2017: A Space Odyssey

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This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #17.

In Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2004 book The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist he quips that the “dinosaurs are extinct today because they lacked opposable thumbs and the brainpower to build a space program”. In a President Trump/Post Brexit world it seems, at least if you follow certain media outlets, that the chance of humans soon becoming extinct is an ever increasing possibility. So, to stop the human race falling into a dystopia previously seen on the big screen in films like Mad Max and Wall-E we have to do two things: all purchase mittens to protect our digits and focus our energies into exploring the universe.

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At the forefront of space exploration has always been NASA. Although it was the Russians to send the first person into space, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launching into orbit in 1961, it was the Americans who put Neil Armstrong on the moon eight years later and in 2017 their plans for investigating the universe have only gotten more and more grandiose. Unfortunately the scientists will have to amend their plans to fit a smaller budget, with their budget of $19 billion being a $300 million reduction on last years. This hasn’t affected their vision though, with 2017 seeing the next stage of their planned missions to gather further information about Mars and Saturn. The red planet is seen as the destination of the future and in late 2017 NASA’s Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket in the world, will be entering its “Green Run” phase in the hope that it will be able to carry the Orion spacecraft on a successful unmanned mission in 2018. If the SLS passes the tests it will take Orion 40,000 miles beyond the moon, which is further than any spacecraft built for humans has ever gone. With manned missions to Mars scheduled for 2020, NASA need the SLS to pass this year’s tests to remain on track and in an industry where every change to the schedule can be extremely costly in a monetary and time sense it is vital they do.

2017 also sees end of the thirteen year-long Cassini mission. The Cassini space probe has been exploring Saturn since 2004 and in November 2016, the probe went into the penultimate stage of its life, what NASA called its “Ring-Grazing Orbits”, which was designed to sample the particles that make up Saturn’s famous rings. In April, it will break new ground by descending even closer to the planet and in an area that is yet to be explored: the space between Saturn and its rings. Once its final task is complete it will go on a self-destructive path to Saturn’s surface. NASA have announced the probe will be taking photographs as commits the spaceship equivalent of suicide, which when you think about it is rather morbid until you realise it’s for science, and that it’s a machine.

With all the attention on NASA and their Eastern European counterparts a new country will be furthering their attempts to reach for the stars in 2017 as China’s own space agency the CNSA aim for a record 30 space missions this year. Although many of the missions being conducted have already been done by more esteemed spacefaring nations, it shows that space exploration is clearly on the country’s agenda and once they’ve conquered these challenges they can aim for more ground-breaking missions. This year they’ll launch their first-ever cargo spacecraft, headed for the space laboratory which was launched last year. In 2018, CNSA aims to land a rover to the far side of the moon, a first for humankind. And in 2020, it plans to land a rover on Mars, a feat that has been attempted by Russia and other European nations, but only successfully accomplished by the United States. Like their American counterpart 2017 is the beginning of very big things.

With country’s aiming to go further and further into the universe it begs the question on what 2017 has in store for space tourism. Unfortunately just yet it seems there’s not a lot planned. After Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two suffered a fatal crash, Richard Branson has seemed reluctant to attempt another manned test run. In the 14 years the Virgin Galactic programme has been running they are yet to reach outer space. This highlights the enormity of the task at hand. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk have also had attempts to enter the private spaceflight race with similarly poor results.

2017 will be an exciting year for space exploration as we attempt to further our knowledge of the known universe and with other country’s joining the fold, it makes the possibility of private spaceflight possible so that one day we may have the chance to go to infinity and beyond.

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Daniel Eggleston