2018 may well prove to be the beginning of new eras in spaceflight, astronomy and astrophysics. Elon Musk and SpaceX may have ushered in the start of a golden age of commercial spaceflight, while a host of missions around the solar system may boost our understanding of our neighbors. On top of that, ‘multi-messenger astronomy’ may provide a new window on the universe with the help of gravitational waves.
The vastness of space stretches across distances that are often hard to conceive. Light requires eons to traverse them. Indeed, much of any given year’s space news is about planning missions that will unfold over several years.
Recently, for example, talk has focused on getting to Mars, where NASA hopes to send astronauts and Musk dreams of building a new civilization. Planning also continues for the next generation of telescopes, which will help us see back to the dawn of time and possibly spot signs of life elsewhere in the galaxy.
But 2018 also featured more action — more actual blasting off, more finally going there and getting there — than usual.
SpaceX starts Heavy lifting
Easily the biggest space spectacle of 2018, if not an entire generation, got off the ground in February when SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket.
Three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together made up the most powerful vehicle to launch from US soil since the Apollo era. No astronauts were aboard, however, just a dummy in a spacesuit behind the wheel of Musk’s red Tesla. Cameras mounted along with the quirky test payload sent back epic views as it cruised towards Mars.
Minutes after the Heavy launch, two of the three boosters made near-simultaneous landings on shore at Cape Canaveral in Florida, punctuating the achievement with a display of technology that seemed fanciful and far-off just a few years ago.
SpaceX would go on to set a new world record for the number of commercial launches in a year with 21, including one just Sunday. This feat was helped by the May introduction of its ‘Block 5‘ Falcon 9, or the final version of its workhorse rocket. The Block 5 is designed to be recovered and reused up to 100 times over its lifespan. So far, a single Block 5 has been used for three separate launches, also a record for an orbital class rocket.
While SpaceX may be the undisputed leader, it certainly doesn’t have a monopoly in the commercial space.
Over the past year, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin continued to launch and land its own smaller reusable rocket while moving forward with plans to compete more directly with Musk. Startup Rocket Lab also ramped up its business sending smaller satellites to orbit with its own novel technologies that take advantage of 3D printing and lightweight composite materials.
And at long last, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic finally sent a human to the edge of space in December on its spaceplane, aboard which the company hopes to start selling seats to adventurous space tourists.
Sending spacecraft all over (and beyond) the solar system
This year has been one of the busiest in recent memory in terms of new spacecraft either being launched or arriving at their destinations. There were so many mission milestones in 2018 that some barely got media attention, like the European and Japanese BepiColombo launch toward Mercury or China’s Chang’e-4 lander and rover to the far side of the moon.
NASA also had a big year, sending its Parker Solar Probe to literally ‘touch’ the outer reaches of the sun for the first time and hopefully help us understand some of its enduring mysteries, like why those outer layers are actually hotter than the surface of our star.
The space agency also landed on Mars for the first time since the arrival of the adorable Curiosity rover. The Mars Insight lander set down on an unremarkable flat portion of the Red Planet where it will drill deep into the surface to study our neighbor’s interior, including listening for ‘Marsquakes’ and other seismic activity.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will help catalog worlds around other stars, also launched as part of a new generation of telescopes that includes the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to Hubble Space Telescope. The timing turned out to be fortuitous, with TESS launching just a few months before the reigning champ in planet-spotting, the Kepler Space Telescope, was put permanently into sleep mode. Unfortunately, 2018 saw the announcement of yet another delay for the launch of JWST.
While many new missions launched, a couple of asteroid-bound robots reached their destinations after months of travel. Japan’s Hayabusa-2 arrived at the space rock Ryugu, dropped rovers on its surface and sent back some trippy footage. Meanwhile, NASA’s Osiris-Rex reached the potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu and began surveying its temporary home. Both missions aim to eventually collect a small sample from their hosts and return them to Earth for further study.
One vintage spacecraft even pushed past the boundary of interstellar space: Voyager 2 is now thought to be beyond the gravitational reach of the sun after decades of travel.
And there’s more to come. 2018 will close with NASA’s New Horizons arriving at Ultima Thule, a frosty Kuiper Belt object beyond Pluto on Dec. 31.
Seeing space more clearly
The many missions of 2018 will send back scientific data that will be analyzed for years to come. Meanwhile, other ongoing efforts paid big dividends this year.
The discoveries of new exoplanets, including many that could potentially support life, continued to roll in, as did evidence that a number of places in our own solar system could be wetter and wilder than previously imagined. Scientists found a hidden lake on Mars, suggested something might be able to survive just below the surface of Europa and found key ingredients for life on Enceladus.
This was also the year we began to look beyond just exoplanets and perhaps spotted the first exomoon orbiting an exoplanet. There was even talk of so-called ‘moon moons’ orbiting those exomoons. Astronomers were also able to identify 12 previously unknown moons around Jupiter, rule out the likelihood of alien megastructures around a star and release the most comprehensive map of the Milky Way yet.
For many astrophysicists, the biggest development of 2018 is the emergence of a new branch of their field: the study of the universe using gravitational waves.
Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that were theoretical until just a few years ago. Until recently, we have largely observed the universe in terms of electromagnetism, a spectrum of radiation ranging from gamma rays and X-rays to visible light, microwaves and radio waves. An increasing number of gravitational wave detections allow for ‘multi-messenger astronomy,’ which is sort of like being able to hear the universe for the first time after only using our sense of sight to observe it for centuries.
Space is still hard
The news from space wasn’t all revolutionary in 2018. There were plenty of struggles as well: a planet-wide dust storm that temporarily overwhelmed the Mars rovers, a hole that needed plugging on the International Space Station and a scary aborted launch to the ISS.
Google’s Lunar X Prize came to an end without a winner, even as Elon Musk sold all the seats on a future SpaceX flight around the moon and NASA ramped up its plans to go to our lone natural satellite and stay there.
The year started with the mysterious loss of a spy satellite that was launched by SpaceX, which was cleared of any blame. But the saddest loss was the passing of famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who helped popularize a more complex and nuanced understanding of our universe while also warning of the perils of artificial intelligence and potential interactions with alien civilizations.
There were a few big birthdays in 2018 that underscored just how far we’ve gone in space. NASA turned 60 and the International Space Station turned 20. There was a lot of chatter from the White House about starting up a Space Force, but its future remains unclear.
More big anniversaries are coming up in 2019, which will mark half a century since the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and more landmark launches, including new American-made crewed spaceships from SpaceX and Boeing, are on tap.
But if all the space ventures that got underway in 2018 are as successful as hoped, we’ll be looking back on this year in 2028 and 2068 and celebrating more historic anniversaries.