If you love space and astronomy, 2018 will be an exciting year. NASA has announced windows of time for sending spacecraft to Mars and the sun. Japanese and American probes already in space are set to enter orbit around two near Earth asteroids. And a variety of eclipses and meteor showers offer ample opportunities for skygazing.
We’ve put dates for these events and more on The Times’s Astronomy and Space Calendar. But while some dates are certain or proximate, there’s a lot to be unsure about down here on Earth. Sometimes spacecraft aren’t ready on time for launch. Or their launches get scrubbed because of weather. Some terrestrial space agencies don’t always give much notice when they blast off. While we aren’t ready to say some space launches will happen on a particular date, these are some of the events we’re watching out for, and we’ll update the calendar when we know more.
Elon Musk and his company’s rocket scientists aim to make an early mark on 2018’s calendar of space launch events. In January, SpaceX is planning the first test flight of Falcon Heavy, what it calls “the most powerful operational rocket in the world.” A successful test would be an important step toward demonstrating SpaceX’s ability to send spacecraft beyond Earth’s orbit, perhaps even to Mars.
The rocket’s first stage is made up of three Falcon 9 boosters, the same used on rockets that SpaceX has sent into space and successfully landed back on Earth on many occasions. Musk posted photos of the rockets being prepared for launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida in late December. He also said Falcon Heavy will carry a test payload of a Tesla roadster, which will enter an elliptical orbit of Mars playing David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity.”
While tests of the rocket have been delayed in the past, the vehicle was installed at a launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center at the end of December, according to the website Spaceflight Now. If the test launch succeeds, it sets up the Falcon Heavy to blast off later in the year with commercial and space agency payloads, including a communications satellite for the Saudi Arabia-based company Arabsat and a variety of satellites in one launch for the US Air Force.
SpaceX also could try to prove it can carry people into space in 2018. While its Dragon spacecraft has carried cargo to the International Space Station, the company has not yet sent human beings into space.
A demonstration of its Crew Dragon capsule could occur this year. If successful, it might be a prelude to a voyage around the moon by two private space tourists who have committed to paying for the trip, as well as fulfiling SpaceX’s contract with NASA to fly astronauts to the space station.
President Trump committed to sending astronauts to the moon in the years ahead, and more details of the administration’s plan could be announced in February in its budget proposal. But it is unlikely that NASA will send human or robotic explorers to the moon in 2018.
But two terrestrial governments — India and China — have set their sights on returns to the moon this year. The Indian Space Research Organization intends to send an uncrewed orbiter, lander and rover to the moon in the first half of 2018. Known as Chandrayaan-2, the mission aims to demonstrate that India can land a spacecraft on the moon in one piece and drive a rover there. The orbiter will also beam images of the moon and information about its surface back to Earth.
The spacecraft would be India’s second mission to the moon, after Chandrayaan-1 which blasted off in 2008. The country currently has a spacecraft orbiting Mars known as the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM.
The Chinese National Space Administration also plans a return to the moon after successfully landing the Chang’e-3 spacecraft and its rover there in 2013. NASA suggests that its Chang’e-4 spacecraft could launch in late 2018. It could also include a lander and a rover, and may study the South Pole-Aitken Basin region. American scientists had recently proposed that NASA send a lander to this area of the moon, but the proposal did not advance to the final round of the agency’s New Frontiers competition.
Another Chinese mission to the moon, Chang’e-5, was postponed last year, and now is unlikely to launch until 2019, according to NASA. It would collect lunar samples and bring them back to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.
While state space agencies’ efforts to study the moon are ongoing, a private lunar space race is also underway, inspired in part by the Lunar X Prize. Sponsored by Google, the contest will award $20 million to the first private company that lands a spacecraft on the moon with a rover that is able to complete a series of tasks.
The deadline is March 31. That date has previously been moved to allow the competitors — now down to five companies — more time to prepare.
Florida’s Moon Express is one of the remaining competitors, and has secured regulatory approval from the United States government to land on the moon. But RocketLab, the company that is to provide its launch vehicle, had to postpone a test of its system over multiple days in December.
India’s Team Indus and Japan’s Hakuto plan to share an Indian rocket to the moon. They will then independently attempt to complete the tasks required to win the prize.