Fly me to the Moon, let me play among the stars. Do you think we could get another probe to land on Mars?

2018 a cracker for spaceflight. Ignoring Galileo

Roundup 2018 was a tremendous year for spaceflight as commercial providers inched closer to carrying passengers and legacy launchers delivered more than a little drama.

January

2018 sadly kicked off with the death of Apollo veteran John Young. As well as flying Gemini and the first Shuttle flight in 1981, Young also went to Moon twice, landing with Apollo 16.

Nor would Young be the only Apollo 'naut to leave us that year. Alan Bean passed away in May, having put the fourth set of boot prints on the Moon followed by a 59-day stint on Skylab.

While Google finally pulled its funding from the Lunar X Prize, New Space marched on in the form of US-Kiwi startup Rocket Lab, which added New Zealand to the list of space-faring nations with the aid of a booster called Electron, capable of lobbing 150kg into orbit.

February

SpaceX's much anticipated – and much delayed – Falcon Heavy took off in February. It appeared that strapping three Falcon 9 boosters together to create a monster variant had proved a tad tricky for Elon Musk's army of engineers.

Powered by 27 Merlin engines, the first Falcon Heavy carried a famously unconventional cargo into space in the form of Musk's Tesla Roadster with a dummy in a spacesuit at the wheel. To further demonstrate the cleverness of the stunt, two of the boosters returned to land safely at the launch site. The third, however, did not make it back to its barge in the Atlantic in one piece.

Meanwhile, NASA was presented with a budget that could send the International Space Station (ISS) to a watery grave in 2025 and the stoic Mars Rover, Opportunity, humming its last Happy Birthday to itself.

As it transpired, the budget request showed a surprising amount of foresight as a huge Martian dust storm engulfed the solar-powered trundle-bot a few short months later and boffins have yet to hear a peep from the thing since.

March

Zombie stars were spotted in March by the European Space Agency's INTEGRAL observatory. X-ray flares from a red giant brought dead star back to life, but it was the zombie space station left in orbit by China that had everyone a bit jumpy.

The Salyut-alike Tiangong-1 was China's first crack at a space station and it hosted two crews in 2012 and 2013. The station was only occupied for a matter of weeks before being left to circle the Earth to see how long critical parts would last.

The answer came a little sooner than hoped. Ground control severed communication with the abandoned hulk and a waiting game began to see where the thing would come down. And when.

As it transpired, the "when" was 1 April, and the "where" was somewhere in the South Pacific. The Chinese were spared the blushes suffered by the Americans when NASA's first space station smacked into Australia a few decades earlier.

March also saw the departure of Stephen Hawking, aged 76. Despite suffering motor neurone disease, Hawking was a brilliant scientist who could make mind-bending concepts accessible. His book, A Brief History of Time, adorned coffee tables and bookshelves over the world and his trademark synthesised voice and wheelchair came to symbolise what could be accomplished.

There was also the demise of UK involvement in EU's satellite navigation project, Galileo. With the imminent departure of the UK from the European Union, lawmakers tersely pointed out that not being a member of the club meant the UK would not be allowed to play with the club's toys. Or bid to build new toys. The wailing of UK politicians would continue unabated for the rest of the year.

April

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity made its first rocket-powered flight. The vehicle, aimed at well-heeled joyriders seeking a sub-orbital lob into space, represented a remarkable comeback from the 2014 accident that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.

The veteran ESA Martian orbiter, Mars Express, received a shot in the arm to extend its mission well into the next decade, when ESA expects to send its own trundle-bot to the red planet. The process, familiar to any Windows user, involved installing updates, restarting and then hoping the probe would reboot. The process was successful and the science resumed flowing.

NASA, alas, did not have quite such a happy April. While SpaceX finally managed to launch the agency' planet-hunting spacecraft, TESS, NASA's inspector general announced plans to take a very close look at its troubled monster rocket programme, hideously over budget and running very late.

It was an unfortunate turn of events, following comments from NASA's head honcho of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, to the effect that SpaceX's Falcon rockets were no match for its mighty maybe-one-day SLS.

Oops.

May

NASA's delayed Mars InSight lander was successfully lobbed at the red planet in May with an Atlas V providing the grunt to get off the Earth. The mission, with hardware derived from the successful Phoenix Lander, arrived safely on the martian surface in November.

Sadly a month could not go by without the Galileo navigation system rearing its head as the stand-off between the UK and EU over Blighty's access to the Public Regulated Service (PRS) intensified. Despite some high-pitched warbling on behalf of the Brits along with the threat of a demand for cash to be repaid, the EU remained steadfast.

Out means out.

June

In June SpaceX admitted that it would not be sending passengers to the Moon in 2018 after all. The news came as a surprise to no one since SpaceX had yet to even fly the crew-rated version of its Dragon spacecraft with just six months of 2018 remaining.

Of course, SpaceX would double-down with yet grander lunar plans later in the year, but for now the focus was on getting the delayed first demonstration flight of the Crew Dragon under its belt.

The Galileo furore took another lurch for the surreal as figures for building a domestic version of the system began to be thrown about with the then UK Minister for Defence Procurement, Guto Bebb, floating a number between £3bn and £5bn to create the Brexit Satellite (or BS, as it shall henceforth be known).

But surely the grown-ups could come to an arrangement that would render such a project unnecessary. Surely.

July

Peter Firmin, co-creator of the lunar documentary series The Clangers passed away in July at the age of 89. The stop-motion animated series, originally broadcast from 1969 to 1972, featured the eponymous characters roaming the Moon's surface and was really rather wonderful.

Firmin would go on, with Oliver Postgate, to create other children's television series, such as Bagpuss. He was also involved in the modern revival of The Clangers.

Those that callously dismiss The Clangers as fiction were therefore surprised to learn the Moon may actually have been capable of supporting life shortly after its formation.

Researchers reckon that debris from which the Moon was formed could have included the building blocks of life, with the satellite briefly enjoying an atmosphere and liquid water.

Alas, the researchers reckon that the body would only have been "transiently habitable" 4.5 or 3.5 billions of years ago.

More exciting for the flotilla of probes due to head Marswards was research in July showing that liquid water can be found sloshing around beneath the planet's ice caps. Using radar from orbiting spacecraft, scientists found a lake, 20km across, lurking deep beneath the southern ice cap. The pressure of ice above is enough, reckon scientists, to keep the salty water liquid.

August

August began well for NASA as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) open-source ad design to allow enthusiasts to have a crack at building their own, scaled-down planetary explorer.

Although the parts were pricey (about $2,500 all in all) 'bot builders had scope to soup the thing up with faster motors and generally tinker with the design.

Sadly, the ISS sprang a leak as the month drew to a close.

Ground controllers noted a drop in pressure while the astronauts onboard the orbiting outpost slept. The 'nauts spent the following day hunting for the hole and found it in the side of the habitation module of the recently arrived Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft (which was due to return three crew to Earth later in 2018).

A bit of duct tape temporarily solved the problem, but the venerable Soyuz system would have several more surprises in store for the ISS crew.

The US also announced a spending splurge on space but alas not for NASA to funnel into exploration. Vice President Mike Pence said $8bn was to be spent over the next five years creating... wait for it... Space Force.

While the US Air Force might have been forgiven for thinking that it had first dibs on space-based shenanigans, Pence said that the proposed organisation would sit alongside the existing branches of the armed forces, the Army, Navy and so on.

Pence was less than forthcoming with how this initiative sits with the Outer Space Treaty signed by the US back in the '60s.

Make America Galactic Again indeed.

September

We took a break from worrying about leaking Soyuzes and Galileo in September to celebrate the 41st anniversary of the launch of the remarkable Voyager probes.

We also had a chat with Dr Garry Hunt, a member of the original Voyager imaging team, about how the mission itself came about and the ups and downs over its astonishingly long life.

We were soon, however, brought back down to Earth (or rather, to low Earth orbit) by the antics of the Russian space agency over the mysterious hole found in the side of the ISS's Soyuz MS-09 lifeboat. While someone on the ground accidentally drilling a hole in the side of the thing, and then attempting to patch it seemed the most likely scenario, whisperings in the Russian media pointed to an American astronaut getting handy with a power tool on orbit.

The suggestion generated an appropriately withering response from the then ISS Commander, Drew Feustel, who reckoned the idea was simply "embarrassing".

This didn't stop Roscosmos drawing plans to send out a couple of spacewalkers to inspect the damage from the outside. However, the hole was to be the least of the beleaguered agency's problems.

September was to end on a far more positive note. Japan's Hayabusa2 probe managed to dump a pair of tiny drum-like robots on the surface of asteroid Ryugu.

The probe had reached the asteroid back in June and moved in close to release the robots. More machinery is due to be released during 2019 before Hayabusa2 attempts to retrieve a sample to return to Earth.

And, of course, it was a Japanese billionaire who agreed in September to pay an undisclosed sum to SpaceX for a ride on the company's Big Falcon Rocket (soon to be renamed Starship) around the Moon by 2023. Yusaku Maezawa plans to take along as many as eight artists to capture the experience.

October

Our celebration of 30 years since Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-26 return to flight was interrupted by the Russians performing an unexpected demonstration of the abort capability of the Soyuz spacecraft.

The month had been going so well. SpaceX conducted its first landing on Californian soil and Voyager 2 was about to reach interstellar space, but the failure of a Soyuz rocket carrying a crew to the ISS served as reminder of how risky the whole endeavour was.

The crew of Soyuz MS-10 had their dreams of a six-month stint in orbit abruptly dashed as a staging failure triggered an abort, sending the crew safely back to Earth as their launcher exploded.

At the time, it appeared that the ISS would need to be temporarily abandoned. For its part, NASA began dusting off procedures for running the ISS with no crew onboard. After all, the current crew would need to return in December (January at the very latest) and getting to the bottom of the "anomaly" would take time. Right?

The gap between the last inflight abort of a Soyuz (18a on 5 April 1975) and the next crewed launch (Soyuz 18 on 24 May 1975) would serve to show just how quickly the Russian space agency could investigate, fix, and fly again. The first Soyuz since the mishap would launch (uncrewed) before the end of the month.

There was, however, some good news for NASA as engineers recovered the orbiting Chandra X-Ray observatory and continued working through gyroscope woes on the flagship Hubble space telescope.

Sadly, the joy at returning Chandra and Hubble to service was tempered somewhat by the final death rattle of the Kepler exoplanet-hunting spacecraft as the probe finally ran out of fuel having lasted more than three times longer than planned.

November

The Russian space agency announced results of its rapid investigation into what caused October's anomaly.

The answer, it appeared, was a sensor that was bent during assembly of the rocket. The failure of the contact sensor led to one of the Soyuz's strap-on boosters not separating correctly and striking the core.

With the problem identified and the culprit sent to whatever training courses Roscosmos reserves for those who bend sensors, the Russian agency pronounced the Soyuz fit to fly with crew, with a launch date of 3 December.

NASA insisted the date still depended on its own internal flight readiness review but, right now, Soyuz is the only game in town for getting crew to the ISS. Probably best not mention the crashing of one of the three computers that keep the Russian segment operational either.

US Republican John Culberson lost his House seat in November, depriving NASA one of its staunchest defenders. As for the monster rocket NASA is dreaming of? The agency's Inspector General announced it would be auditing the efforts to manage the spiralling costs of the Space Launch System.

There was, however, a chink of light in NASA's gloom by the end of the month as the Mars InSight lander successfully touched down on the surface of the red planet, kicking off an ambitious science programme.

Finally, Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, passed away at the age of 90. An accomplished actor, Rain gave life to the phrase "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that", which discerning Reg readers voted their favourite sci-fi movie quote back in 2008.

December

As Christmas approached, the UK government confirmed that Britain was going to have a crack at building a Brexit satellite constellation as a replacement for the Galileo navigation system. The undertaking is ambitious to say the least, with both spectrum and funding needed to be found beyond the initial £92m 18-month feasibility study.

As promised, Russia returned to crewed spaceflight with an on-time launch of a Soyuz-FG booster carrying three fresh 'nauts to the ISS. Unlike October's attempt, this launch was a complete success and deposited the spacecraft in an orbit that allowed the crew to reach the ISS six hours later.

There was little rest for the visitors as the Russian space agency was keen to send two cosmonauts outside the orbiting lab to take a look at the exterior of the pierced Soyuz MS-09 in the hope of finding evidence of what caused the damage.

Despite hacking away at the insulation and finding the hole, the spacewalkers were unable to draw any definitive conclusions.

The crew would return to Earth in the Soyuz toward the end of the December with no further incident, the suspect orbital module jettisoned as part of the normal re-entry process.

Below the activities in orbit, Virgin Galactic rounded out its year by sending SpaceShipTwo into space for the first time.

Or at least to a freshly defined point where space "begins".

The VSS Unity, which will likely be carrying paying passengers before long, reached an altitude of about 82.7km at Mach 2.9 before beginning its unpowered glide back to Earth.

Finally in December, China launched its delayed Chang'e 4 spacecraft on an ambitious mission to land a rover on the far side of the moon.

Spoilers for 2019: it succeeded. ®




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