Between rockets landing on drone ships and the Curiosity rover finding more exciting news about the prospect of life on Mars, NASA and the space industry had an incredible 2016 — and 2017 might be just as epic.
The space agency will edge closer to a trip to Mars and bring in data from the furthest corners of the solar system. There’s also a lot of cool celestial phenomena, including a total solar eclipse, going down in the next year. While the incoming president Donald Trump’s plans for NASA are unclear, the activities the agency already has on the schedule look pretty exciting.
Building the Future
Mars is the destination of the future, as multiple space agencies and private companies have their sites set on the Red Planet. NASA has been busy building the infrastructure and vehicles that will take us there.
The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s next heavy-lift rocket that will hopefully replace the Saturn V, which was once used to ferry astronauts to the moon.
Engineers are currently renovating the historic Vehicle Assembly Building (where the rockets were once assembled) at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Additionally, they are upgrading Launch Pad 39B — which once supported both the Saturn V and the space shuttle programs.
Cassini’s Death and Saturn Exploration
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made history as it returned epic views of our solar system’s ringed giant, Saturn. The probe got up close and personal with Saturn’s family of moons, revealing previously unknown details.
Cassini is set to self-destruct in 2017, as it will crash into the giant planet. The robotic explorer has already begun the final phase of its more than a decade-long mission. As part of its grand finale, Cassini will conduct a series of dives between Saturn and its extensive ring system.
2017 Total Eclipse
Next summer the United States will experience a rare phenomenon — a total solar eclipse. Dubbed “the Great American Eclipse”, the solar spectacle will be visible throughout continental North America.
This will be the first time in nearly a century that a total solar eclipse will trek across the entirety of the continental United States. The best viewpoint will be in the city of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, but don’t fret. A partial eclipse will be visible throughout the country, while those along the dedicated eclipse path will be able to witness the moon block out the sun’s light temporarily as it passes between our planet and its host star. Astronomers estimate it will be another 375 years to witness another event like this.
Earth Science Observations
NASA has teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor the precious blue marble we call home. Together the two agencies research a myriad of issues from climate change to extreme weather, to the antarctic ice shelf.
Through its fleet of research aircraft, NASA is able to carry out these specialized missions. Next year the agency will rely on a fleet of advanced weather satellites to dissect destructive storms like hurricanes and tropical cyclones in order to determine what makes them tick. This research will improve forecasts as well as better predict how damaging the storms will be once they strike.
Exoplanets and Astronomy
Next year, NASA is launching two missions that will revolutionize our understanding of the universe. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is a project out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and will search for transiting exoplanets (aka planets outside the solar system) around bright stars. When a planet passes in front of a star, it temporarily blocks out the star’s light — this is known as a transit. Historically, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has been the premier planet-hunter, but it may have to share some of the spotlight in the next few years.
In addition to TESS, NASA is launching a mission called the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (or NICER for short). NICER will be installed on the International Space Station and, thanks to rotation-resolved spectroscopy, the experiment will probe the interior of neutron stars.
Correction, 12/31/2016: The initial image for this post used a GIF of a Japan H-2 rocket launch. We’ve replaced with a GIF of NASA’s 2014 EFT-1 mission launch, which used a Delta IV Heavy rocket.