Fifty years after Neil Armstrong's historic step, robots from China, India, Israel, the US and elsewhere are heading back.
Much of the major space news from 2018 seemed to involve either big, new rockets or robotic spacecraft traveling to faraway places. But 2019 appears to be focused on a single celestial body: our moon.
For sky watchers, a “super blood wolf moon” (a combination of a total lunar eclipse and the moon at its closest point to Earth) will put on a show in late January.
A lot of space organizations have big plans for our sole natural satellite. The new year had barely started, in fact, when China’s space agency landed its Chang’e-4 spacecraft and the rover it carries on the far side of the moon. The lander will explore the area near the south pole on the side of the moon that always faces away from Earth.
Lunar traffic will likely pick up with a planned lander/rover mission by India’s space agency that could launch as soon as Jan. 30. A few weeks later, a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled to send the first Israeli lunar lander on its way.
The latter is the product of private company SpaceIL, which was the sole Israeli team to compete in the Google Lunar XPrize. Although the competition ended without any winners making it to the moon, SpaceIL and at least three other finalists — Berlin’s PTScientists, India’s Team Indus and Florida-based Moon Express — are all aiming to land on the moon at some point in 2019.
Moon Express and a fifth XPrize finalist, Astrobotic, have also been chosen to work with NASA to send new science experiments to the surface of the moon. At a press conference in November, the space agency said the first commercial lunar payloads from the program could fly in 2019. They’ll likely demonstrate technology needed to develop future lunar landers and missions.
It might not be a total coincidence that so many programs are aiming for the moon in 2019. This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo landing on the moon and Neil Armstrong’s historic steps on the surface. NASA has been planning a celebration for some time now and there will be different events happening at locations across the US.
If everything goes according to schedule, there may be more lunar action to celebrate in 2019. China may be able to launch its Chang’e-5 mission by the end of the year. The follow-up to Chang’e-4 would collect samples from the surface and bring them back to Earth, marking the first time that’s happened in decades.
Even more launches
Of course, not every space mission will be heading to the moon in 2019. Numerous launches of satellites and missions to the International Space Station are planned. Right now at least a few of them are set to take advantage of the massive SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which we haven’t seen in action since its spectacular, if somewhat silly, demonstration launch of a Tesla last February.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has also promised that we’ll see the first short test flights or “hops” of his “Starship,” meant to eventually carry people to the moon, Mars and beyond. This will likely come after the demonstration of another important SpaceX product — the Crew Dragon spaceship that will carry astronauts to the ISS from American soil for the first time in several years.
Crew Dragon’s unmanned test launch will be followed later in the year by the debut of Boeing’s new Starliner, which will also ferry crew to the ISS in the future.
Another notable launch now set for February will be the Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the first 10 OneWeb satellites, which are designed to provide broadband internet service from low Earth orbit. Musk and SpaceX have promised to launch a competing service in the coming years with a constellation of up to nearly 12,000 small satellites.
Musk’s fellow billionaire space enthusiasts are looking to keep busy in the next year as well. Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit could move closer to its own satellite launch service, while Virgin Galactic may send its first paying customers (and Branson himself) into space for sightseeing missions.
Also expect to see more from Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin, which will partner with NASA to send science payloads on a trip to space early in 2019. It will also compete with Musk and Branson for future payloads, human and otherwise.
More mission milestones
As the new year begins, plenty of missions are already underway and several will reach their targets over the next 12 months. The action began in the first hours of 2019, as NASA’s New Horizons flew by super-distant object Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt.
A few other spacecraft will get even closer to space rocks in 2019. Both Japan’s Hayabusa-2 and NASA’s Osiris-Rex will spend part of the year making preparations to swipe samples of the asteroids Ryugu and Bennu, respectively. Hayabusa-2 is scheduled to collect its sample this year, while Osiris-Rex will wait until 2020.
Elsewhere in the solar system, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is scheduled to make seven more close passes by Jupiter in 2019, hopefully leading to a better understanding of the mysterious, massive planet. On the much smaller and redder world next door, the recently landed Mars Insight probe will get to work drilling into the Martian surface to explore the planet’s interior and listen for “Marsquakes.”
Perhaps the biggest daredevil maneuvers in the entire solar system will be performed by the Parker Solar Probe, also launched in 2018, which will again approach the sun in April and September, extracting valuable data from the star’s outer atmosphere. Then in December it will use a Venus gravity assist to get even faster, breaking its own records and sliding closer to the sun than ever before.
There aren’t as many big-ticket scientific probes and telescopes set to launch in 2019 as there were in 2018. One worth tracking, however, is Europe’s Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops), which is meant to provide a better look at exoplanets around distant stars. It could launch as soon as November.
What to watch for in the heavens above
The coming year will bring the usual array of annual meteor showers, but it isn’t predicted to yield any notable meteor outbursts or especially bright comets for skywatchers. There will be a few treats in 2019 worth gazing up for, however.
Things kick off with the super blood wolf moon January 20, which occurs every few years or so, including last January.
A few rare celestial events to mark on your calendars include Mercury’s transit across the sun on Nov. 11. There’s also another total solar eclipse like the one that wowed millions in the US in August 2017, though this one, on July 2, will only be visible in parts of South America and the South Pacific.
Finally, we’ll receive a close pass from a particularly weird asteroid named 1999 KW4 making its once-every-18-years visit through our neighborhood on May 25. This potentially hazardous asteroid is a big one, perhaps as wide as a small town, with a diameter of up to 3 kilometers (1.9 miles). It’s also a binary system, meaning it’s orbited by a smaller asteroid moon.
No need to worry, though. Although it’s classified as potentially hazardous due mainly to its size, it will sail by us at a very safe distance of over 5 million kilometers (3.1 million miles).
So the world should make it all the way to 2020, when even more big space missions are on tap, including possibly the world’s first artificial meteor shower. Say whaaa? Stay tuned and heads up!