The Biggest Space Missions of 2019

The year ahead could be a pivotal one for the fast-growing commercial space industry. Both SpaceX and Boeing have plans to put astronauts in space aboard their own privately developed vehicles, possibly bringing an end to America’s lack of human spaceflight capability. In the world of satellite communications OneWeb and Starlink are hoping to begin the construction of their mega constellations this year. And two emerging space powers in Asia, India and China, may be joined on the Moon by private companies for the first time.

Boeing and SpaceX Plan to put Astronauts into Orbit

America has lacked a human spaceflight capability ever since the Space Shuttle program came to an end in 2011. To fill this gap, and so ensure that American astronauts can still reach the International Space Station, NASA has been forced to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. This could all finally change in 2019 as both SpaceX and Boeing hope to launch astronauts on their own privately developed capsules.

These two companies have received funding from the Commercial Crew Program, a NASA initiative intended to stimulate the growth of a privately-operated human spaceflight capability in the United States.

SpaceX has responded with the Dragon 2 capsule, a successor to the already operational Dragon cargo spacecraft. SpaceX has been using the Dragon spacecraft to deliver regular resupply missions to the International Space Station since 2012. The Dragon 2 capsule will be capable of carrying up to seven astronauts into orbit, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has suggested that it could also be used for human missions beyond the Moon and cargo missions across the Solar System.

SpaceX have scheduled four flights using the Dragon 2 Capsule in 2019 . These begin with two uncrewed test flights in February and May, before the big step of carrying the first astronauts aboard a test flight happens in June. If all goes well SpaceX and NASA hope to achieve a second manned test flight in September.

The CST-100 Starliner is being developed by Boeing. Like the Dragon 2 capsule, the Starliner will carry up to seven astronauts, and could be used for NASA missions beyond the International Space Station. Boeing has long been involved with the US space program, from designing early space planes in the 1950s and 60s to supporting the construction and integration of the International Space Station in the 1990s and 2000s.

Boeing have announced two launches in 2019, with the first uncrewed and automated test flight of the Starliner to the International Space Station in March 2019, and the first manned flight in August. Further test flights, including a second manned flight, are likely to occur early in 2020.

Both SpaceX and Boeing have already delayed the first launches of their spacecraft from 2018, and the potential remains for further delays. It is certainly possible that the scheduled manned launches could be pushed out to 2020.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule en-route to the International Space Station — Credit: SpaceX

New Shepard aims for Sub-Orbital Tourism

Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Since then Blue Origin has announced that they are working on two rockets, a sub-orbital rocket and capsule named New Shepard, and a larger orbital rocket named New Glenn. While New Glenn has yet to launch, New Shepard has completed a number of unmanned test flights over the last few years, including several flights beyond the official boundary of space at an altitude of 100km.

With these significant successes behind them, Blue Origin now hopes to launch a crewed flight into space sometime in 2019, with the eventual aim of carrying paying tourists regularly into near-Earth space.

Blue Origin has so far taken a low key and cautious approach to the development of the New Shepard rocket, and has delayed test flights on several occasions before. A sign that Blue Origin has confidence in their rocket will be when they begin selling tickets for a tourist ride into space — something they have said will happen this year. Ticket prices are expected to retail for somewhere in the region of $200,000.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has a similar goal, and last year launched SpaceShipTwo, carrying two pilots, to an altitude of 82km. Branson has said that he hopes to start flying paying customers in 2019.

The New Shepard booster touches down after a test flight in June 2018. Photo Credit — Blue Origin

Chandrayaan-2 and Chang’e 5

Both India and China plan robotic moon landings in 2019. Earlier this year China achieved the first landing on the far side of the Moon, and plans a second more ambitious mission in December. India hopes to follow up their first Moon landing in 2008 with a second probe early this year.

Chandrayaan-1, the first Indian mission to the Moon, consisted of a orbiting satellite and a lunar impactor. The satellite remained operational for ten months, while the impactor returned scientific information from its descent towards the surface close to the South Pole of the Moon.

Chandrayaan-2 is a more ambitious mission, again consisting of an orbiting satellite, but this time including a rover. Launch is scheduled for April, and the rover is planned to land in the Lunar southern hemisphere.

After the successful landing of Chang’e 4 on the far side of the Moon, China next plans the Chang’e 5 mission, currently scheduled for launch in December 2019. Chang’e 5 is a sample return mission, and if all goes well, will return not only the first Moon rocks for China, but also the first rocks retrieved by anyone from the Moon since a Soviet mission in 1976.

Both missions represent a step forward for the pair of rising space nations in Asia. With both India and China considering Mars missions in the next few years, and India developing a human spaceflight capability, the two missions offer opportunities for both space agencies to develop important technological abilities.

Last US Soyuz Flight to the ISS

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the United States has had no independent human space flight capability, leaving Russia and China as the only two nations able to claim that prestige. As NASA is barred from sharing technology with the Chinese space program, the United States has been purchasing seats aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for manned missions to the International Space Station.

While this arrangement has worked well for the most part, there have been several hiccups in the past few years, including a mysterious hole drilled into a Russian section of the International Space Station, an emergency abort mid-flight of a Soyuz rocket, and increasing tension over political sanctions.

To address the lack of human spaceflight capability, NASA initiated the Commercial Crew Program, designed to encourage private industry to develop human rated spacecraft. As mentioned above, both Boeing and SpaceX are close to reaching the ability to launch astronauts on their own vehicles. NASA is also developing the Space Launch System, a powerful rocket that could support human missions to Mars or even beyond.

All of this means that 2019 should see the last Soyuz flight carrying American astronauts. NASA has purchased seats on two Soyuz launches in 2019 — one in April and one in November. Although NASA is hoping November will be the last launch it has to purchase from Russia, both SpaceX and Boeing initially planned to launch human missions from 2016. Further delay into 2020 or even 2021 seems likely.

The Soyuz rocket launches, carrying three astronauts to the ISS in 2013 — Photo Credit: NASA

Beresheet and ALINA

The Google Lunar X Prize was a competition that ran from 2007 to 2018, offering a $20 million prize to the first privately funded team to land a rover on the Moon and successfully transmit video and photos back to Earth.

Despite running for eleven years, no team was able to claim the prize before the final deadline passed last year. Although the prize is no longer available, two teams have stated their intention to continue their efforts to land rovers on the Moon this year.

SpaceIL, an Israeli company, have booked a slot on a Falcon-9 launch in February, and hope their probe, Beresheet, will achieve a soft landing on the Moon two and a half months later. If successful this would be the first private spacecraft to reach the Lunar surface.

A second competitor, PTScientists, based in Berlin, aim to reach the moon in late 2019. Their spacecraft, ALINA, will include two rovers built by Audi which they plan to use to locate the Lunar Rover left on the moon after the Apollo 17 mission.

One Web and Starlink

A lot of hype has been made in recent years about the prospects for satellite based Internet. Most of this has been generated by two companies — OneWeb and Starlink. Both companies plan to launch hundreds or even thousands of small satellites into Low Earth Orbit over the next few years, and hope to offer low latency satellite Internet connections with terabits of capacity.

OneWeb, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, have stated that they envisage a final constellation of around 600 satellites, with the first test satellites to be launched no earlier than March 2019. While OneWeb still say they want to launch commercial service this year, they have already admitted that this could slip into 2020. As a full constellation of 600 satellites is not required to start commercial operations, it is certainly possible OneWeb could get their first paying customers this year.

Elon Musk’s Starlink constellation could eventually consist of thousands of satellites, with plans for up to 12,000 satellites in orbit. Such a target will require frequent launches, on the scale of dozens, if not hundreds, of satellites launched per month. Musk has said that he plans for the first satellites to be launched in 2019, and the company faces a regulator imposed target of having 6,000 satellites in orbit by 2024.

Starlink already has two test satellites in orbit, Tintin A and B. These two satellites were apparently meant to carry out some propulsive maneuvers while in space, but so far the pair have not moved from their initial orbits. This has led some observers to suggest that the satellites have developed problems with their propulsion systems. Elon Musk, reportedly angry with the slow development schedules proposed by senior management at Starlink, last year fired several key managers in the project. Whether this will have the desired effect of increasing the speed of the project remains to be seen.

Launching mega-constellations into orbit is a challenging and expensive undertaking. While both Starlink and OneWeb offer exciting prospects for the future, the initial challenge of developing a range of cutting edge technology, and the sheer number of launches required, should not be underestimated.

OneWeb satellites under construction by Airbus — Photo Credit: Airbus

CHEOPS

Not many scientific space missions are scheduled for launch by NASA or ESA in 2019, but one that is aiming for launch in October or November is a small exoplanet telescope, CHEOPS.

CHEOPS, or CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite, is an ESA funded mission with the aim of studying the formation of exoplanets (planets around other stars). With a mission duration of at least three and a half years, CHEOPS will allow accurate measurements of the radius, mass, and density of so-called “Super Earths”, planets that range from several times the mass of the Earth up to the mass of Neptune.

Asteroid Sample Return

Last year two space probes entered into orbits around asteroids — Osiris-REx launched by NASA, and Hayabusa2, launched by the Japanese Space Agency. Both missions have a similar objective of gathering samples from the surface of these asteroids.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe is a successor to an earlier mission that returned grains of dust from another asteroid in 2010. After surveying the asteroid, Hayabusa2 will fire several projectiles at high speed into the asteroid, and then try to capture the debris thrown up from the surface. Sample gathering is scheduled to begin in February this year, but those samples will not return to Earth until late in 2020.

Osiris-REx is NASA mission to the Bennu asteroid. Osiris-REx will carefully approach the surface of Bennu and attempt to dislodge particles from the surface of the asteroid with jets of nitrogen gas. Osiris-REx has enough gas on board to make three attempts at gathering particles, and aims to collect at least 60g (2.1oz) from the asteroid. While Osiris-REx is currently in orbit around Bennu, sampling activities will not begin until 2020.

Once I studied physics and distant galaxies. Now I fly satellites instead, and spend my time thinking and writing about trends in space and technology.