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The Biggest Spaceflight Stories of 2017

It’s been a busy, sparkling and bittersweet year in spaceflight.

The private spaceflight industry done some large leaps, a Trump administration announced a informed finish for U.S. astronauts, and a princely NASA upholder that essentially altered a bargain of habitable worlds met a burning end.

Let’s usually burst right in, given this is going to be a prolonged one: Here are Space.com’s picks for a tip spaceflight stories of 2017. [See Space.com’s tip scholarship stories of 2017]

NASA’s Cassini upholder plunged intentionally into Saturn’s thick atmosphere on Sept. 15, bringing a probe’s storied idea to an end.

That idea — a $3.2 billion Cassini-Huygens project, a corner bid of NASA, a European Space Agency and a Italian Space Agency — launched in Oct 1997 and arrived in a Saturn complement on Jun 30, 2004. 

On Dec. 25, 2004, a Huygens lander distant from a Cassini mothership and spiraled a approach toward Saturn’s outrageous moon Titan. Three weeks later, Huygens parachuted by Titan’s thick, misty atmosphere, apropos a initial upholder ever to land gently on a aspect of a universe in a outdoor solar system.

Huygens collected information during Titan for usually a few hours. But a Cassini orbiter kept zooming by a Saturn system, study a gas giant, a famous rings and a many moons for some-more than a decade. The mission’s discoveries have reshaped astronomers’ bargain of a Saturn complement and a solar system’s ability to horde life.

For example, Cassini’s radar observations suggested lakes and seas of glass hydrocarbons on Titan’s aspect — intensity abodes for life-forms, despite outlandish ones that would be really opposite from a water-dependent organisms of Earth.

And a idea detected geysers of H2O ice, organic materials and other things blustering from a south stick of another Saturn moon, a ice-covered Enceladus. Further Cassini observations strongly suggested that Enceladus harbors an sea of glass H2O underneath a icy shell, and that this sea contains energy sources that could means life. (The Titan and Enceladus discoveries done a endgame for Cassini, that was using out of fuel: Mission managers wanted to dispose of a upholder properly, to make certain it never infested Titan or Enceladus with microbes from Earth.) 

That’s usually a tiny sampling of a implausible scholarship that Cassini delivered over a 13-plus years during Saturn. And afterwards there were a images, thousands of them, that brought a poser and outlandish beauty of a Saturn complement to a universe daily. RIP, Cassini. You are missed. [Cassini’s Greatest Hits: The Spacecraft’s Best Images of Saturn]

This year done it transparent that we’re in a center of a private spaceflight revolution.

Let’s start with SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rockets flew 18 missions in 2017 — some-more than twice a company’s prior record for a calendar year. Fourteen of those liftoffs featured landings by a Falcon 9 initial stage; 5 of a launches concerned pre-flown boosters, and dual of them lofted used Dragon load upholder toward a International Space Station (ISS).

So, SpaceX strike some large milestones this year in a query for full and fast reusability, a pivotal priority for association owner and CEO Elon Musk. Indeed, reusability is during a core of SpaceX’s designed Mars-colonizing spaceflight system, a latest blueprints of that Musk denounced in Sep during a discussion in Australia.

A array of other private-spaceflight players also done poignant swell in 2017. For example, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched a new chronicle of a New Shepard suborbital car on a lass flight, laying a substructure for probable crewed missions subsequent year. Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser space qualification conducted a first-ever “glide flight” in Earth’s’ atmosphere; Stratolaunch took a huge, satellite-lofting aircraft out for a lass exam expostulate on a runway; Rocket Lab and Vector flew their small-sat launchers for a initial time, and Virgin Galactic’s latest suborbital spaceship, VSS Unity, conducted 4 slip flights in a skies over Southern California.

SpaceX and Virginia-based association Orbital ATK done a array of uncrewed resupply runs to a ISS, and SpaceX and Boeing continued to rise their ISS wanderer taxis, with a idea of drifting crews for a initial time subsequent year.

Oh, and California startup Made In Space sent to a ISS a appurtenance designed to make outlandish visual fiber in orbit, that a association eventually aims to sell here on Earth. This tiny space factory’s Dec. 15 launch might be a preview of spaceflight’s future: It flew to a orbiting lab aboard a pre-flown Dragon, that itself flew atop a Falcon 9 with a used initial stage.

On Dec. 11, President Donald Trump sealed “Space Policy Directive 1,” that instructs NASA to send astronauts behind to a moon — rather than to a near-Earth asteroid, as former President Barack Obama had systematic — as a stepping mill to Mars.

“This time, we will not usually plant a dwindle and leave a footprint — we will settle a substructure for an contingent idea to Mars,” Trump pronounced of a directive, that creates central a preference announced by Vice President Mike Pence in Oct during a initial assembly of a regenerated National Space Council. (The NSC had final been active in a early 1990s, during a presidency of George H.W. Bush.)

Neither Pence nor Trump gave any sum about a new moon plan, however. It’s misleading when a subsequent crewed lunar landings will take place, or how many it will cost to make them happen. [From Ike to Trump: Presidential Visions for Space Exploration]

North Korea’s barb module is advancing faster than experts had predicted. The nuclear-armed brute republic test-flew intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) 3 times this year, showcasing a apparent ability to strike a U.S. East Coast

It’s misleading if North Korea has mastered all a claim ICBM technology, such as a re-entry vehicle, that would strengthen a chief warhead during an operational launch. And experts don’t know for certain either a Hermit Kingdom has miniaturized a nukes, permitting them to fit them on ICBMs. But this year shows that we substantially shouldn’t blink North Korea or a technical skills.

And now, behind to a good news: This year, Peggy Whitson pennyless a record for a many sum time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut.

That record — 534 days — was set usually final year, by Jeff Williams. Whitson crushed a aged record while aboard a ISS in April, finally alighting on Earth in Sep after a 288-day orbital army that took her lifetime spaceflight total to 665 days. 

Whitson binds several other spaceflight outlines as well. In 2007, she became a initial lady ever to authority a ISS, and on her latest mission, she became a initial lady to do so twice. She has also spent some-more time on spacewalks (60 hours and 21 minutes) than any other womanlike astronaut. And during her latest ISS stint, Whitson became a oldest lady to transport in space, during 57.

The universe record for many time spent in space is 879 days, that cosmonaut Gennady Padalka amassed over a march of 5 missions, 4 of them to a ISS and one to a Soviet-Russian hire Mir.

NASA denounced a 12 newest wanderer candidates (or “ascans,” as a group calls them) in June. The 7 group and 5 women were selected from an initial pool of 18,300 field — some-more than twice as many as a prior record of 8,000, that was set behind in 1978. (The many new wanderer class, that was announced in 2013, had an applicant pool of about 6,400, NASA officials said.)

The new ascans are now intent in a two-year training program, during a finish of that they’ll turn bone-fide astronauts. These spaceflyers are earning their wings during a flattering sparkling time: Some of them might float private spaceships to and from a ISS, and others might fly to a moon or Mars.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid-sampling upholder zoomed past Earth on Sept. 22, a tiny over a year after rising off a planet. But a examine didn’t lapse given it was homesick; it came behind to use Earth’s sobriety to boost a speed and labour a march toward a potentially dangerous asteroid Bennu.

If all goes according to plan, OSIRIS-REx (whose name is brief for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) will event with Bennu in Aug 2018, obstacle some samples of a space stone dual years after and lapse these samples to Earth in Sep 2023. 

China launched a uncrewed Tianzhou-1 load upholder to Earth circuit on Apr 20, and a freighter docked with a nation’s Tiangong-2 space lab dual days later. Over a subsequent 5 months, a dual vehicles achieved a array of robotic refueling exercises, demonstrating technologies that China will need in sequence to build and say an orbiting space hire — a idea a republic hopes to grasp by a mid-2020s.

Tianzhou-1 was intentionally de-orbited into Earth’s atmosphere on Sept. 22, a really day that OSIRIS-REx flew by. 

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) lofted 104 satellites to Earth orbit on Feb. 14, ruinous a prior single-launch record of 37 spacecraft, that had been hold by Russia’s Dnepr booster.

The satellites aboard a PSLV came from 6 opposite nations: India, a United States, a Netherlands, Israel, Kazakhstan and Switzerland. The immeasurable infancy — 88 of a 104 qualification — were small, Earth-observing cubesats built by a San Francisco-based association Planet (formerly called Planet Labs).

 

On Sept. 7, a U.S. Air Force’s robotic X-37B space qualification launched on another poser idea to Earth orbit, the craft’s fifth overall. The car might stay aloft for a while; any unbroken X-37B idea has set a new module generation record, and a many new one orbited Earth for 718 days.

The X-37B rode a Falcon 9 rocket to circuit on Sept. 7, imprinting a initial time SpaceX had supposing a space plane’s lift. All 4 prior X-37B launches had come atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets. [In Photos: SpaceX Launches X-37B Space Plane, Lands Falcon 9 Rocket]

This year occasioned some chronological reflection, given some large spaceflight anniversaries came in 2017. For example, a first-ever synthetic satellite, a Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, launched to Earth circuit on Oct. 4, 1957, kicking off a space age

And NASA’s twin Voyager probes noted 40 years in space in 2017: Voyager 2 launched on Aug. 20, 1977, and Voyager 1 carried off on Sept. 5 of that year. Both probes are still going strong, exploring formerly uncharted regions. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space in Aug 2012, and a kin should strech that outlandish area in a subsequent few years, NASA officials have said.

Also this year, Voyager 1 fired a backup thrusters for a initial time given 1980. The tiny engines achieved well, and their application should assistance extend a spacecraft’s life by a integrate of years, idea officials said.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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