Hold Onto Your Astro-Butts, 2016 Will Be a Big Year for Space

2016 has some exceptionally large spaceboots to fill.

Jan 1 2016, 4:00pm

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane. Image: Ken Ulbrich

When it comes to daring space adventures, 2015 will be a tough act to follow. As noted in our recap of the year's biggest space stories, the past 12 months have been a riveting joyride complete with spacecraft redemption, juicy rivalries, and Plutonian glamor shots. In short, 2016 has big spaceboots to fill.

Fortunately, there are a number of exciting launches, maneuvers, and institutional shakeups already in the works, and no doubt there will be many other surprises along the way. Here's the scoop.

The death and resurrection of Roscosmos.

After a rough year filled with failed rocket launches and economic instability, the Russian space agency Roscosmos was officially dissolved by Vladimir Putin on Monday. As of January 1, Russian spaceflight will be operated by the newly-minted Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, which is expected to make significant cutbacks to the nation's space exploration budget, especially its Moon program.

Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov on an EVA in February 2012. Image: NASA

It will be interesting to see how this new corporate incarnation of Roscosmos shakes out, and what it will mean for Russian ambitions in space going forward. Given that astronauts of every nation are still dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule to ferry them to and from the ISS, there is a lot at stake both within and beyond Russia's borders.


Physicist Stephen Hawking and tycoon Yuri Milner have pledged $100 million to fund a massive alien-hunting project called Breakthrough Listen, which will debut in 2016. The idea is to buy up observation time at the world's premiere radio telescopes in order to sweep an exponentially larger swath of the skies for artificial radio signals.

But that's not the only good news for those of us who are holding out for ET. In March, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli landing module, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), will be launched to the Red Planet. If all goes well, the spacecraft will arrive there in October, depositing Schiaparelli in the Meridiani Planum region.

The central goal of the ExoMars mission is to search the atmosphere and surface of Mars for signs of life, with the "Exo" in the name referring to exobiology. When paired with the Breakthrough Listen project, it looks like 2016 has its alien-hunting bases covered both on the local scale of the Solar System, as well as the larger galactic horizon of the Milky Way.

If the stars align, perhaps one of these projects will find extraterrestrials just in time for the release of Independence Day: Resurgence for maximum thematic synergy.

Juno, meet Jupiter.

Concept art of Juno. Image: NASA/JPL

Speaking of Independence Day, on July 4, NASA's Juno orbiter will arrive at Jupiter, and swing itself into a highly elliptical polar orbit around the gas giant. Juno will be flying very close to Jupiter, with approaches of only a few thousands miles in altitude above its tumultuous clouds. It's the first probe designed to study the interior of a gas giant in detail, and is tasked with collecting evidence that might help contextualize Jupiter's birth and development.

Changes on the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA and the spaceflight company Bigelow Aerospace are teaming up to build inflatable space habitats intended for both commercial and scientific use. The first Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is on track to launch to the ISS around February 7, and will be attached to the station for two full years. As if living on the ISS wasn't enough of a bragging point, now it will have a plush bouncy house.

However, for the ISS One Year Crew consisting of astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, there won't be a lot of time to enjoy the new module. Kelly and Korniyenko are scheduled to depart the station and head back to Earth on the Russian Soyuz capsule in March, after spending roughly one year in orbit.

Private spaceflight takes a giant leap.

The Dream Chaser, a gorgeous spaceplane developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation, is slated to stretch out its wings in space for the first time on November 1. The plane is designed to ride with a rocket into space, deliver cargo to the ISS or complete other orbital missions, then zip back to the planet for a runway landing. Awesome.

But the Dream Chaser won't be the only hotly anticipated private launch vehicle premiering this year. 2016 is also slated to see the maiden flight of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, which will be 22 stories tall and twice as powerful as any other launch vehicle currently in operation. In fact, the only rocket that can beat out the Falcon Heavy for raw power and size is the retired Saturn V of the Apollo program.

Animation of Falcon Heavy flight. Video: SpaceX/YouTube

It's wild to imagine such a colossal rocket returning to the launchpad after so many decades, so stay tuned for updates on the Heavy's first flight, which is tentatively scheduled for April or May this year.

SpaceX is also hoping to cap off 2016 with the first orbital flight of its Dragon V2 capsule, which will one day ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. Depending on how the year plays out, though, this test might be kicked to 2017.

RIP, Rosetta.

In September 2016, the Rosetta orbiter will join the Philae lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko when it gently crashes into the surface, ending the mission. Given how much the ESA has already milked our emotions with its adorable anthropomorphic cartoons starring Rosetta and Philae, there is little doubt that this will be poignant moment. "There will be a lot of tears," Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor told Nature.

Let's go grab ourselves a piece of asteroid.

Much like the Japanese mission series Hayabusa, which returned asteroid samples to Earth in 2010, NASA will be launching its OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft in September 2016.

Its destination is 101955 Bennu, an asteroid with a mean diameter of 492 meters, which OSIRIS-REx is expected to reach in 2019.

After landing on the asteroid and extracting samples, the probe will kick off back to Earth, and should arrive with the goods in 2023. Scientists are particularly interested in getting a closer look at 101955 Bennu's composition since there is a very small chance—one in 2,000—that it may impact with Earth in the year 2182. Best to get a sneak peek at what we are up against if we do roll those odds.