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RUNNING A SPACE program ain’t easy. Spacefaring missions can take as long to plan and fund as they do to execute, so you’d better bet there’s some serious forethought going on. Which sounds like a headache for NASA, but for space fans, it’s actually good news. It means—surprises and mishaps aside—an attentive nerd can figure out what to expect from space science in 2017. And while healthy skepticism always leads to better science, we’re feeling optimistic about the year’s coming missions and discoveries. Here’s a breakdown of what we’re anticipating most:
Total Eclipse (Of Our Hearts)
For the first time since 1918, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the entire continental US. Norway had one last year and it was pretty dang stunning. But unless they’re being used to find new exoplanets, eclipses are more of a novelty than an avenue for new science. Still, a total eclipse is a relatively rare occurrence, and for once, nobody is going to tell you not to look. Even safety-conscious NASA says it’s okay to stare at a total eclipse, as long as you wait until the sun is totally shadowed. While the eclipse is still partial, remember: direct sunshine—like bad moonshine—can cause blindness.
NASA’s Space Launch System is the most powerful rocket in the world, the kind of rocket NASA needs to get to Mars, and it’s just about ready for liftoff—theoretically. The SLS is still deep in its testing stages, and those will continue right up to the rocket’s projected 2018 launch date, when it’s set to carry the Orion spacecraft on an unmanned mission.
In 2017, the rocket will enter its “Green Run” phase at NASA’s Stennis Space Center: a bunch of static booster-firing, resonance-checking test runs. Most of which SLS’s subsystems have endured in the past, but this is time there’s a 90-degree twist. The green run will be the first time the rocket engines are assembled with the core stage, and they’ll be vertical. (You can see what a horizontal booster test looks like here.) We’re still a year away from blast off, but at least this year SLS will be pointing in the right direction.
OSIRIS REx Next Steps
After billions of years of space rocks impacting and taking bites out of Earth, NASA wants to get a piece of an asteroid. So last year they launched OSIRIS REx, a spacecraft equipped not only to orbit the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu, but to take some samples back to Earth. It will be a long time until the mission pays off—the spacecraft isn’t due to touch back down to Earth until 2023. But in 2017, it will take a crucial intermediary step.
Since its launch in September 2016, the spacecraft has been cruising around the solar system, biding its time. But after a year of chilling in the icy void, OSIRIS REx will fly by Earth and slingshot using its gravity, increasing the craft’s orbital speed and tweaking its trajectory to line up with Bennu. The mission’s team has the benefit of learning from Rosetta—a masterclass in flying blind near a tiny, hurtling space rock and settling into a wonky orbit—but this calls for some Skywalker-level finesse.
Final Frontier Countdown
On deep space missions, navigating pirate-style—by the light of the stars alone—just isn’t good enough. And GPS doesn’t work once you get out beyond its satellites. So what’s a spacefaring navigator to do? In the past, they’ve had to rely on the Deep Space Network, a system of Earth-bound antenna arrays and an ultra-precise atomic clock. Thing is, space has gotten crowded, and not just with near-earth objects like comets and asteroids: The sheer number of missions is overloading the switchboard.
Enter the Deep Space Atomic Clock, scheduled to launch early next year. The fully autonomous mercury-ion atomic clock will revolutionize space navigation by making it function more like terrestrial navigation. So: improved accuracy, and cutting down on those pesky communications lag times. Call us nerds, but our anticipation of this clock’s launch is really making time fly.
Taikonauts Are Go
Between GPS-like BeiDou nearing completion, some fancy and powerful new rockets, and a successful 30-day manned mission, China’s space program has gone from upstart to obvious rising power in the last year. And it shows no signs of slowing down in 2017. In April, the country will launch the Tianzhou 1 unmanned cargo craft to dock with their Tiangong-2 space laboratory. This is basically their first resupply mission to their prototype space station. Which, if they’re successful, could go a long way toward making a permanent Chinese orbital space station viable—especially important because the ISS is due to be retired in 2024.
And that’s not even 2017’s big Chinese spaceflight news. At some point in the second half of the year (exact date TBD), China is scheduled to launch its Chang’e 5 robotic sample return mission. If everything goes according to plan, the spacecraft will land on the near side of the moon, collect some samples, and return them to Earth. Have other spacefaring nations done this? Sure. But this is all part of the Chinese space program’s plan to show the world its moon boots are just as big as anyone else’s. And considering that nobody else can get to the moon right now, it’s a non-trivial demonstration of that power.
Beyond the Rings of Saturn
Nothing stirs a space nerd’s soul like new, unexplored horizons, or crash landings. NASA’s Cassini mission will deliver on both. The Cassini space probe has been exploring Saturn for 13 years, hanging out with Saturn’s moon Enceladus and its geysers. In November 2016, the probe went into the penultimate phase of its life: the ring-grazing orbits, designed to sample the particles that make up Saturn’s famous rings. This April, Cassini will descend even closer to the planet’s surface, and into a stratum that no craft has ever explored before: the space between Saturn and its rings. From there, the probe will descend until it makes destructive impact with the planet’s surface. NASA has promised it will be snapping pictures until touchdown.