Last year saw tremendous progress in human capacity to explore space, and 2019 promised not to be different. From mysterious Kuiper Belt objects and Mars rides to historic rocket launches and bold attempts to touch the Sun, this is what is available in the next 12 months.
New Horizons will face Ultima Thule
The year 2019 will begin with an explosion when NASA's New Horizons visits Ultima Thule, a mysterious Kuiper Belt object located 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun. At 12:33 EST on January 1, the spacecraft will zoom past Ultima Thule with speeds reaching 50,694 km per hour (50,700 kilometers per hour), taking as many photos as possible at resolutions between 98 and 230 feet (30 to 70 meters) per pixels.
The historic approach to Ultima Thule, also known as 2014 MU69, will be the first to fly from the Kuiper Belt Object. During flyby, we will learn if Ultima Thule is a close binary system, a binary contact (where two parts touch each other), or something else entirely. Objects, or objects, are around 31km in diameter (30 kilometers) and are irregularly shaped. Using many instruments on board, New Horizons will also map the surface geology of the object to study how it formed, measure its surface temperature, look for signs of comet-like activity (such as melting ice), among other mission goals.
Rovers playing on the Moon
The moon must receive at least a new pair of robot visitors in 2019.
Chang 4 Chinese landers and explorers, launched on December 8, 2018, are expected to reach the far side of the Moon on January 3, or maybe before. The landing site is the 177km wide crater of Von Kármán (180 kilometers), the collision crater of the moon in the southern hemisphere. Because it will be on the far side of the Moon, CE-4 will communicate with Earth via the Chinese Queqiao satellite, which was launched in May.
If successful, the mission will involve the first soft landing and the far moon inspection, according to the China National Defense Science and Technology Bureau. Landers and six-wheeled explorers will measure the surface temperature of the moon, analyze moon rocks and dust, and study cosmic rays, among others. The mission will also determine whether the area is quite quiet from human technological activities to build space radio telescopes. The mission must last at least three months.
At some point during the second half of 2019, India will launch its own plow to the Moon as part of the Indian Space Research Mission GSLV-F10 / Chandrayaan-2. The six-wheel explorer will move around the landing site near the Moon's south pole, observe the surface of the moon and send data back to Earth. On top of that, the Chandrayaan-2 satellite will collect scientific information about the moon's topography, minerals, and moon atmosphere which are practically nonexistent, while also looking for signs of ice-water.
And who knows, maybe a team participating in Lunar XPrize will finally land a plow on the Moon, but we will believe when we see it.
Hayabusa2 will collect samples from Ryugu asteroids
At some point in early 2019, hopefully in late January, Hayabusa2 Japan will extract surface samples from Ryugu asteroids. JAXA is still trying to find the perfect place for Hayabusa2 to do its job, because this flat area in the space rock proved hard to come by.
In December 2019, the probe will take its final sample and begin its journey back to Earth. If everything goes well, this will mark the first time an investigation has extracted a sample from an asteroid and returned it for analysis.
Commercial crew test flight – finally
NASA's contract with Russia ended in April, so it is very important that the space agency find another way to take astronauts into space. The private sector in this case, and 2019 promised to be the year in which the United States finally restored its ability to access the International Space Station itself – something that cannot be done since the Space Shuttle program.
On January 17, SpaceX, in collaboration with NASA's commercial crew program, is set to use Falcon 9 rockets to launch an unmanned Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. If this test goes well, crew missions can occur at the earliest of June 18; NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken have been tapped for this mission.
In March, the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket will launch Boeing's first CST-100 Starliner – which is also not used – to the ISS. The next crew test, with Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronaut Eric Boe and Nicole Mann, could occur in August, according to NASA.
The space firm Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, is also expected to carry out missions both crew and not in 2019 with its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, with dates still to be determined.
Opportunity for Rover, can't you call home?
NASA Launch Plow has been silent since June 10, when a global dust storm tapped the probe into hibernation mode from where it could not yet wake up.
Mission control has listened to explorers over a wide span of time and frequency using the Recipient of Deep Space Network (DNS) Radio Science, but it didn't work. NASA will continue to work with "sweeps and beeps" in the coming weeks and months, but if Opportunities fail to signal to the home, the mission controller may finally and regretfully declare the 15-year mission is over.
InSightful Drilling on Mars
The Opportunity news is sad, but at least Curiosity is still buzzing. There is also NASA that must be considered, which landed on Mars in late November. The stationary probe must start drilling to the surface of Mars in late January or early February.
InSight team members will complete the deployment of seismometers in January and monitor for marsquake. Around this time, the probe will use its robotic arm to adjust the hot probe. The purpose of this mission is to enhance our understanding of planet formation and the inner geology of Mars. For this reason, InSight will use its instruments to measure seismic activity, temperature and air pressure.
Get ready for more beautiful photos of Jupiter and the Sun, belonging to the Juno probe and Parker Solar Probe.
NASA's Juno spacecraft is scheduled for more perijoves in 2019 – perijove becomes the closest orbital approach to an object to the center of Jupiter. Juno 18th anniversary will occur on February 17 and April 19 on April 6. Juno has provided extraordinary photos of Jupiter's cloud tops, but the investigation is getting closer to the great gas giant.
Meanwhile, Parker Solar Probe will continue its historic mission, but eventually meets death, to "touch the Sun". The second and third worries – the points closest to the Sun during their orbits – are scheduled for April 4 and September 1. On December 26, Parker's investigation will get a second gravitational aid from Venus. Flybys will produce important new data about the Sun, such as the nature of the corona and its ability to emit solar storms.
Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing
July 16, 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Expect a lot of media coverage in the coming months.
A number of events have been scheduled to commemorate these milestones, including Apollopalooza 2019 (celebrations at the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver), Apollo Celebration Gala at the Kennedy Space Center, and Summer Moon Festival in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Also, mint U.S. will release the 50-year Apollo commemorative coin on January 24, which looks pretty amazing.
Launch of the CHEOPS space telescope
The European Space Agency plans to launch the CHEOPS space telescope at several points in October or November. Once in orbit, these space-based telescopes will hunt extrasolar planets, especially those in the Earth-to-Neptune range in size.
CHEOPS will take off from Soyuz rockets, and remain in orbit around 700 km above Earth. CHEOPS will use a tried-and-true detection method, scanning stars to look for exoplanet signs that pass in front of them. CHEOPS was originally supposed to be launched in 2015, so this has been long awaited.
Heavenly eye candy
For you sky watchers out there, 2019 will display some interesting astronomical phenomena.
The total lunar eclipse on January 21 will be seen by observers in North America, South America, the eastern Pacific Ocean, the western Atlantic Ocean, and extreme parts of Europe and Africa. On July 2, a total solar eclipse will be seen by observers in the southern Pacific Ocean, central Chile and central Argentina.
Three full supermoon will occur in 2019: on January 21, February 19, and March 21. Supermoon occurs when the Moon is at its closest approach to Earth, making it look slightly larger and brighter than usual.
Jupiter will oppose, or his closest approach to Earth, on June 10, at which time he will look big and bright. Uranus will do the same on October 27.
On November 11, we will see the transit of Mercury which rarely crosses the Sun. This doesn't happen often, and won't happen again until 2039. By applying approved solar filters to telescopes, amateur astronomers will be able to see Mercury's small black discs moving across the Sun's background. This transit will be seen by observers in eastern North America, Mexico, Central America, South America, and parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.