Hu­man­ity’s as­pi­ra­tions to ex­plore the So­lar Sys­tem have grown in 2017

Sky at Night Magazine - - SPACE IN 2017 - ABOUT THE WRITER Dr El­iz­a­beth Pear­son is BBC Sky at Night Mag­a­zine’s news ed­i­tor. She gained her PhD at Cardiff Univer­sity

Since 2001, the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion has been hu­mankind’s only full-time foothold be­yond the sur­face of the Earth. Stay­ing on the per­ma­nent sta­tion has al­lowed as­tro­naut Peggy Whit­son to rack up an im­pres­sive 665 days in space, set­ting a new flight time record for a US as­tro­naut. But the ISS might not be alone much longer. The Chi­nese Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (CNSA) has con­ducted sev­eral or­bital dock­ing and re­fu­elling tests on its sec­ond tem­po­rary space sta­tion, Tian­gong-2, through­out 2017. The sta­tion is in­tended as a test­bed for tech­nolo­gies to cre­ate a fu­ture per­ma­nent Chi­nese space sta­tion. In Au­gust, two ESA as­tro­nauts Sa­man­tha Christo­fore­tti and Matthias Mau­rer spent nine days with Chi­nese taiko­nauts, train­ing for a wa­ter land­ing on re­turn from such a sta­tion, bod­ing well for po­ten­tial Euro­pean col­lab­o­ra­tion on the sta­tion.

How­ever, CNSA’s lu­nar am­bi­tions hit a snag on 2 July, when one of their Long March 5 rock­ets failed. An­other Long March 5 was meant to take the Chang’e 5 lu­nar sam­ple re­turn mission to the far side of the Moon this Novem­ber, but has been post­poned while the agency in­ves­ti­gates the fault.

NASA and ESA’s am­bi­tions have met with com­pli­ca­tions too, as real-term fund­ing cuts have caused the agen­cies to can­cel the joint AIDA mission, in­tended to in­ter­cept and de­flect an as­ter­oid.

The year has been much more for­tu­itous for SpaceX. The com­pany fi­nally achieved one of its long term aims of reusing a rocket booster stage, and later one of its Dragon cargo mod­ules. How­ever, in Oc­to­ber com­pany founder Elon Musk an­nounced SpaceX was aban­don­ing its stal­wart Fal­con rock­ets to de­velop a com­pletely re­us­able sys­tem, the BFR, which could take peo­ple to Mars as early as 2024.

SpaceX has made 15 suc­cess­ful launches in 2017 so far

SpaceX suc­cess­fully landed its first reused Fal­con 9 in March

Sa­man­tha Christo­fore­tti dur­ing joint train­ing with Chi­nese taiko­nauts this Au­gust

Peggy Whit­son holds the US record for cu­mu­la­tive time in space – a huge 665 days

The am­bi­tious joint NASA/ESA as­ter­oid mission AIDA fell vic­tim to fund­ing trou­bles

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