Space

The Major Indian and International Space Missions to Look Out for in 2019

2018 was an incredible year for spaceflight with over 100 successful space launches, and 2019 is bound to be no different. Here’s what’s in store.

1. The US’s return to the ISS

SpaceX is set to make the first test-launch of its human-rated capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) in January. Called the Crew Dragon Demo-1, the it will be uncrewed. If successful, it will be followed by a crewed test flight in June, carrying two astronauts to the ISS.

Boeing, the other company with a NASA Commercial Crew Program contract, has a similar schedule. The first uncrewed flight of its human-rated capsule – the CST-100 Starliner – will be in March, followed by a crewed test flight in August if all goes well.

Assuming both the SpaceX and Boeing missions will be successful, they will mark the return of American astronauts to the ISS onboard made-in-American spacecraft. The ultimate goal is to replace the (retired) Space Shuttle programme and also forgo the increasingly expensive use of Russian rockets.

2. Three Moon missions, all to land

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is targeting an early-2019 launch of Chandrayaan 2, its second Moon mission and the first that will attempt to land. Chandrayaan-2 consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The lander will carry instruments like a seismometer and a thermal probe, while the rover will carry spectrometers to analyse the lunar soil (regolith).

(Note: the launch date was updated on January 1, 2019, to reflect an uncertainty on ISRO’s part.)

SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit, will be launching their lunar lander in the first quarter of 2019 onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If successful, SpaceIL will become the first privately funded entity to achieve a lunar landing. The lander will try to land in an interesting lunar feature called a swirl, which are known to have local magnetic fields.

China is gearing up to launch its Chang’e 5 mission sometime in 2019 – its first lunar sample return mission. Once it lands successfully in a geologically new region on the Moon, the lander will dig 2m below the surface and scoop out two kilogram’s worth of lunar regolith. A capsule carrying the sample will perform an autonomous rendezvous and dock with a return module, which will then bring the sample to Earth.

It is notable that the rendezvous and docking will be practice for a future Chinese crewed mission to the Moon.

3. New rockets in the fray

After a spectacular debut in 2018, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is set to operate as the most powerful operational launch vehicle in the world. In March 2019, it will attempt to launch the Arabsat 6A satellite to a geostationary orbit. This is a communications satellite intended to provide TV, internet, telephone and secure communication services to customers in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

But not all new rockets need to be bigger – in fact, the opposite is more true. CubeSats and SmallSats have become increasingly easier to make and operate, so a market for rockets that can deliver such small payloads at a fast pace has arisen.

Rocket Lab has already had two successful commercial flights (this and this) of its Electron rocket, designed specifically to launch SmallSats. The company will also be ramping up its launch frequency to ultimately attain its stated goal of 120 launches a year.

Also in 2019, three more rocket companies are set to enter the arena. The first is billionaire-entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit. With the successful test-flight of its long-awaited Launcher One craft in December 2018, Virgin Orbit will now aim for a steady launch pace to deliver SmallSat payloads starting as early as Q1 2019.

Vector Launch will also launch their for-SmallSat rocket, the Vector-R, in the same quarter. In December 2019, Firefly’s Alpha 1 will lift off on its first test-flight.

Also notable in this category is ISRO’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), which will be a smaller cousin to the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). While the PSLV can lift 3,000 kg to the low-Earth orbit, the SSLV will be able to lift 500 kg. ISRO has said the SSLV’s USPs will be a low cost and faster turnaround time. Its design is ready and the first SSLV test-flight is expected to happen in May, followed by the second one in October.

4. Ongoing space missions, for a science-packed 2019

The New Horizons probe, after its remarkable Pluto flyby in 2015, will now be passing by a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) called Ultima Thule on January 1. This will be the first ever look at a KBO, a giant disc of rocks leftover from the formation of the Solar System, beyond Pluto’s orbit.

On January 3, the Chinese lunar lander Chang’e 4 will attempt to land on the far side of the Moon, the first such attempt in history. Since this part of the Moon is not visible from Earth, Chang’e 4 will exchange signals with mission control on Earth through a communication satellite launched last year. And like SpaceIL’s lander, the Chang’e 4 lander will also descend on a unique, scientifically interesting spot on the Moon: the von Kármán crater.

On to Mars: In February, NASA’s Insight lander will begin studying the red planet’s interior by drilling up to 5m into its surface and measuring the subsurface temperature with a thermal probe.

February will also see the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2 attempt to collect a sample from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu.

On April 4, NASA’s Parker solar probe will make its next close approach to the Sun, followed by two more on September 1 and December 26. Its final close approach, when it enter the Sun’s atmosphere – the corona –, will be in 2024. And to get so close to the Sun, the probe will use gravity assists from Venus, the first of which is slated for December 26, 2019.

5. Miscellaneous

The European Space Agency is targeting an October-November launch of its exoplanet hunting telescope, called the CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite (CHEOPS). CHEOPS will measure the radii of known exoplanets around nearby bright stars, for which ground-based telescopic surveys have provided mass estimates. Knowing both masses and sizes of exoplanets will allow scientists to determine the planets’ densities and so their composition, like whether they are gaseous or rocky and if they have an atmosphere, etc.

ISRO will launch its GSAT 20 communication satellite in September 2019 onboard Ariane 5 rocket. It will be the first ISRO-made satellite to attempt to move from a geostationary transfer orbit to a geosynchronous orbit using electric propulsion.

In the same month, ISRO will also attempt to launch its Geo-Imaging Satellite (GISAT) 1 onboard a GSLV Mk II rocket. The GISAT is be a geostationary satellite designed to provide imagery during natural disasters on a near-real-time basis.

Jatan Mehta is a science writer with a background in physics and research experience in astrophysics. He is passionate about space, technology and science communication.