These Are The Most Exciting Space Missions To Look Forward To In 2018

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy could finally launch in a few weeks. SpaceX

Hooray! We made it into 2018. And with another year comes another host of exciting space missions to look forward to, from long-awaited launches to deep space rendezvous.

Last year saw a number of fascinating developments in space. India launched a record-breaking 104 satellites on a single rocket, for example, while the Cassini mission came to an end and SpaceX wowed us all with repeated rocket landings.

This year should be even more thrilling though, and things get started almost immediately. So let’s take a look at what we can look forward to in 2018.

January

This month should see the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Although a date hasn’t been set, late January or early February looks like a good bet. It will be the most powerful rocket in operation today, and this first launch will be taking Elon Musk’s own Tesla car to the orbital path of Mars. Yes, really.

We should also be seeing the next launch of the Electron rocket in New Zealand from the company Rocket Lab, which is positioning itself as a low-cost way to reach space.

February

On February 11 Russia plans to send a Progress cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) in just three hours. That’s shorter than a flight from New York to Los Angeles, and half the quickest time we've ever sent anything to the ISS.

March

NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is planned to launch no earlier than March 20. It’s expected to find more than 3,000 planets outside the Solar System, including Earth-sized worlds.

India plans to launch its second mission to the Moon, called Chandrayaan-2. It will consist of an orbiter, lander, and rover.

TESS will build on the work of the hugely successful Kepler mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech

April

SpaceX will perform an uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time, with a crewed flight planned later in the year. Many, however, think Crew Dragon might face delays. (Update: NASA's latest update has pushed this flight back to August 2018).

China’s Tiangong-1 space station is expected to re-enter our atmosphere at some point in the first quarter of the year. The latest prediction looks like the re-entry might be on April 4 somewhere near South America.

May

The InSight lander, delayed from 2016, will be launched on a mission to Mars. After landing in November 2018, it will attempt to study the Martian interior using seismology.

June

China will launch the Chang’e-4 relay satellite to the Moon, intended to be the orbital component of a planned lunar lander on the far side of the Moon at the end of the year.

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft will reach its target asteroid Ryugu. The plan is to return a sample of the asteroid to Earth in December 2020.

July

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will launch on July 31, and will study the Sun by getting closer than any spacecraft has before, just 17 times further than the width of the Sun itself. It will also become the fastest spacecraft on record as it “touches the Sun”, reaching a speed of 200 kilometers (124 miles) per second.

NASA’s Juno mission at Jupiter is expected to end by plunging into the atmosphere of the gas giant, although there is a chance the mission could be extended.

August

Boeing will perform an uncrewed test of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, with plans to then launch humans in November at the earliest.

SpaceX says it will perform a crewed flight test of the Crew Dragon. If this goes ahead, it will be the first time astronauts have launched from US soil since 2011. (Update: Pushed back to December 2018 at the earliest)

NASA’s Osiris-REx spacecraft will reach its target, the asteroid Bennu, from which it will return a sample to Earth in 2023.

OSIRIS-REx will attempt to scoop material by firing bursts of nitrogen. NASA

October

The joint European and Japanese BepiColombo mission will launch to Mercury. The mission comprises two orbiters, but it will not arrive into orbit around Mercury until December 2025, owing to the complexities of orbiting a body so close to the Sun.

December

On December 20, we’re finally expecting the launch of one of the final modules of the ISS, the Russian-built Nauka module, which has been delayed since 2007.

And this final one is kind of cheating but… On December 31, it will be one day before the New Horizons spacecraft arrives at its next target, the Kuiper Belt Object called MU69. Not a bad way to ring in 2019.

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