Year in space: Look back at 2017’s black sun … look forward to 2018’s bright moon

Eclipse Seattle
Eclipse watchers turned Aug. 21’s event into a party at Kerry Park in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The first total solar eclipse to go across America from coast to coast in 99 years has to rank as the top space story of 2017. But where do you go from there?

Would you believe the moon?

The moon was a supporting player in this year’s brush with totality. After all, you can’t have a solar eclipse unless the new moon gets in the way. And it certainly held center stage for a phenomenon witnessed by an estimated 215 million. That’s a bigger audience than the Super Bowl gets on TV.

But in 2018, the moon really gets its day in the sun, figuratively speaking. It starts next month with a New Year’s Day supermoon, followed by a total lunar eclipse on Jan. 31.

We lay out other reasons to moon over the moon in our annual roundup of the five top space stories from the year that’s ending, plus five trends to watch in the year ahead:

Five space stories from 2017

All-American eclipse: We covered the Aug. 21 solar eclipse from Oregon and Idaho, but the event’s effect was felt far beyond the narrow track of totality: On the bright side, Seattleites could enjoy a 92 percent eclipse. On the not-so-bright side, there was the controversy over subpar solar specs, a bad example at the White House, and scattered reports of eye injuries. It’s a good reminder to get your certified eclipse-viewing glasses well in advance of the next American solar eclipse in 2024.

Rise of rocket reusability: SpaceX had an incredibly successful year, starting with its return to flight in January and hitting its peak this month with the launch of a refurbished Falcon 9 booster plus a refurbished Dragon cargo capsule. “Flight-proven” hardware used to be the exception in the launch industry, but SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk wants to make it the rule. So does Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos: This month, his Blue Origin space venture successfully launched and landed its fully reusable New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

Saturnian sayonara to Cassini mission: Twenty years after its launch, NASA’s Cassini orbiter finally plunged to its fiery end in Saturn’s clouds. The magnificent mission documented how shepherd moons keep Saturn’s rings in line, revealed the hydrocarbon seas beneath Titan’s smoggy atmosphere, and charted the icy geysers of Enceladus. So what’s next? NASA is thinking about sending a drone to Titan, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is willing to chip in for a follow-up mission to Enceladus.

Superwoman in space: Last year, Scott Kelly was NASA’s space star by virtue of his nearly yearlong stint on the International Space Station. This year, Peggy Whitson won the spotlight for records including oldest woman in space (age 57), NASA astronaut with the most cumulative time in space (665 days) and most experienced female spacewalker (53 hours, 22 minutes).

To the moon! The Trump administration officially turned space policy away from sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid and toward putting astronauts on the moon, as a prelude to Mars missions. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture proposed a lunar delivery system called “Blue Moon,” while SpaceX’s Elon Musk adapted his company’s exploration vision to provide for trips to the moon as well as to Mars.

Five space trends for 2018

Best shots for moonshots: Several teams have until March 31 to send commercial landers to the lunar surface and win $20 million in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Among the favorites: Moon Express, which has Seattle-area entrepreneur Naveen Jain as its co-founder and executive chairman. It remains to be seen how NASA will follow through on the Trump White House’s lunar ambitions, but China is already planning to send a lander and rover to the far side of the moon by the end of 2018.

Commercial rides to space: If everyone’s schedule holds true, there’ll be four U.S.-built rocket ships capable of carrying people into outer space by the end of 2018: SpaceX’s crew-capable Dragon capsule, Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 space taxi, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and Blue Origin’s New Shepard craft. SpaceX and Boeing are heading to orbit and the space station for NASA, while Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are targeting suborbital space tourists and researchers.

The SpaceX frontier: Crew Dragon isn’t SpaceX’s only big project for 2018. The company is gearing up for the maiden launch of its big Falcon Heavy rocket, with Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster packed on board for a trip that could take it as far as Martian orbit. SpaceX is also due to start putting its Starlink telecommunications satellites in orbit, and flesh out its plans for building the monster BFR rocket.

Rendezvous with an asteroid: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx robotic probe is scheduled to approach a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu in August for a survey, in preparation for collecting a sample and delivering it back to Earth in 2023.

Mars InSight takes off: After a two-year delay that was due to an instrument glitch, NASA’s next Red Planet mission is scheduled for launch in May. The InSight lander will touch down in Elysium Planitia in November and study the interior and subsurface of Mars, using a sensitive seismometer and an underground heat probe.

If everything works out the way it’s planned, there’ll be plenty to talk about by this time next year, when we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 moon-circling mission and looking forward to the Apollo 11 festivities (which will include a big exhibit at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center).

Check back next year to see how many of these trends pay off, just as you can trace the record for the past 16 “Year in Space” assessments:

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