The New Year is upon us at last, so let's all celebrate, make resolutions, and firmly kick 2016's ass out the door.
It's impossible to predict how 2017 will shake out in full, but one thing is for certain—it will be another remarkable year for space science. Read on for Motherboard's preview of the most momentous launches, missions, and celestial events to look forward to over the next 12 months, from the maiden flight of a colossal rocket to the swan song of Saturn's workhorse orbiter.
The Great American Solar Eclipse
On August 21, 2017, skywatchers in the continental United States will be treated to a total solar eclipse for the first time since 1979. When the Moon passes in front of the Sun that Monday, it will cast a 70-mile-wide moving shadow, called the "path of totality," that will travel from Oregon to South Carolina in 94 minutes. North Americans who don't fall under the direct route of the occultation will still get to enjoy partial eclipses, depending on the latitude.
Two Moon Landings!
In 2013, the Chinese Chang'e 3 spacecraft became the first lander to touch down softly on the Moon (as opposed to crash-landing) since 1976, indicating that the Moon is becoming a popular destination again. Case in point: In 2017, we will likely be treated to two lunar soft-landings, both exceptional.
China's space program plans to send its new, beefier Chang'e 5 lander to the lunar surface in fall 2017, where it will collect samples to be blasted back to Earth. This will be the first time Moon rocks have been brought home since the Russian Luna 24 lander bagged some up for a return trip in 1976.
Meanwhile, the California-based spaceflight company Moon Express is shooting to touch down on the lunar surface sometime in 2017, after being approved by the federal regulator this past summer. If it sticks the landing, Moon Express will be the first non-governmental entity to venture to the Moon.
Maiden Flight of the Falcon Heavy
The first test flight of SpaceX's massive Falcon Heavy rocket, which stands over 21 storeys high, is tentatively scheduled for spring 2017, after years of delays. If launched successfully, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful operating rocket in the world, and the second most powerful in history, after the Saturn V rockets that NASA built for the Apollo Moon landings. The vehicle is the flagship of the company's human spaceflight efforts, which include plans to send astronauts to low Earth orbit, the Moon, or even Mars. Check out this rockin' concept animation of its launch sequence, complete with reusable rocket stages.
The Next Generation of Exoplanet Telescopes
The Kepler space telescope has become a powerhouse research tool for NASA, having discovered thousands of worlds beyond our solar system since its launch in 2009. This year, it will get some much needed back-up with the launch of NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), currently scheduled for late 2017.
TESS is designed to root out nearby Earth-scale worlds, which scientists think have the highest odds of hosting aliens, or being habitable. The telescope will work in tandem with the sophisticated James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2018, in scanning the cosmos for signs of life—for instance, potential biomarkers like atmospheric ozone, oxygen, or methane—on the rocky terrestrial worlds that orbit the closest stars to the Sun.
American Earth Science in Peril?
The President of the United States wields a great deal of power over NASA's budget and objectives, so there will be shifts in the direction of the agency as Donald Trump assumes the office after Barack Obama.
One of the starkest differences in philosophy concerns Earth science and climate research, which the Obama administration supported. Trump's team has already proposed major cuts to NASA's Earth observation program, arguing that it has become too politicized and that the agency's focus should be on other planets, not our own. Whether that means Earth science will be redistricted to another federal agency or left to spaceflight communities in other countries remains to be seen.
The Event Horizon Telescope Reaches a Milestone
For the past decade, a network of nine radio telescopes around the world have been working together in a collaborative effort called the Event Horizon Telescope. Their goal is to image the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*, located at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. In 2017, the project is finally projected to produce its first snapshot of the black hole and its immediate environment, which will shed light on these exotic objects and test the general theory of relativity.
Since 2004, the Cassini orbiter has been studying Saturn, along with the planet's rings, moons, and environment. The spacecraft, built jointly by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, has had many adventures over the past 12 years. It delivered the Huygens probe to Saturn's largest moon Titan, marking the first time humans landed a robot on an outer solar system body. It continues to duck and weave through the system's rings. It dutifully recorded the great Saturn storm of 2010 and 2011, and passed through the geyser-powered plumes of the ice moon Enceladus like a kid running through a sprinkler.
Preview of Cassini's final year at Saturn. Video: NASA360/YouTube
It's been a good life, and it will come to a spectacular end in 2017. Cassini has already begun its "Grand Finale," and will make several close passes with Saturn and its moons, snapping pictures the whole time, until it plunges to its death in the planet's atmosphere on September 15. After 13 years and over 370,000 postcards home, it will finally rest in pieces deep within the world it has come to know so well.
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