This could prove to be a very busy year in terms of spaceflight. United Launch Alliance alone has 13 missions planned to take place with SpaceX showing 17 launches on their manifest. These missions run the gamut from commercial resupply flights to the ISS, to classified payloads for the U.S. Department of Defense, to test flights of new boosters
Solar System Science
Last year was a bounty of information coming back from the various robotic craft we have scattered around the Solar system. 2015 promises to be a year of even more discoveries as more and more science data pours in.
The Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, is running strong and healthy despite wheel issues. Curiosity has measured a tenfold spike in methane while traversing the red planet. Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere. For two of those months, the readings averaged 7 parts per billion. Most other readings are at 1/10th that level. Curiosity is currently at the base of Mount Sharp.
Opportunity is getting brain surgery to fix an amnesia issue. The outcome could affect the mission. According to mission scientists, the rover is suffering from a fault in it’s flash memory storage. The plan is to rewrite Opportunity’s software to avoid using the damaged memory. Already well past the 90 day initial mission, if Opportunity cannot be repaired, it may be the end of the line for the plucky rover.
The Cassini mission is till going strong after more than 10 years of orbiting Saturn, Cassini-Huygens continues to relay information about, and images of, the Gas Giant and its moons. The probe will perform some intricate maneuvers in 2016 when it start to prepare for its fiery plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.
The MESSENGER mission winds down. All good things come to an end, and the MESSENGER probe is slated to conclude its mission with a final descent to the surface of Mercury in March, after more than 3 years on station. The probe recently observed that Mercury is hit by meteor showers very similar to what we experience here on Earth. MESSENGER found traces of the event as a surge of calcium that happens at regular intervals.
Voyager 2 is expected to follow its younger brother past the outer boundary of the Solar System. Voyagers 1 and 2, along with Pioneer 10, are the most distant man-made objects. While Pioneer 10 is no longer transmitting telemetry, both Voyager probes continue to send information back to Earth. Just like Voyager 1, the departure of Voyager 2 from the Solar system will be confirmed much later.
Another mission underway is Dawn. Currently en route to Ceres, the largest asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn will look at the chemical makeup of the small dwarf planet sized rock. Is there water present, frozen or otherwise? Dawn science equipment consists of a visible camera, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. Dawn can also use radiometric and optical navigation data to provide insights relating to the Ceres’ gravity field and internal structure.
The blockbuster event in the NASA probe lineup this summer will be the arrival of New Horizons probe at Pluto will be the biggest event this year. New Horizons was launched this month in 2006 from Cape Canaveral. It is expected to encounter Pluto on or about July 14. New Horizons was awakened late last year to begin system checkout in preparation for the big event. The probe includes sensor packages such as the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM).
In addition to the annual meteor showers and lunar events, a special treat is making itself visible for sky watchers everywhere. Peaking around Jan. 7, Comet Lovejoy can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night. Discovered by prolific amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy (he has found four other comets) this comet has surprised scientists with its brightness. Comet Lovejoy will be about 44 million miles (70 million km) from Earth at its closest point making the comet equivalent to a 4th magnatude star in brightness. You can find the comet by looking just to the right and down from the lower limb of Orion’s bow.
This article was written by SpaceFlight Insider contributors Joe Latrell and Steve Shurtleff
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own
rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space
endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.