Earth as seen from the International Space Station, just after sunrise.
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Earth as viewed from the International Space Station, September 2014. Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman

Star Stuff: Watch this space in 2018

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Jan 11, 2018, 4:57 PM EST (Updated)

Star Stuff is a weekly column by rocket scientist and astrophysicist Summer Ash highlighting some amazing things happening every day on and off the planet, especially great science done by and/or for women. She harnesses her science communication powers to smash the patriarchy and advocate for equality and inclusion across all time and space. Throwdowns with pseudoscience may occur.

No matter what your resolutions are for 2018, my resolution is to get you to look up more and contemplate the awesomeness of our Universe and the ways in which we are exploring it. What better way to do that than to give you a rundown of some incredible launches, missions, and celestial events slated for this year? Grab your laptops, your phones, your day planners, or what have you and mark your calendars for some serious space fun. 


January: SpaceX Falcon Heavy

The year in space is set to start off with a bang, thanks to SpaceX. The first launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket is “scheduled” for sometime this month (they still need to perform a test fire). Essentially three Falcon rockets strapped together, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful launch vehicle since the Saturn V in the days of the Apollo program.

Oh, and did I mention the payload for this first flight will be a Tesla roadster (as revealed by Elon Musk via his Instagram account)? The goal is to put the Tesla in orbit around Mars to await its future passengers, whom Musk is also planning to launch one day.

March: Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in March aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket (the regular kind). TESS is a successor of sorts to NASA’s Kepler mission. Both spacecraft are planet hunters utilizing the transit technique, but while Kepler focused all its energy on one small area of the sky, TESS will be doing the first all-sky survey for exoplanets from space. The goal of the mission is to observe the brightest stars in our solar neighborhood in hopes of finding small transiting planets with atmospheres that are close enough for us to study in detail.

Fun fact: TESS will be put in a highly elliptical Earth orbit that’s never been tried before. It’s a 2:1 lunar resonant orbit called P/2 which will keep TESS away from the Moon, which could destabilize it. The spacecraft will spend most of its orbit outside the Van Allen belts traveling to an apogee of 232,000 miles and downlink its data while it swings through perigee at a distance of 67,000 miles.

April: First African-American Crew Member on the International Space Station

Portrait picture of Jeanette Epps in blue astronaut jumpsuit with hands folded and an American flag in the background

Astronaut Jeanette Epps. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

When Expedition 56 launches from Baikonur this spring, American astronaut Jeanette Epps will make history as the first black astronaut crew member on the International Space Station (ISS). Yes, you read that correctly. There have been a total of 22 black astronauts to date, out of a total of 338, only 15 of whom have actually flown. And while it’s true black astronauts have been aboard the space station, none of them have actually been part of a designated ISS expedition. They were only members of a visiting Shuttle or Soyuz crew. Oh, and as if being an astronaut didn’t make her cool enough already, Epps is also a former CIA intelligence officer.


May: InSight Mars Lander

NASA will launch the newest generation of Mars landers to the red planet in May. The InSight mission may have one of the most academic acronyms to date: Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. To be fair, it’s actually a “backcronym,” so I guess I’ll cut them so slack.

Originally slated to launch in 2016, an instrument failure forced NASA to reschedule for this year. InSight is a lander rather than a rover, so it will spend its full two-year mission in the western Elysium Planitia region, near the planet’s equator. While previous missions have explored the Martian surface, InSight is designed to “peer” deep inside Mars to study the geological history of its interior. The lander is equipped with a seismometer and a heat probe and an x-band transponder to measure the planet’s "pulse,” "temperature," and "reflexes,” respectively. The latter will be accomplished by tracking the wobble of Mars in its orbit via the Doppler effect in radio communication with Earth. BECAUSE PHYSICS!

July: Parker Solar Probe

Fireworks will make a comeback at the end of July with the launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which will make history by becoming the first spacecraft ever to get within 4 million miles of the Sun’s surface. The scientific goals of the mission are to study the magnetic and thermodynamic mechanisms for creating and accelerating the solar wind, still a big mystery in solar science.

The Parker Probe will take the scenic route to our host star via not five, not six, but seven flybys of Venus. This allows the spacecraft to use less fuel to transition from Earth’s orbit around the Sun to a highly elliptical orbit taking it far inside Mercury’s orbit. Each time the probe makes its closest approach to the Sun, it will accelerate to speeds over 100 miles per second, which is like flying from New York to Tokyo in less than a minute. 

Red elliptical orbits of Parker Space Probe shown in contract to blue inner planet orbits around the Sun

Launch and mission trajectory of NASA's Parker Solar Probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

August: China's Lunar Sample Return Mission

The U.S. isn’t the only country operating offworld this year. China hopes to launch its long-delayed lunar sample return mission, Chang’e 5, late this summer. If successful, this will be the first sample return mission to the Moon in over four decades. The last spacecraft with a similar mission was the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. Chang’e 5 is designed much like the Apollo landers, with a two-part structure for landing on the surface and then launching the sample back to Earth.

September: Full Assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope 

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was originally slated to launch in October of this year, but was pushed back to 2019 because the integration of various spacecraft elements was taking longer than expected. That’s actually no small task. JWST consists of a multi-segmented mirror, multiple instruments, and a ginormous sunshield (to help keep important components cool). Fully assembled, its footprint is about the size of a tennis court. The primary mirror consists of 18 hexagons, each of which is over a meter in diameter and weighs nearly 50 pounds. The mirrors were fully assembled in the fall of 2016 at Goddard Space Flight Center and in 2017 were transported to Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Southern California, where they have been undergoing additional testing alongside the fully assembled sunshield.

The sunshield itself consists of five separate membranes made of aluminized kapton, an uber-thin flexible film with thermal and electrical properties ideal for spacecraft. Each membrane is no thicker than a human hair. Once fully integrated, both the mirrors and the sunshield will be folded up like origami to fit inside the rocket fairing for launch aboard an Ariane 5.

October: 60th Anniversary of NASA

Happy birthday, NASA! You don’t look a day over 59. NASA turns 60 on October 1, 2018. Check up on NASA across social media later this year to learn more about how they plan to celebrate. As of now, they are planning to highlight the X-15 and Sputnik’s kickoff of the space age. Whatever else they have up their sleeves, you can be sure it will be out of this world (sorry, not sorry).

All Year Long: 5 Solar/Lunar Eclipses

2018 will have two lunar eclipses and three partial solar eclipses visible for various Earthlings, the majority of which won’t be visible from the continental U.S., but that’s why NASA TV and Slooh exist!

First up is a total lunar eclipse on January 31 for those living in the Pacific Rim. Alaska, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, and Hawaii will have front-row seats, but most of Africa and South America will sit this one out. The tables turn, however, on July 27, when Western Africa, the Middle East, and India have prime viewing for the second lunar eclipse of the year.

The solar eclipses of 2018 are only for the most adventurous among you, as you’ll need to travel to the southernmost tip of South America, Antarctica, and the Arctic circle if you want to catch a glimpse. Alternatively, stay put and plan like hell for 2024

Several Geminids meteors falling over a lake and mountain range in China

Geminids meteor shower over China. Credit: Haitong Yu, Getty Images

All Year Long: Meteor Showers

Last but not least, meteor showers are probably the most likely space events you can participate in from the comfort of your own backyard, porch, local park, or sketchy roof deck (that’s for us New Yorkers). Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through the dust trail left by a comet that entered the inner solar system. Most of these comets are periodic, meaning they return again and again. The more recently they’ve returned, the more recently they’ve redeposited their dust trail, and the more spectacular the meteor shower. The name of the shower is usually the constellation in the area of the sky where the meteors appear to originate (which is really just the direction in which Earth is plowing into the dust trail).

According to Sky & Telescope, the vast majority of this year's annual meteor showers will only produce 10-20 meteors per hour at their peak. That’s not nothing, but unless you already live in a great sky-watching location, it’s not worth making a huge effort to get to one for these. I recommend saving up all your energy for the Geminids in December, which are predicted to peak at 100-120 meteors per hour -- that’s almost two a minute!

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