Why The Next 5 Years Are Going To Be Awesome (In Space)

To close out 2014, I’d like to talk about why I’m very excited for the next 5 years in space travel.

Dawn renderingDawn being built

Early next year we’ll get to see two extremely cool missions returning pictures: the Dawn spacecraft, and New Horizons. In April 2015, Dawn will be the first spacecraft to enter orbit around body that isn’t the Earth or the Sun, then exit orbit and enter orbit around another body. We’ll get to see high-res photos of Ceres; expect a lot of articles about old theories being overturned by the data Dawn returns.

New Horizons renderingNew Horizons being built

Second, New Horizons will be performing a fly-by of Pluto in July 2015. This will be our first good look at a trans-Neptunian dwarf planet. Observations could provide a lot of insight of the Kuiper belt, as well as other structures like the (potential) inner Oort cloud. Between Dawn and New Horizons, we’ll be getting our first close-up look at dwarf planets.

Trans-Neptunian dwarf planets

There are other fascinating missions that are either already launched, or on schedule to be launched. ExoMars is a joint mission between the ESA and Roscosmos with the single purpose of searching for bio-signatures (past or present) on Mars. This is exciting because all current NASA missions very pointedly don’t have this scientific objective. The last NASA mission to search for bio-signatures was the Viking landers in the late 1970’s. I’m a little concerned that Russia will have trouble with their end of the mission; after all, the Russians don’t have the best track record when it comes to Mars.

Hayabusa 2 launchHayabusa 2 rendering

Also exciting and potentially more fruitful is Hayabusa 2, launched earlier this fall. Hayabusa 2 is interesting because they plan to shoot an asteroid with a space gun. Leave it to the Japanese to put cannons on their spaceships (technically the Russians did it first, but they didn’t actually shoot at something). After blowing a crater in asteroid 1999 JU3, Hayabusa 2 will float down and take samples from the newly exposed subsurface. The mission will finally return the samples to Earth in December 2020.

A bit closer to home is another interesting mission: the Chinese plan to launch a Moon sample return mission in 2017. The mission architecture is interesting; unlike early sample return missions, the lander will rendezvous in lunar orbit with a return craft. I might be wrong about this, but I think this will be the first automated rendezvous and docking around a body that isn’t Earth. I think it’s great that China is making leaps and bounds in its space program; earlier this year, they launched a test mission for the upcoming sample return mission and took a German payload along for a ride. The more the merrier, I say!

Speaking of which, the competition for the Google lunar X-prize is going to draw to a close in a few years. The deadline was recently extended to the end of 2016, and at least one team already has a flight reserved in 2015. There are only a few teams still seriously in the running, but if even two of them actually get off the ground, the Moon could become a very crowded place indeed.

One of teams at the forefront, Astrobotic, has booked a launch with SpaceX on a Falcon 9. And SpaceX really has come to prominence lately. Expect a lot more out of them in the next few years. For example, in 6 days they are going to attempt to land the first stage of a Falcon 9 on a barge for the first time. Although this has a pretty low chance of working (Musk estimates 50%, so who knows how low it actually is), it is a huge step towards their long-term goal of rapidly reusable rockets. In fact, if they do get a barge landing to succeed, we might even get to see a used stage re-fly as early as 2015!

Rendering of the Dragon V2

And on that front, SpaceX will be finishing up the Dragon V2 by 2016 or 2017. Besides launch abort tests and propulsive landing tests, we will also no doubt be seeing manned commercial launches in a few years. Remember the excitement when SpaceX became the first company to dock a spacecraft with the ISS? The celebration will be ten-fold when SpaceX becomes the first company to put a human in orbit.

But Spacex will also perform the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy, and facilitate ground-breaking tests for both VASIMIR engines (if funding for that doesn’t run out) and an inflatable habitat on the ISS.

We might even see more action from Bigelow Aerospace. They’ve manifested a number of flights from SpaceX, presumably to start launching components for a commercial space station. Now that cheaper orbital crew transportation is just a few years away, Bigelow is ramping up production again; hundreds of new positions have opened open at Bigelow.

Finally, the wildcard. Will the SLS actually launch, or will it get cancelled before its first flight due to a change of presidency or loss of support in Congress? If it does launch, it will be spectacular. Unfortunately, I pretty much doubt any of the potential missions for the SLS (Europa Clipper, ATLAST, or Uranus orbiter) will get funded, so it is almost guaranteed that the SLS gets shelved even if does fly in 2018. So there’s that to look forward to.

The Falcon Heavy and SLS preparing for launch

Advertisements

The World in 15 Years

It’s been a while since I’ve just written something for fun without justifying myself, so I decided to make a post where I just make shit up. Basically, I’ve been thinking about something I heard a while back, which went along the lines of: science fiction is about personalizing issues in the present day and bringing abstract problems to a level in which the characters deal with it directly. While I disagree with the statement to some extent, I also agree with it the more I think about it. Fallen Angels makes climate change a very tangible force that the characters have to deal with, for instance. Power Nap (a webcomic) expands the sense that corporations take advantage of their employees for productivity beyond reasonable limits, and personalizes it for the protagonist.

So, I momentarily abandoned my plans for writing a space opera. Most of all, I just wasn’t ready for a writing project of that magnitude. But more importantly, it didn’t MEAN anything to me. I wanted to write a story that took some problem or idea that affected me and make it very real and tangible. With the latest set of vicious storms in my area knocking out power for days, even disabling emergency services and perhaps water utilities for a time, I began thinking about how reliant our global society is on electronics and the electricity to power them. This coupled with the thoughts that had been stewing about in my head ever since I casually skimmed a National Geographic article. The article was not that interesting, but the subject matter was one that hadn’t really occurred to me before: a freak solar flare, like one that happened in 1859, could essentially fry the entire power grid and all of our electronics. This, to me, proposes a much more interesting and up-to-date apocalyptic scenario than the standard nuclear armageddon.

That got me thinking about the near future, and so I’ve compiled a list of some things I think will be likely to occur in the next 15 years. I tried to not be too optimistic. Yes, I know that some of it is inconsistent, and some of it is much more detailed than other parts.

Geopolitics
Asia
-China becoming more democratic, but increases censorship nonetheless
-Huge number of economically successful high-tech countries in East and Southeast Asia
-Pacific Rim emerges as haven for free data sharing, as well as Eastern Europe

Africa
-Poor countries still poor
-Communication technologies become even more widespread
-Corrupt governments overthrown in continuous cycles of bloody revolution
-Raw material supply becomes unreliable
-Poor corrupt countries may fall into anarchy

America
-Rest of world becoming more socialist in terms of government handling of resources
-USA increasingly resistant to government regulation of resources and thus begins to lag in large societal changes and technological adoption
-More and more unrest as the US government fails to agilely address new problems
-Increased attempts by media-industry-controlled government factions to eradicate un-supervised data sharing on Internet
-USA oversteps some boundaries trying to persecute free data sharing companies in Asia, world becomes weary of US intellectual property pushes

Europe
-Everything goes to shit in Greece with communist election, pulls out of EU
-Spain pulls out of EU because of financial collapse
-Germany pulls out of EU in anticipation of EU and Euro collapse
-Euro goes to hell
-European economy collapses, lots of companies migrate their finances to US or Asia in anticipation
-Several brief civil wars break out in countries hit hard, tourism in Europe goes to shit, causes more economic decay

Technology
Space
-DARPA project kicks off space recycling
-Retired space stations are cannibalized
-Expanded commercial industry, competition with SpaceX
-Asteroid mining just starting, expected influx of resources (Earth mining becomes ridiculously expensive as resources are depleted)
-Plans for mars still just plans (commercial and governmental)
-Commercial space station with sponsors (Red Bull module?)

Computers
-More advances in mobile technology
-Competition in information glasses (see Google Glass)
-Increased presence of laplets (netbook / tablet hybrid, see Microsoft Surface)
-Increases in high-speed Internet availability
-Cloud gaming (processing on external machines, screen streamed)
-Some cities are implementing ubiquitous wifi
-Self-driving cars prevalent
-Resource sharing via private companies becomes more accepted

Medicine
-Cures for blindness, etc
-Advances in prosthetics, mind-controlled apparatus
-More use of robotics, especially in operations
-Cancer research still unable to cure cancer
-Pushback against genetic engineering to solve rampant problems (e.g. anti-sepsis bacteria, clotting-inducers, artificial immune boosters, disease-vector re-engineering)
-Technological advances in molecular synthesis jeopardizes pharmaceutical industry

Transportation
-Niche markets of supersonic flights and new efficient airships are filled
-Ocean drilling for oil becomes extremely common, Gulf spill stigma overcome
-Oil synthesization expanding as a market, more viable as oil is used up and Middle Eastern oil is unavailable
-Price of flights start to increase, flying starts to become less popular

Environment
-Increased reliance on new breed of safe fission power
-Global warming still “on the rise”, even though it has been partially linked to various natural processes
-Carbon emissions significantly reduced in Europe and America, increased in Asia
-Attempts to limit number of chemical rockets used, rejection
-Anti-desertification movement gains momentum, Saharan reduction initiated
-Still huge pushes towards recycling


I might update this post with some short descriptions of why I make some of these predictions, but until then you should leave a comment agreeing or disagreeing. Also follow me on Twitter @mattlevonian if you like my blog.

%d bloggers like this: