The past years will probably not go down as a particularly brilliant episode in the history of American space travel. The era of space shuttle missions ended with the last landing of the space shuttle Atlantis on 21 July 2011. Since then, the US space agency NASA has no longer been able to carry people into space with its own equipment. The old Soyuz capsules from Russia, which were considered reliable despite a false launch in October 2018, have since been the only way of carrying manned flights to the International Space Station (ISS). The once proud space nation USA is therefore under pressure to take action and would like to take the next steps in 2019 to once again play a leading role in the international space competition. With the "Commercial Crew Program", the nation is relying on cooperation between government and private partners - currently, Boeing and SpaceX are on board in addition to NASA.
Above all is an ambitious goal: The USA would like to return to the moon and later send people to Mars. The course was set by the incumbent US President Donald Trump in December 2017: "The guideline I am signing today will focus the American space program again on research and discovery by humans. It marks a first step in bringing American astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since 1972, to explore it and use it in the long term. This time we will not only set our flag and leave footprints - we will create a basis for a later mission to Mars and perhaps one day to worlds beyond that."
Despite all the euphoria it should be remembered that many problems of a Mars mission are still unsolved. How do the astronauts physically and psychologically tolerate the journey of several months? What influence does cosmic radiation have? Which engines are possible? In an article, author Bernd Leitenberger has dealt with the pressing questions. It will probably take many years before people set a foot on the surface of the red planet for the first time. That's how long probes and robots will take care of the research work on the red planet for us - NASA's InSight mission successfully landed on Mars in November 2018. Also on board of the probe is an experiment by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) to explore the heat balance inside the planet.The InSight probe has already achieved a pioneering feat by recording wind noise from Mars and sending it to Earth for the first time.
This year, the USA will initially focus on further steps on the way to near-earth orbit and thus to the International Space Station ISS. One of the reasons for becoming more independent of Russia and its Soyuz spacecrafts is probably simply monetary. The USA pays more than 80 million dollars for a seat in a Soyuz capsule. The American Soyuz alternative is called Boeing CST-100 Starliner, a new space capsule that can carry a maximum of seven astronauts. An unmanned test flight is planned for March 2019. Astronauts are expected to take their first seat in August. A special feature of the Starliner is its ability to land on surface like the Soyuz capsules with the help of parachutes and air cushions. Take-off and landing will take place on American territory. NASA astronauts are already training for upcoming missions in a Starliner simulator in Houston, Texas.
Farther than any other spacecraft before, the American spacecraft Orion is to transport its passengers out into space. The capsule, which was developed in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, is designed for missions to the moon, Mars or asteroids - but it can also be used in near-earth orbit. Four astronauts can be seated on board in a typical cast. After the first test flight in 2014, the project is expected to take another important step forward in the near future. As part of the unmanned exploration Mission-1, Orion is expected to orbit the moon and return to Earth at the end of 2019. The rocket will be SLS, NASA's Space Launch System. Even if the launch should not take place until 2020, as is currently apparent from various sources, the NASA technicians should be busy with the preparations in the coming months of 2019. Also on board Orion is high-tech from Europe: the ESA service module built by Airbus in Bremen is responsible for propulsion, energy supply and central elements of the life-support system, among other things.
There is no way around Elon Musk and his company SpaceX in the American aerospace industry. The charismatic head of SpaceX, Elon Musk, who is also the head of the electric car manufacturer Tesla, has ambitious goals. Parts of his Falcon rockets are designed to land undamaged, which should make them largely recyclable and comparatively inexpensive to operate. In just a few days, on 7 January 2019, the SpaceX space capsule named Crew Dragon will be launched into space. It is based on the technology of the cargo spacecraft Dragon, which already supports the supply of the ISS. The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, which will launch the Demo-1 mission into space, will take off at the historic Pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida - the location from which the Apollo missions to the moon and later the Space Shuttles were launched about half a century ago. SpaceX wants to set off towards Mars itself - it should be as early as 2022, Elon Musk announced at the beginning of 2017, thus raising considerable doubts among experts.
NASA is also hoping for new information from the far end of our solar system, reports the specialist magazine FLUG REVUE in issue 1/2019. The New Horizons probe, which was launched in 2006 and caused a brief public hype about space exploration with its fly-by of the dwarf planet Pluto in summer 2015, has now set course for further objects in the Kuiper Belt. This area is home to countless small objects that could contain information about the origin of our solar system. In September 2018, the 52,000 km/h fast New Horizons probe was already 6.35 billion kilometres away from the sun. Meanwhile, the rock that has been brought into the focus of science, temporarily called Ultima Thule, is probably 30 to 40 kilometres small. New Horizons will, according to the planning, approach the object on about 3500 kilometres, in cosmic dimensions a stone's throw away. However, quick results are not to be expected: NASA estimates that about 20 months will be needed to transmit the data.
By the way, scientists from China with an unmanned mission are also attracted to the moon. In December 2018, they rocketed the "Long March 3B" into space, which will take the "Chang'e 4" probe with a robotic vehicle to the previously largely unexplored rear side of the moon. The environment of the Aitken crater, which is intended as a landing area, is to be investigated. It is also necessary to receive signals from space and to investigate whether the cultivation of vegetables is possible in the low gravity of the Earth's satellite. In communication with the Earth - keyword radio shadow - a satellite previously deployed in the moon orbit will help.
Sources: spiegel.de | bernd-leitenberger.de | dlr.de | welt.de | heise.de | ingenieur.de | nasa.gov | fr.de | sueddeutsche.de | heise.de | wikipedia.org | spacex.com | nasaspaceflight.com | blogs.nasa