With January set to host the launch of the most powerful rocket in the world, the Falcon Heavy, 2018 is certainly shaping up to be an exciting year. This year, both commercial outfits and national agencies from around the world are planning to launch and continue missions at the very cutting edge of our capabilities. Below are just a few of the exciting launches and missions to keep an eye on in 2018.
Falcon Heavy Launch – January 2018
Developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy is set to become the most powerful launch vehicle in service today. Although the mighty Saturn V still holds the crown as the most powerful rocket of all time, the Falcon Heavy will dwarf its modern peers.
As if the launch of this historic rocket alone wasn’t exciting enough, Elon Musk, ever the showman, has decided to use the launch to send his cherry-red Tesla Roadster to Mars. Initially sharing the plan to launch a Tesla aboard the Falcon Heavy on Twitter, many believed that it was a joke. However, late last year Musk shared images of the Roadster firmly secured within the fairing of the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy.
Electron Test Launch – Early 2018
Much like the Falcon 1, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is a light launch vehicle capable of launching small satellites into space. The company is hoping to offer affordable access to space for customers who would traditionally not have been able to afford it. The Electron’s maiden flight was, for the most part, viewed as a failure after the vehicle failed to reach orbit. Despite the rocky start, Rocket Lab hopes to complete testing and begin launching commercial payloads before the end of the year.
Initially scheduled for a late 2017 launch, the Electron launch was first delayed by weather and then by a technical fault. After missing their launch window, Rocket Lab rescheduled for an early 2018 launch.
TESS Launch – March 2018
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS will expand the capabilities and functions currently offered by the agency’s Kepler probe. Put simply, the satellite will search for distant planets by looking for the slight dimming of a star as planets orbit around it. TESS will enable NASA and various other scientific agencies to examine a much broader area than the satellite’s predecessor.
TESS will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.
Commercial Crew Test Flights – April to November 2018
Launching manned crews and returning them to earth has, up until now, been an endeavour exclusive reserved for national agencies like NASA and Roscosmos. 2018 is about to change all that. Both Boeing and SpaceX are set to begin crewed testing of their respective spacecraft.
SpaceX will launch an uncrewed flight of the Dragon capsule in April. A crewed flight will then follow in August. Boeing will start with an uncrewed test flight of the CST-100 Starliner in August and follow it with a crewed flight in November.
Launch of NASA’s Insight Mars Lander – May 2018
NASA’s Insight lander is set to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 5. Insight is then expected to land on the surface of Mars on November 26, 2018. The lander will drill deep into the surface of the Red Planet in hopes of discovering clues of how Mars has evolved over millions of years.
The lander was originally scheduled to launch in 2016 but a leak from one of the spacecraft’s fuel tanks delayed the launch. Officials were then forced to wait months for Mars and Earth to be positioned favorably.
Launch of NASA’s Parker Probe – Between July and August
The Parker probe is being touted as the first spacecraft to touch the Sun. This groundbreaking probe will orbit the sun just 6.2 million kilometres (3.9 million miles) from the solar surface. Although the distance may seem huge, the spacecraft will, even at 6.2 million kilometres, be flying through the outer edges of the Sun’s atmosphere.
Once in place, the Parker probe will be tasked with studying solar winds, strong bursts of particles (mostly protons) that permeate our solar system. These winds can penetrate Earth’s upper atmosphere disrupting radio communications on the surface. Scientists hope to discover what causes solar winds and how they are formed.
NASA’s Parker Probe will launch aboard a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle between July and August.
BepiColombo Launch – October 2018
A joint venture between Japan and Europe, BepiColombo will study one of the least explored planets in our solar system, Mercury. The BepiColombo project features two separate probes, one of which will be tasked exclusively by JAXA (Japan’s national space agency) and the other by the European Space Agency.
BepiColombo probes will be launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in October. If all goes well, the probes will arrive at Mercury in 2025.