Home Science Heads up, earthlings: 5 reasons why you should pay attention to space this year – Stuff.co.nz

Heads up, earthlings: 5 reasons why you should pay attention to space this year – Stuff.co.nz

23 min read

Space is hip again.

Nearly 50 years after Neil Armstrong captivated Earth by taking his “giant leap for mankind” on the lunar surface, the world is paying attention again to space travel.

Space tourism reached a new milestone in February. The Space Force is starting to lift off. And a return to the moon is getting closer.

“This time we’re going to do it differently,” Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday about a lunar mission. “This time we’re going to go with international partners. And we’re going to go with commercial partners. (And) when we go to the moon, we’re going to stay.”

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In addition, Nasa and SpaceX teamed up on a successful flight earlier this month that makes it likely US astronauts will no longer need Russian rockets to reach the orbiting lab.

“The coincidence of all sorts of space developments makes it a special year, starting with the Apollo 50th anniversary,” said space historian John Logsdon, referring to the 1969 moon landing that captivated the country a half-century ago.

And that doesn’t count the progress being made on Nasa’s ultimate goal: sending humans to Mars.

That mission likely remains decades away, especially with the administration’s proposed decision to postpone key work on its Space Launch System that also could push back the date of the first test flight. But the technological breakthroughs achieved this year could play an important role in how quickly it takes to reach the Red Planet.

Here are five reasons why 2019 is shaping up to be a momentous year for space travel:


Virgin Galactic reaches space for the first time during its 4th powered flight.

Space tourism

It might not be the kind of splashy breakthrough that gets humans closer to Mars.

But a Virgin Galactic rocket plane that soared over California’s Mojave desert to the edge of space in February marked the farthest a crewed vehicle reached the boundary of space since the end of Nasa’s space shuttle programme in 2011.

The milestone says as much about the continued emergence of the commercial space industry as it does about the technology being developed. Private companies are being encouraged to perform the tasks and missions once left solely to Nasa, especially in low-Earth orbit.

Going back to the moon

The last astronaut to leave the moon’s surface was Eugene Cernan in December 1972.

The Trump administration’s decision to pivot back to the moon began in 2017, but those efforts took shape in February when Nasa announced it was inviting companies to partner with the agency on specific aspects of a return, including the establishment of a “gateway” staging ground in the lunar orbit.

On Monday, the administration released its 2020 budget proposal that includes US$363 million to support commercial development of a large lunar lander that can initially carry cargo and later astronauts to the surface of the Moon.

The prohibitive cost of a lander to carry astronauts from orbit to surface led to the cancellation of the Constellation programme, which aimed to return to the moon. The cost of this latest venture would be shared by international partners and aerospace firms.

Despite the momentum, it’s expected to take nearly a decade – 2028 – before the next human steps on the moon.

“To me the biggest deal in 2019 was the reinforced commitment to a return to the moon as the focus of what the US government will do in the coming years,” Logsdon said. “And doing it with commercial and international partnerships.”

US President Donald Trump signs "Space Policy Directive 4" in the Oval Office of the White House.


US President Donald Trump signs "Space Policy Directive 4" in the Oval Office of the White House.

Space Force

A new branch of the military designed to focus on threats from space lifted off in February.

President Donald Trump signed a directive to create another branch of the military whose mission would be to monitor low-Earth orbit and protect the USA from attack by other countries, notably China and Russia. Defense officials view both countries as wielding the capabilities and the potential motives to pose a threat.

Congress still has to fund the idea but it’s included in the administration’s budget that was released Monday. And a number of lawmakers already are on board with the plan.

The Trump administration is doing what it can now without approval from Congress, which remains divided on the idea. Lawmakers ultimately will determine the fate of the proposed force, because they must decide whether to authorise the creation of a military branch and whether to approve money for the plan.

Astronauts to the Space Station

Nearly eight years after Atlantis completed Nasa’s last space shuttle mission, Americans might soon be returning to the space station on US rockets launched from US soil.

The successful splashdown of an unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule off the Florida coast March 8 following a historic five-day mission to the orbiting lab makes it likelier that astronauts will be on the trip by year’s end.

“This year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets,” Trump told a national audience during his annual State of the Union speech in February.

Boeing, Nasa’s other commercial partners in the Commercial Crew programme, is expected to launch its CST-100 Starliner test flight in April.

A lot is riding on success – and not just because it costs US taxpayers more than US$80 million every time a US astronaut needs to hitch a ride to the orbiting lab. Bridenstine last year all but guaranteed resumption of US missions by the end of 2019, saying it would happen “without question”.

During Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Bridenstine touted the mission’s importance.

“It’s going to drive down costs, increase access, enable us to go to the International Space Station with more capability, more people to do more experiments and drive down costs,” he said.

The moon landing of 1969

All of these developments are happening as a historic anniversary approaches: the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk in July.

Nasa already has begun rolling out its celebration of the Apollo 11 flight that carried Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. There’s even a logo. Aldrin, the last surviving member of that mission, was recognised by Trump during the State of the Union.

For supporters of the space programme, the anniversary gives them a tremendous opportunity to make a case for American greatness.

“We see the Apollo 50th anniversary as an opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to what happened during our lifetimes,” Valerie Neal, space history department chair at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum told collectSpace, a website for space enthusiasts. “We’re hoping to use this occasion to spark that kind of excitement and start thinking about what can we do in the 21st century that is comparable, whether we do it in space or we do it here on Earth.”

– USA Today


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