The 2018 just begun will be a very intenseyear for space explorations and more generally for the study of everything we have around, from the earth's orbit onwards. In few weeks, SpaceX will test its most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, sending the personal Tesla car of its CEO, Elon Musk, beyond the Earth's orbit. NASA will send a new cutting-edge telescope in space to observe hundreds of thousands of stars looking for new planets. We will also return to Mars with a new mission from NASA, while the European Space Agency will take care of another often overlooked planet: Mercury. We will also visit an asteroid, but let's see everything in detail.
Big rockets and Space oddity
By the end of January, Elon Musk's SpaceX will perform the first experimental launch of the "Falcon Heavy", its new gigantic 70-meter-high space rocket that in future will send tons of material beyond the Earth's orbit, with destinations such as the Mars or Moon. The Falcon Heavy is made up of three Falcon 9, the famous reusable rocket that have long used SpaceX, joined together: it will therefore be able to exploit the power of 27 engines. Its departure will certainly be one of the most followed space events of this year: it is the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, the great launcher who brought the Apollo on the Moon missions between the Sixties and Seventies. The load of the rocket will be the Tesla Roadster of Musk, with a trajectory to reach the orbit of Mars, where it should remain with the autoradio on "Space Oddity" by David Bowie.
Looking for new planets
At the beginning of the spring season, NASA will send in orbit the new space telescope "Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite" (TESS) to search for exoplanets. Like its predecessor "Kepler", TESS will analyze the brightness variations of the stars to see if they are partly obscured by the periodic passage of the planets, analyzing about 500 thousand stars. The main objective of the mission will be the search for rocky planets like ours at such distances as to make it possible to study their atmosphere, which could be compatible with life as we know it.
Google on the Moon
Five missions have been racing for a long time to get the "Google Lunar X Prize", the prize offered by Google to explore the Moon with a rover able to move on our satellite, like what is doing Curiosity on Mars from several years. The problem is that the prize of 20 million dollars will be paid only to those who have completed the launch by the end of March 2018. Unfortunately at the moment none of the five remaining research teams seem to have enough resources and time to complete the mission.
Back to Mars
The most anticipated planetary mission of the year concerns the launch of NASA's "InSight" lander, to study the geological features of Mars. The departure for the planet is scheduled for May and the trip will last a few months, landing on Mars at the end of November, being the most critical moment of the mission. Landing on Mars is not easy and there have been several traumatic precedents, which resulted in the loss of several landers and rovers.
Touching the Sun
"Parker Solar Probe" is the most important space mission made by NASA to analyze the Sun and the solar wind, the flow of charged particles emitted from the high atmosphere of our star. In a certain sense this probe will "touch" the Sun, even if naturally it will not end up on its incandescent surface. It will still be very close in astronomical terms: keeping a distance of only 6.2 million kilometers (the Sun has a diameter of 1.39 million kilometers and is almost 150 million kilometers away from us). By approaching so much, PSB will be able to analyze in depth the way in which the solar wind originates, which in periods of high activity of the Sun reaches the Earth causing interference and communication problems, especially to our artificial satellites orbiting the planet. The mission will provide data to understand how the solar wind particles are pushed.
Landing on an asteroid
For more than a year, the space probe OSIRIS-REx is traveling to Bennu, the goal of its mission is to pick up a sample of an asteroid and to bring it back to Earth. Next August the probe will have reached Bennu, but will still be kept at a safe distance. After performing some maneuvers, it will remain in orbit around the asteroid for about a year, in order to collect as much data as possible on its characteristics. The NASA researchers will then decide where to take the sample to bring back to Earth. By the end of the year, we may still have the first high definition photos of an asteroid.
The planet Mercury, the closest to the Sun, has not so far received much attention in the last decades of space explorations. Things will change this year with the sending of "BepiColombo", a probe designed by the "European Space Agency" (ESA) in collaboration with the "Space Agency of Japan" (JAXA). The probe owes its name to Giuseppe Colombo, known as Bepi, a great Italian physicist and mathematician, one of the most important collaborators of the "Italian Space Agency" in the twentieth century.
Amazon in Space
Although none has yet achieved the results of SpaceX, there are several private space companies that are experimenting with solutions to reach the highest layers of the atmosphere and the Earth's orbit. Among the most promising is Blue Origin, a company of the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. In 2017 the company performed several tests of its "New Shepard" rocket, whose main objective is to transport private customers at a sufficient distance from the ground to allow them to experience microgravity for a few minutes. New Shepard has given very promising results, especially with regard to the automatic re-entry system of its recyclable rocket. The experimentation will continue throughout 2018 and it can not be excluded that it can include a first experimental flight with human beings.