Missions to Watch in 2013

This year marked the 12th year of continuous crewed operation. Photo Credit: NASA
The International Space Station is going to be a busy place in 2013. Photo Credit: NASA

With Curiosity’s landing on Mars and SpaceX’s multiple missions to the International Space Station, 2012 was a good year for spaceflight. And while we might not see the same level of historic or flagship missions fly this year, there’s no shortage of exciting missions to watch for in 2013. 

International Space Station

The International Space Station is going to be a busy place this year. SpaceX will double its number of cargo resupply missions to the station with unmanned Dragon launches on March 1 and September 30. Lifting off from the Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, these flights will bring SpaceX closer to its goal of launching manned Dragon flights in the coming years.

The other company that holds a resupply contract with NASA, Orbital Sciences, will also fly to the ISS this year. Pending a successful flight of a model Cygnus spacecraft launched on an Antares rocket, a functional Cygnus will launch from the company’s launch site on Wallops Island in Virginia on April 5 to make its first delivery to the station. Food, hardware, and science experiments will also reach astronauts aboard the station on a variety of familiar spacecraft from Japan (July 15), Europe (April 18), and Russia (February 12, April 24, and July 24).

The SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket with its Dragon spacecraft about 2 hours before launch, as seen from a 920th Rescue Wing Pave Hawk helicopter. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / Zero-G News
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 on the launch pad, a sight we should see at least three times in 2013. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/Zero-G News

Of course, manned missions will continue as well. Three Soyuz launches are planned for 2013—March 28, May 28, and September 25. All will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying astronauts from the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and Europe, as well as supplies to the ISS.

Unmanned Missions

NASA’s got some interesting unmanned missions on deck this year. An Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket will launch the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph satellite (Iris) on April 28 or 29. The satellite is designed to study the flow of energy through the Sun’s atmosphere and heliosphere. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Experiment (Ladee), an orbiter designed to study the Moon’s transient atmosphere and the fine dust particles that cover its surface, is due to launch on an U.S. Air Force Minotaur 5 rocket from Wallops Island on August 12.

We’re also going back to Mars. The Mars Atmosphere And Volatile Evolution orbiter (MAVEN) will launch sometime during the 20-day window between November 18 and December 7. Once it reaches the red planet in September of 2014, it will study just how Mars lost its atmosphere.

We’re also going to get a glimpse of the future this fall. The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science missions (OPALS) will demonstrate a new type of optical communications from a platform on the ISS. Using lasers to transfer video data from the station to a receiver on the ground, this proof-of-concept mission just might usher in a new era of high speed communication in space. And things are looking good for the September 30 launch (the payload is piggy backing on SpaceX’s second ISS mission of the year); the team has just passed its vibration testing milestone. Up next is thermal vac testing and then functional and performance tests.

A schematic of the OPALS mission. Image Credit: NASA
A schematic of the OPALS mission detailing what will happen each time the ISS comes into view of the ground receiving station. Image Credit: NASA

Space Tourism

For those who want to see the curvature of the Earth from near space—and who doesn’t?—there’s good news on the space tourism front this year. Private companies are set to take some major steps toward suborbital passenger flights. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has made glide flights, but in 2013 it’s due to fire its rocket engine for its first powered flight. XCOR Aerospace is also scheduled to test its Lynx suborbital vehicle this year. Both companies hope to start sending astronaut wannabes on near-space missions in 2014.

International Launches

There’s plenty happening internationally this year, too. China, the nation quickly becoming a major player in space, is set to launch another big mission in June. Shenzhou 10, which will be the fifth manned mission for the country, will see three taikonauts launch from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on a Long March 2F rocket and dock with the nation’s Tiangong 1 module in orbit. Building on the success of last year’s Shenzhou 9 flight, this mission will put China one step closer to establishing a manned space station.

South Korea will try for a third time to launch its Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV) 1 booster into orbit this month. Two previous attempts in August 2009 and June 2010 failed.

Long March 2F/G launcher lifts off at 5:58 a.m. Nov. 1 at the Jiuquan launch site carrying the unmanned Shenzhou 8 toward the first Chinese autonomous docking with a station type module in orbit later this week.  Photo Credit: Jiuquan Space Center
Long March 2F/G rocket carried the unmanned Shenzhou 8 through dark morning skies. The spacecraft managed an autonomous docking with a station type module in orbit in 2011. Photo Credit: Jiuquan Space Center

A collaboration between India and France yielded the SARAL/AltiKa satellite. This ocean altimetry satellite, designed to measure the height of the Earth’s seas from space, is also due to launch this month on the 28th from an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in India.

North of the border, the Canadian Space Agency’s Cassiope—Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer—is set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in May. The satellite will use its suite of onboard instruments to study how solar storms interact with charged particles in the Earth’s ionosphere. Across the pond, the European Space Agency’s Swarm spacecraft is due to launch into a polar orbit in April on a Eurockot Rockot rocket from Russia. This satellite will carry three instruments designed to study changes in the Earth’s geomagnetic field, ultimately shedding some light on the planet’s climate and interior composition.

All in all, 2013 looks like it could potentially be a very exciting year in terms of space exploration.

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