12 important space missions, events to look forward to in 2017


The year has already seen a variety of landmark space missions taking place. There were the Falcon 9’s successful first stage landings, the Juno probe’s Jupiter rendezvous and the longest stay at the International Space Station.

Next year promises to be another bumper year for unmanned and manned spaceflight, so what should we expect? We listed 12 space missions and major events to watch out for in 2017.

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Boeing to test its manned capsule

Boeing is hard at work on its CST-100 Starliner capsule, hoping to beat SpaceX to the manned mission punch. The CST-100 Starliner capsule can lift up to seven astronauts to orbit and beyond, or a mixture of several astronauts and cargo.

The Starliner capsule will just about make it for a 2017 mission, being set for a December unmanned test flight to the ISS. This means that the capsule’s first manned mission will take place in early 2018, the company confirmed.

The first orbital test of Dragon V2

SpaceX is gunning hard to win NASA‘s astronaut transport contract, duking it out with the aforementioned Boeing capsule. To this end, it’s developed the Dragon V2 manned space capsule, capable of transporting up to seven astronauts as well.

The Dragon V2 will undergo its first proper test in May 2017, it has been reported. The test flight will take the capsule to the ISS, mimicking a typical manned mission. If everything goes according to plan, a proper manned mission could take place by the end of 2017.

And Blue Origin…

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin private space firm has a mooted 2017 manned test flight date earlier this year, being a sub-orbital hop rather than a full-fledged journey into orbit.

Will the company succeed in meeting its target though? Who knows? But its New Shepard space capsule offers large windows and space for up to six people.

Exoplanet hunter to be launched

NASA’s quest to find exoplanets continues in 2017, as it teams up with SpaceX to launch the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) space telescope in December.

“TESS will monitor more than 200 000 stars for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits,” NASA Goddard explained. These planets range from gas giants to potential Earth-like planets.

TESS will be followed by the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in late 2018.

ESA to launch exoplanet telescope of its own

Yes, 2017 will play host to two space telescopes being launched, with the second being the European Space Agency‘s CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite).

CHEOPS differs from NASA’s TESS telescope in that it will be looking at nearby stars already known to host exoplanets. This way, it’ll be providing new information on these existing planets.

“CHEOPS is designed to be sensitive to planets ranging from a few times the size of the Earth up to the size of Neptune,” the ESA explained on its website. In a rather cool move, the ESA will also add children’s drawings (miniaturised and engraved on plaques) to the telescope.

China to land on moon, return samples

China’s space programme marches on with a rather ambitious mission to the moon. Of course, they’ve already landed a lunar rover, but what makes this mission tougher is that it’s a return trip.

The country’s Chang’e 5 mission will see a lunar lander touching down on the moon, gathering samples and bringing it back to Earth. Returning is no trivial matter, as the probe needs to be protected against the intense heating of Earth re-entry.

Cassini probe gets ‘Grand Finale’

NASA’s venerable Cassini probe has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, but the space agency is set for a rather explosive finale on 15 September 2017.

Cassini will undertake 22 perilous orbits between the inner rings and the planet itself (dubbed the ‘Grand Finale’), capturing a wealth of information and images in the process.

Once these orbits are complete, the probe will burn up in Saturn’s upper atmosphere, capping off a remarkable mission.

Launching satellites from a Boeing 747

It’s not unheard of to launch objects into space from a jet aircraft (the USA test-fired anti-satellite weapons from F15s), but from a Boeing 747? That’s another matter.

Virgin Galactic will be testing its new LauncherOne programme in 2017, which aims to carry a 200kg payload into a “sun synchronous orbit” for less than US$10-million.

A green alternative to chemical propulsion

Next year will see NASA launching the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) for a new form of green propulsion, being an alternative to hydrazine fuel.

One of the biggest advantages to the switch is that fuel loading will be “safer, faster and much less costly”, NASA claimed. Other upsides include a higher density than hydrazine, better thrust and a lower freezing point.

First private moon landing?

Two companies are perhaps considered favourites to win Google‘s Lunar X Prize, in the form of Israel’s SpaceIL and the USA’s Moon Express programmes.

The X Prize will award US$20-million to the first private firm to land a robotic craft on the moon, have it travel 500 metres and transmit HD video/pictures back to Earth.

SpaceIL is set to launch atop a Falcon 9 next year, while Moon Express has an agreement with Rocket Lab. The latter has also received permission from US authorities to undertake the mission.

Tackling space debris

The RemoveDebris mission, led by the Surrey Space Centre and backed by the European Commission, could result in less space junk floating around our planet.

The mission is set to launch in 2017 and will test a fishing net-like device to capture orbiting space debris. Another system on the spacecraft will attach a “dragsail” to space junk, allowing said debris to be pushed out of orbit. There are several more interesting bits of technology flying on this mission, as shown in the above video.

Testing asteroid mining technology

We previously wrote about a mining mission to an asteroid, but the company behind that mission will conduct a preliminary flight in 2017.

The Prospector-X test flight is a precursor to the Prospector-1 mission, and will test the company’s water-based propulsion, avionics and navigation systems. If successful, the Prospector-1 mission will take place “before the end of the decade”.

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