By Gwynne Dyer
It’s going to be a good year in space, and the new players are aiming high. The Indian Space Research Organisation intends to send Chandrayaan-2, an uncrewed orbiter, lander and rover, to the moon in March.
In July, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will arrive at its target, the asteroid 162173 Ryugu, in an effort to return samples of this space rock to Earth.
And in June, China will launch the first part of its mission to the ‘dark side’ of the Moon, Chang’e 4, which will position a communications satellite 60,000 km beyond the Moon to provide a link with Earth. That 425kg relay satellite will also guide the second element of the mission, a lander and rover, down to a soft landing on the far side of the Moon, where nobody has gone before.
One benefit of being on the far side is that the Moon blocks out stray radio signals from Earth, so the view of the radio spectrum of the universe is far better. But the Chang’e 4 lander will also carry seeds and insects to test whether plants and animals can be grown on the Moon.
“The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon,” explained Zhang Yuanxun, chief designer of the container. “The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can establish a simple ecosystem on the Moon.” Very simple – but the first step towards a sustained human presence on the Moon.
The older space powers are also breaking new ground. Russia is testing a nuclear engine this year that could cut travel time to Mars from 18 months to just six weeks. In October the European Space Agency will launch a mission to Mercury. Nasa’s InSight Mars lander will launch in May, and the American agency’s Osiris-REx vehicle will rendezvous with near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August and start taking samples for return to Earth.
But the main event of the year, beyond doubt, is the planned launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy vehicle from Cape Canaveral. (The launch window opens on January 15.) “It’s guaranteed to be exciting,” said Musk last July.
“There’s a real good chance that it doesn’t make it into orbit….I hope it makes it far enough from the pad that it doesn’t cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win. Major pucker factor.”
This is known as ‘lowering expectations’, but it is also known as realism. Falcon Heavy will boost two-and-a-half times the payload of any existing rocket into Low Earth Orbit: more than 50 tons. Moreover, both the main rocket and the two boosters that are strapped onto it are designed to return to Earth and land, ready for reuse, which would transform the economics of putting things into orbit. If it all works.
It almost certainly will all work eventually, but this is effectively a new design, not just an upgrade, and there are many elements in a big vehicle like Falcon Heavy that cannot be tested on the ground. The aerodynamics are different, the stresses are different, and nobody has ever launched a vehicle with 27 rockets before. The old adage applies: Anything Can Happen And Probably Will.
Yet Elon Musk is also one of the greatest showmen and self-publicists of our time, so he’s an inveterate optimist. In early December he tweeted: “Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” (That is, a solar orbit like that of Mars, not an orbit around Mars. But everybody knows he does intend to go to Mars eventually.)
It’s easy to get carried away by hope, of course, but after Falcon Heavy comes Nasa’s Space Launch System vehicle, which is designed to put 70 tons into Low Earth Orbit, with a follow-on version capable of 130 tons (although its rockets will not be reusable). And Musk’s future plans include the BFR (Big Fucking Rocket) that would really go to Mars.
These are the sort of vehicles we need if we are really serious about getting out into space in a big way. When I watched the last of the Apollo Moon landings on TV in 1972, I assumed that we would be seeing rockets like this by the early 1980s. (See Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, for a perfectly reasonable vision of where we could have been in space technology by the turn of the century.)
Instead the money was cut, and then the Cold War ended. The whole enterprise was mothballed for forty years, except for unmanned interplanetary missions and a low-orbit International Space Station. But this year it does feel like we are back on track and going somewhere. Forty wasted years, but better late than never.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries