There was no shortage of big space stories in 2015.
New Horizons’ historic Pluto flyby made a huge splash, as did SpaceX’s end-of-the-year, launch-and-landing spectacular.
Outside the media spotlight, other important space policy and business developments were unfolding, among them: the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s near-death experience, Silicon Valley’s renewed interest in space startups, DoD’s response to emerging space threats, and a satellite telecom industry contending with a rise in single-satellite national systems and a consumer shift to streaming video.
What’s popular and what’s important aren’t always one and the same, as this list of our 15 most-read stories definitely shows by virtues of some of its omissions.
But popularity and importance can certainly overlap, especially when you have smart readers.
Let us know down below what you think — or hope — will be the big stories in 2016.
A 20-year-old military weather satellite apparently exploded in orbit Feb. 3 following what the U.S. Air Force described as a sudden temperature spike. The “catastrophic event” produced 43 pieces of space debris, according to Air Force Space Command, which disclosed the loss of the satellite Feb. 27 in response to questions from SpaceNews.
A mysterious Russian military satellite parked itself between two Intelsat satellites in geosynchronous orbit for five months this year, alarming company executives and leading to classified meetings among U.S. government officials.
Airbus Defence and Space on June 5 unveiled the product of what it said was a five-year effort to design a reusable Ariane rocket first-stage engine and avionics package, a project company official said was stimulated by SpaceX’s work on reusable rockets.
Elon Musk on Jan. 16 said SpaceX has submitted to international regulators the necessary documentation for a global satellite Internet project to eventually include some 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit and initial service within five years.
Soon after he began working with SpaceX, Dan Rasky was sitting in a conference room listening to nine or 10 engineers discuss the best way to produce heat shields for the Dragon space capsule when SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk turned to him and asked, “Dan, what do you think?”
The return to flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, still a “couple of months” away, will also be the first launch of an upgraded version of the vehicle with increased performance, the company’s president said Aug. 31.
A Russian military satellite launched in March has made at least 11 close approaches to the rocket upper stage that released it into orbit, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force. Such maneuvering capability is consistent with, but not necessarily indicative of, an on-orbit anti-satellite weapon.
A private organization that recently selected finalists for one-way human missions to Mars in the mid-2020s has quietly suspended work on a pair of robotic missions, putting into question plans to launch those spacecraft in 2018.
SpaceX is gearing up for both the first launch of its Falcon 9 rocket since a June launch failure and the first flight of a “significantly improved” version of the vehicle, but questions remain about the company’s plans to attempt to recover the rocket’s first stage.
Blue Origin announced Nov. 24 that it launched its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on a second test flight, flying to the edge of space and successfully landing both sections of the vehicle.
The recommendation states that the FAA, “after consulting with the appropriate U.S. agencies, engage directly with ESA in support of the ‘Moon Village’ concept, with the goal of fostering the participation of U.S.-based commercial entities in the planning and creation of the ‘Moon Village.’”
European governments spent a year grafting parts of the SpaceX business model onto Europe’s rocket sector, and are now talking up reusable-rocket technology as a promising direction as SpaceX heads that way. More recently, SpaceX, Google, Virgin Group and others have signaled interest in global satellite constellations to deliver Internet, and the French government has said it is interested in that business, too. It sounds like “Simon Says” with SpaceX founder Elon Musk as Simon, and some exasperated European government officials are now asking for it to stop.
SpaceX’s Jan. 20 confirmation that Google and mutual-fund giant Fidelity Investments had invested a combined $1 billion in SpaceX set the stage for what could be a multi-year competition for capital and engineering resources among consortia aiming to build satellite networks for global Internet connectivity.
SpaceX expects to complete its final report on the June 28 failure of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle within a month, but does not yet have a firm timetable for resuming flights, a company official said Oct. 8.
Satellite fleet operator SES said it is likely to trade its midyear launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for a slot later in the year rather than be the first to fly a Falcon 9 with Merlin 1D engines adjusted for improved thrust.