Space Week 2019: Asteroids, exploration, moon landings and more make this the year of space; Part I

The sheer volume and range of mission in 2019 (till date) have been mighty exciting, setting the bar high for future ventures.


Editor's note: This article is the first in a two-part series published in light of International Space Week, between 4 and 10 October. You can find Part II here.

If anything, 2018 was a wonderful year for space – a European mission was launched to study Mercury, a pair of Japanese rovers touched down on an asteroid and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off for the first time.

In comparison, the sheer volume and range of mission in 2019 (till date) have been mighty exciting, setting the bar high for future ventures (particularly to the moon). Here's everything the movers and shakers in the space race accomplished in the year 2019, starting with New Year's Day.

Space Week 2019: Asteroids, exploration, moon landings and more make this the year of space; Part I

The SpaceX Starship could be humanity's first vessel to Mars. Image: SpaceX

January 2019

New Horizons makes the furthest space rendezvous in history

Kicking off the year, NASA's 13-year-old New Horizons probe completed an epic flyby of the most object ever explored by a space mission — a space rock fossil that scientists think has survived the 4.6 billion years since the Big Bang. Ultima Thule, as experts have dubbed it, is a trans-Neptunian object located in the Kuiper belt – a ring of asteroid 20 to 200 times as big as the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Much of the space rocks here are thought to be as old as the solar system itself – rubble left over from the Big Bang.

Artist's concept of the close encounter between New Horizons and the oddly-shaped Ultima Thule. Image: NASA

Artist's concept of the close encounter between New Horizons and the oddly-shaped Ultima Thule. Image: NASA

New Horizons is far from home and far from done. The mission is still beaming back data from its New Years' Day flyby, and it could be mid- to late-September before all the images and data captured by the mission reaches Earth for study.

Scientists hope that the spacecraft will document more of the solar system's outer ring of space rock leftovers beyond Neptune (the Kuiper Belt), and the hope of one day leaving the solar system completely.

(Also read: Light, camera, tumble! NASA releases film of space snowman captured by New Horizons)

China's Chang'e-4 lands on the moon's dark side

China became the first country in the world to successfully land on the far side of the moon on 3 January this year. The Chang'e-4 lunar mission, launched in August 2018 on a Long March 3B rocket, and landed on 3 January in the South Pole-Aitken basin – an ancient impact crater on the Moon that may have dug up and left part of its mantle (rocket layer under the surface/crust of a planet).

Studying this region directly offers the mission's scientists clues about the early solar system and Earth.

The first 360º panoramic images from Chang'e-4. Image: Twitter/CNSA

The first 360º panoramic images from Chang'e-4. Image: Twitter/CNSA

(Also read: Why is China's Chang'e-4 lunar mission going to the moon's far side a big deal?)

MicroSAT launched in what would be target practise for an ASAT test 

On 27 March 2019, India launched an Agni-V ballistic nuclear-capable missile in an anti-satellite (ASAT) test destroying a 740-kilogram active satellite (MicroSAT-R) that was launched by ISRO just a few months prior.

The tiny satellite, MicroSAT–R was "an imaging satellite"  launched in January 2019 as DRDO's target practise for the ASAT test India’s ability to shoot down an active (enemy) satellite should the need ever arise. The test was a demonstration of India's ability to protect its space assets if need be, and that it can destroy an active satellite moving in space that poses any threat to the country or any of its critical, space-based functions.

India's show of technological prowess received praise as well as condemnation for acting irresponsibly by generating space debris, which continue to threaten the safety of satellites in orbit.

(Also read: Debris from India's anti-satellite test is still zipping about in orbit and now we might know why)

The 5000-km range Agni-V nuclear-capable missile was launched from Kalam Island off Odisha at 9.50 am on 27 March, 2019. Image: Hemant Kumar/Twitter

The 5000-km range Agni-V nuclear-capable missile was launched from Kalam Island off Odisha at 9.50 am on 27 March, 2019. Image: Hemant Kumar/Twitter

NASA’s InSight records quakes on Mars for the first time!

History was made on 26 November, 2018, when NASA landed its newest Mars probe – the InSight lander.

InSight has provided weather reports, high-resolution imaging and interesting findings on Mars over its time there. Yet, the mission seems to be stalled on one front – the rover is currently struggling to probe the surface of Mars. If it persists, some of the mission’s key scientific missions run the risk of being incomplete.

An image of InSight's seismometer taken on the 110th Martian day of the mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An image of InSight's seismometer taken on the 110th Martian day of the mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight was designed to give a never-before-seen glimpse into the heart of Mars. Packing a crane, thermometers and a seismometer (to listen and record Marsquakes) onboard, InSight is, to put it simply, a mission to understand our Red neighbour (and potential home for human colonies in the near future) better.

(Also read: Hear, Hear! NASA's InSight lander catches first-ever 'faints rumbles' from inside Mars)

Parker probe completes its first orbit of the Sun

NASA's Parker Solar probe completed its first loop around the sun of 24 planned orbits. In its remaining flybys, instruments on Parker will help researchers study the inner workings of the Sun, how it accelerates solar material at high speeds, as well as what makes the star's outer atmosphere (the corona) so much hotter than sun’s surface.

Parker has survived the first of its many close approaches over the next few years. Image courtesy: NASA Goddard

Parker has survived the first of its many close approaches over the next few years. Image courtesy: NASA Goddard

ISRO has similar intentions for the upcoming Aditya-L1 mission, slated to launch in 2020.

(Also read: NASA's Parker survives Sun's extreme heat after making its first close approach)

(Also read: Aditya L-1 – after Chandrayaan 2, ISRO to pursue India's first mission to the Sun in 2020)

OSIRIS-REx captures the Earth, Moon and Asteroid Bennu in a mesmerizing photograph

The OSIRIS-REx (‘Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer’) sample return mission by NASA is an effort to study the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. From the spacecraft’s current (approx) 1.5-km-close orbit around the asteroid, it has returned scans and data about its surface.

The mission is also designed to dip down to the asteroid's surface and grab a sample in mid-2020. If all goes according to plan, Bennu’s samples will come down to Earth in a return capsule by September 2023.

(Also read: NASA locks down four potential landing sites on asteroid Bennu to collect samples)

Image of Earth, the Moon and Bennu captured by the NavCam on OSIRIS-REx. Image: NASA Goddard

Image of Earth, the Moon and Bennu captured by the NavCam on OSIRIS-REx. Image: NASA Goddard

February 2019

OneWeb launches a global satellite internet constellation

“Shouldn't everyone have access to the world's information?” is the question OneWeb poses on its website. An aerospace company, OneWeb is one of several companies (including AmazonSpaceX, even Facebook) that want to beam “fibre-like internet” (high-speed) internet from space.

OneWeb, however, has a relatively exciting timeline – it plans to roll out services on a small-scale in the Arctic starting 2020. Using a mega-constellation of internet-beaming satellites, the company says it can make high-speed internet available in homes, boats, even airplanes above the 60th parallel north latitude.

Train of Starlink satellites visible in the night sky seen in this video captured by satellite tracker Marco Langbroek in Leiden, the Netherlands on 24 May, a day after SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket. Image credit: Marco Langbroek via SatTrackBlog

Train of Starlink satellites visible in the night sky seen in this video captured by satellite tracker Marco Langbroek in Leiden, the Netherlands on 24 May, a day after SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket. Image credit: Marco Langbroek via SatTrackBlog

OneWeb launched the first six satellites in the constellation on 27 February, following it up with some data streaming tests in July.

(Also read: Star Caravan – SpaceX Starlink satellites spark UFO frenzy among Dutch astronomers)

Virgin Galactic's space tourism biz moves a step closer to reality

Virgin Galactic wraps up first sub-orbital flight of its Unity spacecraft with astronauts. The spaceflights' ascent was just 10 kilometres from the Kármán Line (100 km altitude) that the International Astronautical Federation considers ‘the beginning of space’. Virgin Galactic's first test passenger, astronaut trainer Beth Moses, spent part of her time in zero gravity "spidermanning along the ceiling”.

Apart from a successful test, the launch also presented some mindblowing views of the spacecraft and mid-test, as well as the view from inside the spacecraft. Hundreds of future space tourists have already claimed their spots for VG’s suborbital flights, coughing up a whopping USD 2,50,000 apiece for a ride on Unity.

(Also read: Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism dream heading closer to reality)

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft in its unveiling. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft in its unveiling.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Chang'e 4 survives its first of several 14-day-long lunar nights on the moon

The Chinese lander Chang'e 4 and its rover, Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit 2), awoke from a dormant, power-saving mode last 14 extra-cold days on the moon's far side in January 2019.

While there's not enough information on how many hours or days it lasted, we know that the moon hosted life on it for at least a few hours. Before the Chang'e-4 spacecraft blasted off to make history by landing on the moon's far side, Chinese scientists snuck canisters in the lander to try and make the mission doubly-historic. The specially-designed canisters contained cotton seeds, which sprouted into tiny shoots while on the moon.

This is the first time a plant has ever grown on a planet other than the Earth – unless we're counting the International Space Station, where microgravity experiments with plants are fairly routine.

A green shoot from a cotton seed inside an identical canister on Earth that simulates what the conditions inside the moon canister should have been. Image: CNSA/Chongqing University

A green shoot from a cotton seed inside an identical canister on Earth that simulates what the conditions inside the moon canister should have been. Image: CNSA/Chongqing University

The cotton seeds were part of a larger experiment including a couple of other seed varieties cultivated in these 'moon capsules' – potato seeds, rapeseed, a common plant species used in research known as Arabidopsis – as well as yeast, fruit flies and silkworm.

Data collected during this siesta and beamed back to the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) suggests that temperatures there had plummeted to –310 degrees F (–190 degrees C), an AFP report said. The cotton plants, which sprouted on the moon's far side in canisters inside the lander are dead – done in by the bitter cold of the lengthy lunar night, GBTimes reported.

(Also read: Moon sprouts! First cotton leaf grows in canister on China's Chang'e 4 moon lander)

March 2019

SpaceX launches historic test flight of its Crew Dragon capsule for NASA

Nobody was on board when SpaceX launched Crew Dragon on a 6-day flight (dubbed ‘Demo-1’), except for a sensor-rich dummy astronaut humanoid called Ripley (oh, yes its a tip of the cap to the sci-fi film ‘Alien’).

After a successful flight of Demo-1 and an emergency-escape test, SpaceX plans to test-launch the capsule with a NASA two-astronaut team to the space station. After an engine abort failure AND a parachute failure during testing on 20 April, this “Demo-2” mission was moved from July to no sooner than 17 December 2019.

A few of the first NASA astronauts expected to fly aboard Crew Dragon. Top row, left to right: NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins; Bottom row, left to right: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Image: SpaceX

A few of the first NASA astronauts expected to fly aboard Crew Dragon. Top row, left to right: NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins; Bottom row, left to right: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Image: SpaceX

Ambitious as ever, SpaceX had opted to reuse the vessel that flew in Demo-1 for the Demo-2 manned test flight. But the Demo-1 capsule was destroyed in the 20 April static fire test, leaving SpaceX no option but to start from scratch. An investigation into the explosion of its Crew Dragon spacecraft is still underway.
A glitch was found in one of the Hubble telescope’s most prolific cameras. After a ()-day rescue mission, NASA engineers managed to get this 21-year-old marvel back up and running. It was a stressful couple of weeks, but Hubble remains one of the most useful and vitally-important too to explore the universe.

(Also read: SpaceX Crew Dragon faces serious issues on launchpad despite successful first launch)

First commercial launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy, with Arabsat-6A

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful operational rocket in the world, carried its first customer payload, the Arabsat-6A communications satellite into space. The satellite was deployed into its high, geosynchronous orbit successfully, after which the Falcon boosters made their ever-enthralling vertical landing. For the first time, SpaceX succeeded in landing all three Falcon Heavy boosters.

SpaceX's Starman and Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster just completed their first orbit around the sun. Image: Wikimedia Commons

SpaceX's Starman and Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster just completed their first orbit around the sun. Image: Wikimedia Commons

To recall, the Falcon Heavy is the same rocket that launched a Tesla into space in 2018. The Tesla Roadster, with Starman at the wheels, also completed one complete orbit around the Sun in August 2019.

(Also read: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch: The world's most powerful rocket nails its landing)

April 2019

Hubble turns 29 after a rough, glitchy start to the year

The turn of the year wasn’t easy for the world’s most famous (ageing) space telescope. It suffered a broken gyroscope – a crucial pointing instrument that it uses to pinpoint star systems in the sky, but also to keep itself stable. The telescope was put in "safe mode" for two weeks, during which time, Hubble engineers tried to repair it using a strategy we know only too well: switch it off, wiggle some things around, and turn it back on again. It worked!

A mesmerising peek at the Southern Crab Nebula, courtesy Hubble.The image was released by NASA on Hubble's 29th birthday.

A mesmerising peek at the Southern Crab Nebula, courtesy Hubble.The image was released by NASA on Hubble's 29th birthday. Image: NASA/STScI/Hubble

And now, several months after this mini-crisis that threatened the remaining agility Hubble is still clinging on to, the telescope is back to shooting images as pretty, as informative as ever.

(Also read: NASA's Hubble captures a pair of galaxies merging, distorting in spectacular detail)

World's first privately-funded moon mission crash-lands on the moon

Israel's first mission to the moon, the Beresheet spacecraft, was expected to make a much-awaited touchdown on the Moon on 11 April. A successful touchdown would have made this a historic first for both, Israel and the global private space industry, since the mission was funded by private investors, and designed and engineered by Israeli space startup SpaceIL.

Image: SpaceIL, Twitter

One of the last images captured by the Beresheet spacecraft before the crash Image: SpaceIL, Twitter

But the spacecraft didn't land successfully – it descended and lost control of its engines midway through the descent, crashing into a massive lava plain on the Moon's near side, known as the Sea of Serenity, or Mare Seranitatis, between at around ~1.30 am IST 11 April morning (4 pm ET 10 April). Google Lunar XPrize presented the SpaceIL/Beresheet team with  "Moonshot Award", Space.com reported.

Planetary defence against extinction-level asteroid/comet impacts

In a conference held every alternate year, the Conference on Planetary Defense 2019 brought world experts – scientists, engineers, people who know how to track asteroids and send missions to them and try to deflect them off course – under one roof to hash out strategies to survive a deadly asteroid/comet impact.

The conference also featured a hypothetical scenario of a future impact – a dry run for all the infrastructure currently in place to prepare for “extinction by asteroid” as some would put it. For the next 100 years, we have NASA’s assurance that no hazardous asteroids are heading for our home planet.

Just like in the movies, the asteroid simulation supposedly destroyed most of New York.

(Also read: Killer asteroid obliterates New York in planetary defense simulation exercise)

May 2019

SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites on a thrice-flown Falcon 9

A Falcon 9 rocket was launched in May carrying the first 60 satellites in SpaceX’s Starlink internet constellation. SpaceX tried to deploy the Starlink in an unusual manner – without 60 distinct spring-based mechanisms for their deployment from the rocket. Instead, the satellites were simply spun off the Falcon 9's upper stage.

SpaceX will need to overcome a lot of competition from aerospace companies working on similar projects – OneWeb, Amazon to name two – all of who plan to launch internet mega-constellations of their own soon.

(Also read: SpaceX's Starlink program gets approval to send 12,000 internet satellites into orbit)

A prototype Starlink satellite. The first two prototype Starlink satellites were launched by SpaceX in February 2018. Image: SpaceX

NASA picked 3 firms to build landers for its pre-Artemis moon missions

Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and OrbitBeyond will divide a contract worth over USD 250 million to deliver NASA payloads (as many as 23 of them) to the moon ahead of the Artemis crewed missions planned for 2024. The space agency is yet to assign which science and technology demonstrations each company will carry, but the first of these preparatory missions will be in 2021.

Artist’s concept of a future moon landing carried out under NASA's newly named Artemis program. Image: NASA

Artist’s concept of a future moon landing carried out under NASA's newly named Artemis program. Image: NASA

While OrbitBeyond is a relatively new name in the commercial space market, they lead a consortium of subcontractors that design and develop hardware for deep space missions. Bangalore-based Team Indus was leading the engineering for OrbitBeyond’s lunar lander, while other stages like the payload integration were up to other companies in the partnership, including Honeybee Robotics, which has built hardware for many of NASA's past Mars landers.

In July 2019, OrbitBeyond sent NASA a notice citing that it had "internal corporate challenges" preventing them from completing the task order that was initially agreed upon, according to a NASA-issued statement.

(Also read: Team Indus partner OrbitBeyond drops out of NASA contract for 2020 moon lander missions)

June 2019

Odd flash from outside our galaxy detected for the second time in history

In only the second instance on record, scientists picked up the location of a fast radio burst – an ultra-short explosion that releases as much energy in a millisecond that Earth's Sun does in a century.

In the earlier instance, a rare "repeater" burst was located by scientists. It flared up several times in the span of years, unlike the newly-documented blast. Scientists think it is a more commonly-observed "one-off" class. This second burst could be traced and tracked by researchers, and help find the object/event (or alien) producing them.

(Also read: Flash of radio waves detected by astronomers traced back to its galactic origins)  

(Also read: Space Week 2019: A year for tech demonstrations, space oddities, commitments to explore the Moon; Part II)