More men and machines to venture into space in 2013


Yesterday, I talked about some of the upcoming astronomical events for this year, but that's not the only thing happening in space. Human activity in space — both in orbit and to other objects in the solar system — continues, and here is a list of just some of what's going on in 2013.

NASA and the US Geological Survey's Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) is set to launch on February 11. This will be the eighth satellite of the Landsat program, which began in 1972 to continuously monitor the Earth's surface with high-resolution imagery to (as stated on their website) "benefit disciplines such as geology, hydrology, forestry, geography, cartography, agriculture, land use planning and rangeland management."

The Mars Science Laboratory, aka the Curiosity rover, is scheduled to start its straight-shot for Mt. Sharp in February, with an estimated arrival date sometime in November. It's likely to stop at least a few times on its way if the scientists spot anything interesting, but once it reaches the base of the mountain, it will begin its primary mission in the Gale Crater — searching for signs of past life in the 'interesting geology' seen there.

SpaceX Corporation will launch two more private resupply missions to the International Space Station — SpaceX-2 on March 1 and SpaceX-3 on September 30 — and they plan on test their new Falcon Heavy launch system — which, when operational, will be the largest launch system in existence, and (according to SpaceX) able to operate cheaper than any other launch system.

Orbital Sciences Corporation has scheduled a launch of their Cygnus resupply module on April 8. It is expected to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station in this demonstration flight, in preparation for future cargo delivery missions.

The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) mission is set to go on April 28. IRIS will study the region of the Sun where the photosphere (the 'surface' of the Sun that we see in visible light) and the corona (the Sun's plasma atmosphere) meet. Little is known about this interface region, and further study of it will allow us to better understand what drives space weather events such as solar flares, solar prominences, and coronal mass ejections.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft launches on August 12 to study the thin lunar atmosphere and how the lunar environment influences dust on the surface, and provide much needed information to any future plans for building habitats on the Moon.

The next mission to Mars, MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN), is set to blast off on November 18. This satellite will orbit the planet starting in 2014, studying its upper atmosphere, ionosphere and how the atmosphere interacts with the solar wind. It will also examine how the loss of volatile compounds (carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and water) from the atmosphere over Mars' history shaped the planet's environment.

China and India are getting into the mix as well, with a manned space mission for China scheduled for June (apparently in preparation for them building their own space station by 2020), and India planning to send an orbiter to Mars.

As for continuing missions...

The Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn continues its work around the ringed planet, investigating its moons, rings and atmosphere.

NASA's Dawn mission continues as well, having visited the asteroid Vesta for roughly a year between July 2011 and July 2012, as the spacecraft circles around the Sun to catch up to the asteroid Ceres in February of 2015.

Also with an arrival date planned in 2015, the New Horizon spacecraft is roughly halfway to completing its journey to Pluto.

Juno, a NASA spacecraft on its way to study Jupiter's atmosphere, is currently out beyond the orbit of Mars. It will perform a gravity-assisted fly-by of the Earth on October 9 of this year, intended to give it a boost towards a rendezvous with the Jovian giant in 2016.