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All the space missions you should be hyped for this year

All the space missions you should be hyped for this year


Space is the place in 2016

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This year is filled with important test flights, as private companies like SpaceX get new orbital rockets and vehicles ready for space travel. Space tourism ventures like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will continue testing their sub-orbital vehicles too, which could potentially take paying customers into the upper limits of the atmosphere. And if crewed spaceflight isn't your thing, there are also a couple robotic missions to Jupiter and Mars that will satisfy your planetary curiosity.

Here's what to look out for in the year ahead, so you can get properly space hyped.

All year: Space tourism testing

Space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have both said they will continue testing out their sub-orbital vehicles this year. The companies hope to take private citizens to the edge of space, where they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness.

Blue Origin seems to be far ahead in its flight tests

Blue Origin seems to be far ahead in its flight tests. The company has already demonstrated that it can launch, land, and then re-launch its New Shepard rocket. Virgin Galactic, however, has a lot to prove. The company just unveiled the new version of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, after the previous vehicle crashed in 2014. Virgin Galactic says test flights will begin fairly soon, but won't say when SpaceShipTwo will go into space.

March 14th: First ExoMars launch

The first stage of the ExoMars Mission will be getting underway this year. The mission is a joint partnership between the European Space Agency and Russia's Roscosmos, with the goal of sending three exploratory spacecraft to Mars. The idea is to search for traces of alien life, as well as to test out technologies that could be used to explore the Red Planet in the future, according to the ESA.

The idea is to search for traces of alien life

This March, a Russian Proton rocket will launch two ExoMars spacecraft — the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli EDM. The orbiter is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere. The lander will test out technologies needed to land the third ExoMars spacecraft: a rover that will launch sometime in 2018. The orbiter and lander are slated to reach Mars later this year in October, the ESA says.

May 31st: First flight of Orbital's upgraded Antares rocket

NASA's commercial partner Orbital ATK will show off its newly upgraded Antares rocket during a resupply mission to the International Space Station, according to the company's CEO. It's a big step for Orbital, after the company's original Antares rocket exploded on a Virginia launch pad in 2014. The accident prompted Orbital to replace the engines in the rocket — a process that has taken a year and a half.

July 4th: NASA's Juno spacecraft reaches Jupiter

A rendering of NASA’s Juno spacecraft.
Image: NASA

The probe will finally make it to the gas giant

NASA's Juno spacecraft has been traveling to Jupiter ever since it launched in 2011. On America's Independence Day, the probe will finally make it to the gas giant and then insert itself into the planet's orbit, according to NASA. Juno will stay there for the next 20 months, studying Jupiter's atmosphere, magnetic field, and gravitational field. The spacecraft will also spin three times a minute while in orbit, ensuring that all its instruments point at Jupiter 400 times an hour.

Juno is also a cousin of NASA's New Horizons probe, which flew by Pluto last July. The two spacecraft were designed under NASA's New Frontiers Program — a series of NASA missions to explore objects in our Solar System.

September: First test flight of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets combined into one massive vehicle, with two boosters strapped to either side of the main rocket. The Falcon Heavy will have 4.5 million pounds of thrust during liftoff, making it capable of lifting the equivalent of a 737 jetliner into orbit, SpaceX says. That's ideal, since SpaceX wants to use the rocket to take people to the Moon and Mars someday.

The company has been touting the Falcon Heavy's abilities since 2011, and earlier this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said we would finally get to see the first test flight in 2016. "I'd say maybe late September," he said, according to Space News.

September 8th: NASA's OSIRIS REx mission launches

NASA plans to launch its OSIRIS REx spacecraft to an asteroid later this year. The mission is basically NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission on a much smaller scale. OSIRIS REx will reach its target asteroid, 1999 RQ36, in 2018, according to the space agency. There, the spacecraft will map the asteroid's surface and use a robotic arm to pluck a few samples off the space rock. The spacecraft will then return to Earth by 2023, marking the first time the US carries asteroid samples back to our planet.

NASA has also created an opportunity for members of the public to get involved with OSIRIS REx. People can send in their artwork to the space agency, and the winning submissions will be saved in a chip that the spacecraft will carry.

December: SpaceX Crew Dragon in-flight abort test


SpaceX has been developing a space taxi for NASA called the Crew Dragon, which will eventually carry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But before Crew Dragon can go into orbit, SpaceX wants to ensure that the vehicle will keep passengers safe. That's why the company has created an in-flight abort system for the capsule; small engines embedded in the walls of the Crew Dragon can ignite and propel the vehicle away from any dangerous conditions that might arise during launch, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX successfully demonstrated this abort system can work if something goes wrong on the launch pad. But late this year, the company will attempt to show that same system can save the vehicle during launch. Expect that test before the end of the year, says SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

Correction: This article previously stated that the OSIRIS REx mission would be the first asteroid sample return mission. It's the first US mission to return asteroid samples, and the article has been changed to reflect this.