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

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Halo 4: First Impressions

First I want to discuss another important event: the finale of Red vs Blue Season 10. It was amazing, and tied up a lot of the story lines. The connection between the present and past storylines was flawless; I don’t think anybody saw it coming that the blue ODST from a few episodes back was Butch Flowers. However, there are still some loose ends for Season 11 to pick up on, the Sarcophagus and the Councilor being two.

I guess I should also discuss the promotional web movie Forward Unto Dawn. It was about as close to a Halo movie as anyone could wish for, and seeing the game universe expanded was great. Despite some cinematographic errors, the story was top-notch and the movie contained numerous nods to the books. Plus, they had a space elevator collapse! Actually, the lack of destruction following the collapse was disappointing. Other than that, the only failure was the massive gaping plot hole: why would the Covenant stage a ground invasion rather than just glass the planet? I would have forgiven them if even a slight mention was in that regard, but zilch was explained.

But on to the actual game. I’ll admit, I don’t actually own the game. I’ve played it for maybe 7 hours total. But being an avid fan of the franchise in general, I definitely have some thoughts.

I played about a quarter of the singleplayer campaign. It upheld the themes and style of the previous games, but expanded into awesome new areas. I’m not sure how I feel about the introduction of living Forerunners, or the new story with the Mantle and the war between humans and Forerunners, with humans being devolved at the end. Still, I loved the gravitation towards background lore: from AI rampancy to Dr Halsey to Forerunner shield worlds (Ghosts of Onyx, anyone?), the book references were awesome. Even little details, like the decompression sequences at the very beginning or the zero-gravity on the outside of the ship, were exquisite. I don’t get Promethean weapons, though. Why do they pop apart?

The multiplayer aspect was pretty similar to Reach’s, although I was bummed at the removal of multi-seat flyers. The falcon and hornet were some of my favorite vehicles. However, the ability to fly a pelican pretty much makes up for the loss. I remember in Halo Custom Edition playing maps like Coldsnap and Extinction. Getting your entire team in a scarab, or longsword, or pelican was an absolute blast. As for the Mantis, it seems a little gimmicky and unbalanced; it doesn’t really fit with the Halo theme.

Forge was better than ever with item duplication, locking, and magnet snapping. I’m not sure how I feel about the new “forgeworld” map. In any case, by far the most interesting addition was that of Dominion. This game type is basically a dumbed down version of Power Struggle from Crysis 1. You capture bases by securing their terminal, and then stick around to reinforce the base with energy shields. You can construct auto-turrets and pop-up cover around the base, and build new vehicles. Every 15 or 30 seconds a new power weapon drops at the base. In order to win, you must accrue points by keeping control of bases.

I can’t wait to see what gets done by people regarding Dominion, and the new Forge tools in general. Still waiting for the ability to add AI, though.

As brought up by Penny Arcade, 343 Studios not only had to make a game as good as its predecessor; Halo 4 had to be the best game of the franchise. I think they came pretty close to doing so. So, if I believed in giving number ratings, which I don’t…

9/10

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