2016 may be an interesting year for space exploration. Both Boeing and SpaceX by the end of the year intend to test fly their respective human-rated space capsules, so that by early next year Americans will once again be riding into orbit on American spacecraft rather than hitching rides from the Russians. Not only is it discouraging to have to rely on the Russians to take people to the International Space Station, it is expensive, around eighty million dollars per person. The cost of riding on American rockets will be about a fourth of that, or even less, thanks to SpaceX’s success in creating reusable rockets. Should reusability work out as well as they hope, the cost to orbit an astronaut could drop to a million dollars or even less. The Russians have commented, “SpaceX is stepping on our toes.”
Other things of interest that are scheduled for this year include the arrival of Juno at Jupiter. Juno is supposed to drop into orbit there on Independence Day (July 4). It was launched from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 5, 2011 aboard an Atlas V. The space probe weighs in at nearly eight thousand pounds, making it heavier than most automobiles.
Juno is powered by three solar panels, the largest ever used on a space probe to another planet. Each panel is about 29 feet long and 9 feet wide. It is also the most distant solar-powered spaceship ever sent into space. Previous missions that far from the sun have always used radioisotope thermoelectric generators, since a spacecraft at the distance of Jupiter receives only four per cent of the sunlight it would get in Earth orbit. However, advances in solar technology, along with a shortage of Pu-238, led to the decision to use Solar panels for this mission. Thankfully, the Pu-238 shortage (the radioisotope used to power our space exploration vehicles ranging from Cassini in orbit around Saturn, to the curiosity rover on Mars, to New Horizons at Pluto) has been addressed: the United States is now actively producing more of the radioisotope Pu-238 for future deep space missions.
Juno’s purpose is to study Jupiter's composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. It is designed to find out if Jupiter actually has a rocky core (which is theorized) and how much water exists in its atmosphere. It will also study the planet’s winds, which can move as quickly as 384 miles per hour. It will also, of course, take nice photographs.
On the 14th of March, the European Space Agency is scheduled to send a lander and orbiter to Mars aboard a Russian Proton: the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is designed to make improved measurements of trace gases in the Martian atmosphere, especially methane, which may indicate the presence of biological activity. Over the years, there have been strong indications of more methane showing up on Mars than there should be, and while methane is most commonly a byproduct of life it can also sometimes be produced by certain geological activity. So the hope is that this European mission may be able to pin things down so that we can understand what is causing the methane we’re finding there.
In April, SpaceX is supposed to try launching their newest rocket, the Falcon Heavy. A Falcon 9 flies with nine engines in its first stage. A Falcon Heavy takes three of those first stages and straps them together, so that there are 27 engines firing at lift off. A Falcon 9 can put 28, 990 pounds into low earth orbit, or10,690 pounds into geosynchronous orbit. A Falcon Heavy can put 117,000 pounds into low earth orbit and 46,700 pounds into geosynchronous orbit. It will be the most powerful rocket currently in service on Earth, and the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V took people to the moon.
This year should also see the Chinese launch two new rockets: the Long March 5 and the Long March 7. The Long March 5 should be able to take 55,000 pounds to low earth orbit and 31,000 pounds to geosynchronous orbit. The Long March 7 is designed to replace the Long March 2 and will have a capacity of 29,800 pounds to low earth orbit and 12,100 pounds to geosynchronous orbit.
This year will also see a large number of satellites placed in orbit in 2016, about the same as average. In 2015 there were 87 orbital launches by the various space faring nations of the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, India and Japan. 2016 should see about the same number from the same locations. The satellites to be launched include military reconnaissance, weather, earth observation and GPS, as well as a handful of scientific endeavors.