Rightly overshadowed by worldwide celebrations of half a century since the first human landing on the Moon, 2019 promises to be a dramatic year for space exploration. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is expected to kick off in earnest, with inaugural test-flights of the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, followed by the first regular trips to the International Space Station (ISS). United Launch Alliance (ULA) plans nine missions, whilst SpaceX has a full plate of launches scheduled, including as many as two flights by the mammoth Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy boosters.
Elsewhere in the United States, 2019 is expected to include test-flights by the Firefly Alpha and Vector-R smallsat launch vehicles, the first manned mission by Blue Origin’s New Shepard-lofted Crew Capsule 2.0 and the maiden orbital voyage of Virgin Orbit’s Launcher-1.
AmericaSpace’s weekend history articles will track many of the significant anniversaries in 2019, including 50 years since the first manned flight by the Lunar Module (LM) in March and the triumphant touchdown of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility in July. Also this summer and fall, 40 years will pass since the demise of America’s Skylab space station and Pioneer 11’s trailblazing flypast of Saturn and 30 years since Voyager 2 swept past Neptune and the Magellan and Galileo space probes set sail for Venus and Jupiter. A quarter-century will have elapsed since Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts began flying together in space, preparatory to the shuttle-Mir and ISS eras, and since Clementine resumed U.S. exploration of the Moon after a two-decade hiatus.
High above the Earth, right now, Anne McClain is the only U.S. national aboard the space station, a member of the incumbent Expedition 58 crew, which also includes Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Canada’s David Saint-Jacques. They will will be joined at the end of February by Soyuz MS-12, carrying Alexei Ovchinin and Nick Hague—riding the Soyuz-FG booster for a second time, following their harrowing high-altitude abort, last October—and Christina Hammock-Koch, to bring Expedition 58 up to its full six-person strength. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will bring veteran NASA flyers Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS in June and Boeing’s Starliner will ferry NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann, together with former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, to the station in August. Both visits will last about two weeks.
Kononenko, Saint-Jacques and McClain will return to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-11 on 25 June, wrapping up 204 days in orbit—the third-longest singular expedition in ISS Program history—and Ovchinin will take command of Expedition 59. His increment will be restored to six-person strength on 6 July, with the scheduled arrival of Soyuz MS-13 and its crew of Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov, Italy’s Luca Parmitano and NASA astronaut Drew Morgan. Assuming the unpiloted Crew Dragon mission in late January and Hurley and Behnken’s flight in June proceed successfully, August may see the arrival of the first dedicated SpaceX crew-rotation, probably manned by NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover. If this occurs, it will increase the ISS population to eight long-duration members for the first time in its history.
This number will expand temporarily to 11 in the second half of October, when Soyuz MS-15 carries Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, former NASA Chief Astronaut Chris Cassidy and UAE “spaceflight participant” Hazza al-Mansouri to the station. Ten days later, al-Mansouri will return to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-12, shoulder-to-shoulder with Hague and Hammock-Koch, uniquely marking the first occasion that a Russian spacecraft has landed under the command of a U.S. astronaut. To make available ascent/descent Soyuz seats for al-Mansouri, it appears that Ovchinin will remain aboard the station for two back-to-back increments, becoming the third person to spend a year in space aboard the ISS, after Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko. Command of the station will pass to Parmitano, who will lead Expedition 60 until his own return to Earth in early 2020. With the second U.S. Crew Vehicle (USCV) tentatively slated to launch in December, likely carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Josh Cassada aboard the first “operational” Starliner, there exists the potential for as many as ten long-duration residents aboard the ISS as 2019 fades into 2020.
Falcon 9 on launch pad with Crew Dragon & new astronaut walkway pic.twitter.com/aopO67qe4F
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 6, 2019
These Commercial Crew missions will require the services of ULA’s Atlas V for the Starliner and SpaceX’s Upgraded Falcon 9 for the Crew Dragon. Current plans envisage the maiden unpiloted test-flight of the Crew Dragon in late January and of the Starliner—its Atlas V N22 equipped with the first Dual-Engine Centaur (DEC) upper stage—in March. All told, 2019 should see ULA conduct nine launches, having recently announced that its long-delayed Delta IV Heavy mission to loft NROL-71 for the National Reconnaissance Office has slipped well into the New Year. A second Heavy, later in the year, will deliver NROL-44 to orbit, making 2019 only the second calendar year that as many as two of these gargantuan boosters have flown. The infrequently-used “single-stick” Delta IV Medium will be retired, its final two launches slated for January and April, with up to five Atlas V missions planned to carry two Starliners to the ISS, the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mini-shuttle on its sixth flight, a payload of technology experiments for the Air Force Space Test Program (STP) and the latest Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) military communications satellite.
SpaceX’s 2019 manifest also promises to be a hectic one, commencing in January with the final ten members of the Iridium NEXT global mobile communications satellite network. Three Dragon cargo missions—CRS-17 in March, CRS-18 in May and CRS-19 in October—will deliver equipment and supplies, as well as a second International Docking Adapter (IDA) for Commercial Crew operations to the ISS. Up to two flights are envisaged for the Falcon Heavy, tasked with delivering a technology demonstration payload for the STP and Saudi Arabia’s heavyweight Arabsat-6A communications satellite. Other customers include Indonesia’s PSN-6 communications satellite, Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander, Canada’s Radarsat and a second Global Positioning System (GPS) Block IIIA satellite. Also provisionally targeted to fly during 2019 are Israel’s Amos-17 communications satellite, the Audi-built ALINA lunar lander, Argentina’s SAOCOM-1B radar-imaging platform. ALINA is scheduled to land in the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley, last visited by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt in December 1972, and will attempt to seek their Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV).
Northrop Grumman Corp. will play a significant role in 2019, delivering two Cygnus cargo ships—NG-11 and NG-12—to the ISS in April and October, both aboard Antares 230 boosters from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. The company’s four-stage Minotaur-1 booster is also expected to launch from MARS in March, delivering the NROL-111 reconnaissance satellite to orbit, whilst its long-delayed Pegasus-XL mission with NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is awaits a new flight date from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
Additionally, the company will also continue work on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is aiming to launch in two years’ time, aboard Europe’s Ariane 5 heavylifter. Twice last year, NASA delayed the much-publicized “successor to Hubble”, slipping its launch from the spring of 2019 into May 2020 and eventually March 2021. The troubled, $8.8 billion program has met with significant delay as NASA works to accommodate schedule changes following environmental testing and “work performance challenges” relating to the spacecraft’s tennis-court-sized sunshield and propulsion system. Late last year, Webb’s spacecraft element was moved—via a mobile clean room, known as the In-Plant Transporter—for vibration and thermal vacuum testing. When this testing has been completed, the spacecraft will be re-wrapped and returned to a clean room at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Redondo Beach, Calif., where it will be integrated with the telescope element to form the full observatory.
Meanwhile, exploration across the solar system will continue. Launched last year, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe completed its inaugural solar encounter phase in October-November, during which good scientific data was collected and much of it was successfully downlinked to Earth in December. Due to the relative positions of the Sun, Earth and the spacecraft, the remainder of this data will not been downlinked until after Parker’s second solar encounter later this spring. On 4 April 2019, its second “perihelion” will carry it within 24.8 million miles (39.9 million km) of our parent star for further close-range observations.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, will pick up where the Kepler left off, seeking out Earth-like and potentially habitable worlds in other solar systems around other stars
Curiosity and InSight will stay busy on the surface of Mars, joined by NASA’s numerous orbiters around the Red Planet, while JUNO continues exploring Jupiter and revealing it to us in ways we’ve never seen before. Osiris-REX just arrived at asteroid Bennu, New Horizons is over 4 billion miles away and just visited the furthest object ever, ‘Ultima Thule’ and will continue pushing through the Kuiper Belt looking for its next target, and the Voyager probes continue their departure from the solar system at 35,000mph.
NASA is still trying to contact their Opportunity rover on Mars too, who fell silent on Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018) after likely experiencing a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault when a global dust storm took over the planet. Since the loss of signal, NASA has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times, frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver, and will continue to do so.
As SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Corp. execute their ongoing missions to the ISS, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser spacecraft awaits an exciting year as it heads towards its role in the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract, extending from 2019-2024. Last month, the mini-shuttle completed Integration Review 4 (IR4) to demonstrate NASA’s confidence in the safety and maturity of its inherent design. Passage through the IR4 milestone allows for major in-work Dream Chaser components—including structural elements, thermal-protection system tiles and avionics—to be integrated into the orbital vehicle at Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems facility in Louisville, Colo. The 29.5-foot-long (8.9-meter) spacecraft is slated for its first cargo mission to the ISS as soon as late 2020, carrying up to 12,100 pounds (5,500 kg) of cargo and returning up to 4,000 pounds (1,850 kg) back to a runway landing.
Less than 18 months now remain before the targeted June 2020 debut of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which is tasked with lofting the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on a 25.5-day mission around the Moon. The heat shield for Orion—which will endure temperatures of up to 2,760 degrees Celsius (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and experience a re-entry velocity of 24,500 mph (39,430 km/h) as it brings the spacecraft back to Earth—was installed last year.
Further testing of the SLS vehicle itself will occur over the coming months, including shipment of its integrated core stage to NASA’s Stennis Space Center, near Bay St. Louis, Miss., for the long-awaited “Green Run” test. This will see all four RS-25 core-stage engines test-fired simultaneously on the newly-refurbished B2 test-stand. Elsewhere, the Orion crew module and European-built service module will be integrated for shipment to NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, for testing, later this year.
Having triumphantly test-flown its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle to the edge of space in December 2018—carrying test pilot Mark Stucky and former shuttle commander Rick “C.J.” Sturckow to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 km)—Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic anticipates regular customer-paying flights from Spaceport America, near Las Cruces, N.M., in the year ahead. Costing in the region of $200,000 to $250,000 per ticket, the approximately 2.5-hour flights will include a few minutes in space and several hundred would-be space travelers are fully signed-up and have passed 6-8 G centrifuge testing. Also in 2019, Sir Richard’s Virgin Orbit is expected to stage its first orbital mission of LauncherOne. This two-stage booster, optimized for smallsat deliveries to low-Earth orbit, will be air-launched from beneath the fuselage of an upgraded Boeing 747-400 aircraft, dubbed “Cosmic Girl”. Other missions planned for 2019 include a suborbital test-flight of Vector Space Systems’ Vector-R, intended to evaluate fairings, avionics and thrust vector control mechanisms, and the maiden voyage of Firefly Aerospace’s Firefly Alpha smallsat launch vehicle.
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An exciting year ahead.