2018 ended with a slew of rocket launches. That momentum is carrying into 2019.
This year will see a series of milestones from all around the world. While a lot of focus will be on SpaceX and Boeing preparing to launch astronauts from US soil once again, other countries, like China, India, and Israel, have also got some momentous launches planned.
Here are the ones we will definitely be watching closely (very likely on our second monitor at work).
All dates subject to change based on launch delays and adjustments.
SpaceX’s first demo launch of its crew vehicle
Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
It’s somehow fitting that this landmark launch will take place at Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (best known as the pad from which Apollo and shuttle missions also departed). The launch will send up a human-free version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule that will eventually contain astronauts. It will be the first in a series of tests NASA requires before it will put people on board SpaceX’s rockets. The launch’s success is crucial if the firm is to stick to its goal of launching the first astronauts into orbit from US soil since the end of the shuttle program. If all goes to plan, it’ll also lessen the US’s dependence on Russia for getting astronauts to the International Space Station. Originally scheduled for January 7, it was moved 10 days to avoid any traffic jams at the space station, but there is a chance the government shutdown could now cause additional delays.
January 30, 2019
Rocket: GSLV Mark III
This is India’s second moon mission, but the first in more than a decade. The Indian Space Research Organisation will attempt a soft landing of a lander and rover near the south pole of the moon. If successful, it would make India the fourth country to reach the moon in a soft landing (one in which the vehicle and its contents land undamaged), but delays are reportedly still likely. Chandrayaan-1, the country’s first moon mission in 2008, only contained an orbiter and impactor designed to slam into the lunar surface.
SpaceIL launches to the moon
Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
If India doesn’t clinch the fourth spot, Israel might. SpaceIL, based in Tel Aviv, is planning to launch to the moon in early 2019. SpaceIL was a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which ended with no winner last year after many extensions of the deadline. But SpaceIL is one of the many participating companies that are still trying to make it there. If it succeeds, it would be the first private company to land on the moon. If not, there is a line-up of other former X Prize competitors planning launches this year that could take the slot.
Virgin Orbit LauncherOne demos and official launch
Virgin Orbit, previously the part of Virgin Galactic to focus on satellites, is planning its first test and official launches. The rocket LauncherOne will hang under the wing of the firm’s Boeing 747-400 airplane (named CosmicGirl) before it is released. In November of last year, CosmicGirl did its first test flight with LauncherOne under its wing, also known as a captive carry test. The next big steps are releasing the rocket in a drop test, where it will just fall to the ground, and actually launching it. Both are planned for 2019.
SpaceX’s second Falcon Heavy launch
Rocket: Falcon Heavy
SpaceX’s most powerful rocket successfully launched in February of 2018, but it hasn’t yet had a launch that made any money—last time, the payload was Elon Musk’s car. Two planned flights of the Falcon Heavy early in 2019—to fly the Arabsat 6A and a series of military satellites—will change that. Right now it appears the Arabsat 6A is scheduled to take off first, but both launches have already been pushed back, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in the order right now. Either way, it appears the Falcon Heavy will get a commercial test soon.
Boeing’s orbital flight test (uncrewed)
Rocket: Atlas V
Up next to test its vehicle that’ll carry astronauts to space is Boeing. The Starliner, its crew capsule, will undergo the same kind of test that SpaceX’s Dragon will have been through a few months earlier.
Blue Origin sends employees into space
First half 2019
Rocket: New Shepard
Last year, Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, said he expected to send the first people into suborbital space on the company’s New Shepard rocket in 2018. That was to be followed by reaching orbital space in 2020, but the firm has decided to shift plans slightly. Virgin Galactic just made it under the wire by sending its first people to the edge of space right at the end of 2018. But getting Blue Origin into space soon would keep it close to Virgin in the fight to begin sending rich tourists up there.
Richard Branson and space tourists launch to suborbital space
Speaking of Virgin Galactic, cofounder Richard Branson would like to keep the momentum going from the first successful test flight and get into suborbital space himself in 2019. And soon after, space tourists would get to follow, in theory. The company already has about 700 people waiting for their turn to fly. However, Branson’s space deadlines have a history of being a bit off, so this date could definitely shift.
SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed)
Rocket: Falcon 9
If all goes according to plan on the Demo-1 in January, SpaceX will launch the first humans into orbit from US soil since the shuttle program ended in 2011. Since then, every nation on Earth has relied on Russia to get to the International Space Station. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been selected to be the first to fly on SpaceX’s Dragon.
Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed)
Rocket: Atlas V
Assuming there are no major delays, Boeing will follow suit and launch the first people on its rocket a few months after SpaceX. Eric Boe, Nicole Aunapu Mann, and Chris Ferguson would be the first people to fly aboard the Boeing Starliner.
Test of Chinese crew vehicle (uncrewed)
Rocket: Long March 5
Not just American companies want spacecraft that will eventually carry astronauts. China will be performing its first uncrewed test of a model of its next-generation crew spacecraft in 2019. The test will be similar to the one NASA performed with Orion back in 2014.
China’s Chang’e 5 mission to the moon
Rocket: Long March 5
China has become a major space powerhouse. Last year it put more rockets into orbit than any other country. And although the launch happened in 2018, the Chang’e 4 hit a major milestone by reaching the far side of the moon this month. Another major space milestone for the country is likely to occur with its next lunar mission, Chang’e 5, which aims to return two kilograms of samples from the moon. If it succeeds, it will be the first such sample-return mission since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 brought back lunar soil in 1976.
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