Rocket launches are awesome. But they are more than just a spectacular show of pyrotechnics. They represent the best of all of us. Tucked inside each vehicle’s fairing is a payload, designed to carry out a specialized task that will ultimately improve life on Earth. As this year winds to a close, here’s a look at some of the most memorable launches of 2016.
This year, we witnessed robotic explorers arrive at two different planets — Mars and Jupiter (although Juno launched in 2011) — marveling as SpaceX and Blue Origin continued to shake up the industry by launching and landing their rockets, and learned how NASA will high-five an asteroid to uncover the secrets of the universe as part of the sent OSIRIS-REx mission.
Across the globe, more than eighty rockets launched this year, enabling a variety of critical missions to get off the ground. While nearly all were successful, there were a few setbacks, including the loss of an x-ray satellite, a Progress supply ship, and a communications satellite — not to mention the destruction of a Cape Canaveral launch pad in the process. But overall, it’s been an incredible year for spaceflight.
SpaceX kicked off the year for the United States by launching the company’s final Falcon 9 v1.1, and carrying an Earth-observing satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into orbit. From its orbital perch, the Jason-3 satellite will monitor global sea levels. SpaceX attempted to recover the rocket’s first stage on a floating barge, but one of the landing legs failed to lock into place and the Falcon tipped over, resulting in a massive explosion.
The first phase in a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) saw the picture-perfect launch of the ExoMars spacecraft. Six months later, when the spacecraft arrived at Mars, its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully achieved orbital insertion around the Red Planet, but its Schiaparelli lander encountered a computer glitch and crash landed on the Martian surface. But that’s ok, because the agencies will try again in 2020, with the launch of a life-seeking robot.
The CRS-8 mission is definitely memorable, as SpaceX not only resumed cargo deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS), but also proved it had finally mastered landing on a floating platform.
On September 8, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft rocketed into space while tucked inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket. It’s tasked with vacuuming up a sample of a carbon-rich asteroid, named Bennu, which is believed to hold clues about the origins of our solar system. Researchers hope to use the samples to learn more about how life began.
Two Chinese astronauts blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, on an unprecedented mission. The duo of Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng embarked on a month-long stay aboard China’s newest space laboratory — the Tiangong-2 — to test systems that will be used on the country’s future space station, which is set to launch in 2022.
Blue Origin’s Daring In-flight Abort Test
Blue Origin is one of several companies that dreams of ferrying passengers to and from space. In October, they took a major leap towards that goal by proving their New Shepard vehicle can keep passengers safe during an emergency. As an added bonus, the rocket — which had previously launched and landed multiple times — surprised everyone by surviving the ordeal unscathed. Both the rocket and capsule will be retired as museum pieces.
Antares Returns to Flight
Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket returned to flight on October 17, following a two-year hiatus. The vehicle was grounded in 2014 after a spectacular explosion rocked the coastal Virginia region, destroying the vehicle and payload, and severely damaging the launch site. Bound for the International Space Station, the rocket carried a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to orbit, with over 5,000 pounds of research and supplies inside.
Long March 5
On November 6, China just launched its most powerful rocket yet: the Long March 5. This new heavy-lift vehicle carries with it the future of the Chinese space program, as it will be used to hoist a new space station into orbit, as well as propel astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.
Expedition 50 Crew Launch
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson adds a few more notches to her already impressive resume as she and her crewmates — Russia’s Oleg Novitskiy, and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet — blasted off towards the International Space Station on November 17. She is now the oldest woman to fly in space, at the age of 56, and will surpass Jeff Williams’s record for most days in space (Williams has logged 534 days on orbit). She will also be the first woman to command the orbital outpost twice. Their Expedition 50 mission is also a major milestone for the space station as it marks the 50th mission during the station’s lifetime.
NASA and NOAA teamed up to launch a souped up weather satellite, called GOES-R. NOAA boasts that the satellite will be a real game-changer, and will scan the globe five time faster than current satellites can. By providing four times the spatial resolution, the spacecraft will be able to beam back real-time images of storms as they develop.