This time of year is often full of new beginnings, like the start of Fall, or the beginning of a new school semester. The next few months will also bring some exciting developments in space science. There are new missions about to launch and spacecraft that will reach their destinations after long journeys. Here are six out-of-this-world things to look for in the news over the next few months:
- October 19, 2018 – BepiColombo launches
BepiColombo, a pair of spacecraft that will orbit and study Mercury, is a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). This mission will provide the first new close-up images of the solar system’s smallest planet since the NASA’s MESSENGER mission ended in 2015. You can watch the online stream of the BepiColombo launch on the ESA website.
- November 5, 2018 – Parker Solar Probe flies by the Sun
The Parker Solar Probe, NASA’s “mission to touch the Sun,” launched on August 12, and this November it will make its first close flyby. After the team spent years building and testing the heat shield, solar panels, and other instruments, this flyby will be the moment of truth. Parker will pass through the Sun’s 1 million-degree corona, moving faster and getting closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it. But this first encounter with the Sun is just the beginning; Parker will make up to 24 close passes before the mission ends in 2025.
- November 26, 2018 – InSight lands on Mars
While the Curiosity rover is still driving around on Mars, a new mission is traveling to the Red Planet right now. The Insight spacecraft will land using a parachute and rockets to slow itself and touch down gently on Mars' surface. This mission will study the interior of Mars, and will be the first spacecraft to drill below the soil on another planet to find out what is hidden beneath. You can watch the spacecraft’s landing live online via NASA TV.
- December 2018 – Chang’e 4 launches
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon, China is launching a set of robotic explorers that will land and drive around on the Moon. Following the success of Chang'e 3 five years ago, Chang'e 4 will be humanity’s first spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon. The lander and rover will take images, use radar to “see” below the surface, and collect rock samples for transport back to Earth. The exact launch date has not yet been announced, so check back as December gets closer.
- December 3, 2018 – OSIRIS-REx reaches asteroid Bennu
For two years, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has been flying toward Bennu, an asteroid that is slightly bigger than the Empire State Building. Similar to Japan’s successful Hayabusa mission, OSIRIS-REx will collect rock samples from Bennu and return them to Earth in 2023. Asteroids are the leftovers rocks that never became planets, and they are the best clues to solving the mystery of how our solar system formed. Look for images and updates on the mission website.
January 1, 2019 – New Horizons flies by Ultima Thule
The NASA New Horizons mission flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015 and captured amazing color images. The spacecraft is still travelling outward from the Sun and is passing through the Kuiper Belt, a band of small icy worlds that orbit beyond Neptune. Just in time for the new year, New Horizons will fly past one of those tiny frozen worlds, called 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule. It will be the first time humanity has gotten a close-up view of a Kuiper Belt object, and this encounter may produce some unexpected surprises from the edge of our solar system.