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We’re Looking Forward to These Space Missions in 2017
published during a waxing crescent moon.
01/03/2017

If you find yourself needing some respite from 2016, gaze up—as always, space gives us something to look forward to. NASA and the ESA will be plenty busy in the year ahead, launching new satellites, robotic arms, and even a new laboratory for the ISS. Here’s a round-up of missions happening this year.

European Robotic Arm

2017

Artist’s impression of European Robotic Arm. Credit: ESA

This one is for astronauts who want or need a third hand, particularly on a spacewalk. The ESA’s European Robotic Arm (ERA) will join the ISS near a new airlock on the Russian side of the station. The ERA will assist astronauts by moving payloads inside the station and by helping position astronauts performing repairs or maintenance on the outside of the station. The arm will have infrared cameras and other electronics, as well as two wrists and a hand on each side of the arm.

Small Geostationary Satellite

2017

SmallGEO Hispasat 36W-1. Credit: ESA

The ESA’s SmallGEO program will launch this year in three stages, eventually culminating in telecommunications satellite configurable for a variety of different missions and payloads, including mobile services, internet, and television broadcasting for Europe and South America at faster rates than ever before. Perhaps more importantly, SmallGEO will boost Europe’s role in commercial communications satellites.

2017

SmallGEO AG1 completes integration. Credit: OHB

ADM-Aeolus Wind Mission

The ADM-Aeolus mission sounds deceptively simple: to gather information about wind patterns around the globe. In the short-term, data collected by the mission will help with weather forecasting; in the long-term, it will help scientists research and predict climate change.

There will only be one instrument on the Aeolus satellite—a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) device specially configured to gather wind information from the nearest 20 miles of Earth’s atmosphere. Two ultraviolet lasers will pick up on the light from dust, water, and ice, and reflect that light back to the device’s telescope, and air movement can be determined by examining the differences in the reflected light over time. The satellite will hitch a ride on an Arianespace Vega rocket which will launch from ESA’s French Guiana spaceport in late 2017.

2017

Measuring cyclones. Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

Cold Atom Laboratory

The ISS is a high-demand and fruitful environment for experiments. We have so much to learn about the effects of microgravity on, well, just about everything from the human body to animals to plants and now, as NASA puts it, “quantum phenomena.”

From its cosmic vantage point, the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will be able to observe quantum behavior (superfluidity, superconductivity, quantum gasses) on a macro-scale, rather than just on the earthly atomic-scale. The CAL will also pave the way for quantum sensors with experiments involving atoms that have been cooled by lasers.

Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On

NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences have paired up to work on the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission, which will continue the work of GRACE, its gravity-monitoring predecessor. Equipped with GPS, accelerometers, and an instrument that can measure microwave K-bands, GRACE-FO is comprised of two satellites that work together to identify and measure changes in the gravitational field, which lends insight into variances in Earth’s gravity between locations over time.

2017

GRACE-FO. Credit: NASA/JPL

Explorer Program Missions: TESS and NICER

Two missions from NASA’s Explorers Program will launch this year. The first, a Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will look for exoplanets in hopes of finding Earth-like worlds orbiting habitable zones around stars. For two years, TESS will observe over 200,000 stars, searching for the tell-tale reduction in luminosity that signals a passing planet. The scope of this mission is unparalleled—as the first “all-sky survey,” TESS can monitor “400 times as much sky as any previous mission,” says principal investigator George Ricker. The satellite will pass by earth every two weeks, allowing for high-speed data downloads and providing a stable orbit that will keep TESS operational for years, if not decades.

The second NASA Explorers Program mission kicking off this year is the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER). NICER, which will be located on the ISS, will use X-rays to study neutron stars. Scientists believe neutron stars form after supernovas when protons and electrons collapse into each other, but there isn’t enough mass to form a black hole. After a star dies, its remains shrink into a high-density, high-mass cluster of neutrons—one teaspoon of such a star would “weigh a billion tons.” Scientists have long pondered the physics of neutron stars, and NICER will hopefully provide some answers as it uses spectroscopy to examine the emissions of these stars.

Cassini’s Grand Finale

2017 will bring the end of Cassini’s mind-blowing, 20-year Saturn mission. This spring, Cassini will plunge between the planet and its rings in a series of 22 six-day-long orbits designed to provide information about Saturn’s gravitational and magnetic fields, take close-up photos of the planet and its rings, and obtain samples from ring particles. Mark your calendars now: Cassini’s final sprint will occur on September 15 at 8:07 am EDT, as it burns up in Saturn’s upper atmosphere—a fitting, fiery end to a historic mission.

These are new missions set to launch ( and in one case to end), this year. In the meantime, who knows what current missions will discover in 2017? Curiosity and Opportunity will keep roving on Mars as it beams back information that will help us better understand (and someday visit) the Red Planet. New Horizons will continue probing Pluto’s mysteries, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will map more of the moon’s surface. Missions old and new will dazzle us with insights, photos, and videos in the year ahead, and we look forward to it!