2018’s notable moments in space exploration

Mankind’s curiosity to see what lies beyond planet Earth progressed further in 2018, with a number of successful missions and test flights that could see ordinary folk blast off on rockets within a few years.

But the year in which Nasa turned 60 and the International Space Station (ISS) celebrated its 20th anniversary didn’t go entirely without a hitch…

SpaceX

Rocket maker SpaceX made progress in 2018, launching the first test flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket with a red sports car attached to it in February.

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Founder Elon Musk sent his personal Tesla Roadster on the journey to Mars on board the Heavy, from the same launchpad in Florida used by Nasa almost 50 years earlier to send men to the Moon.

Aeolus

Aeolus, a British-built laser satellite designed to measure wind speeds, was launched into space in August by the European Space Agency (ESA).

SCIENCE Aeolus
SCIENCE Aeolus

Less than an hour after taking off from a rocket in Kourou in French Guiana, the satellite was in orbit, as it starts its three-year mission to improve weather forecasting.

BepiColombo

British-built BepiColombo set off in October on a seven-year journey to Mercury, one of the least-explored planets in the solar system.

SCIENCE Mercury
SCIENCE Mercury

Orbiters are being sent on the spacecraft to understand some of the biggest questions about the planet, such as its oversized iron core, volcanic vents, and hints of water ice. It’s also hoped that Mercury may have some answers about the origins of our solar system too.

InSight

After almost seven months travelling through space and a tricky landing, Nasa’s InSight spacecraft successfully landed on Mars in late November.

The two-year, 814 million US dollars (£633 million) mission aims to shine new light on how the Red Planet was formed and its deep structure, by mapping its core, crust and mantle.

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InSight sent back selfies from the Martian surface back to Earth soon after its successful arrival.

International Space Station – arrivals issue

The International Space Station was due to accept two new residents, astronauts Nasa’s Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin, in October as part of its regular cycle of visitors but the mission didn’t go to plan.

The Soyuz-FG rocket carrying the pair failed shortly into their flight, resulting in an emergency return to Earth. Neither was injured.

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Less than two months later, a second successful attempt was made, taking Anne McClain from Nasa, David Saint-Jacques from the Canadian Space Agency, and Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos to the station.

Kepler Space Telescope

Nasa’s planet-hunting spacecraft, known as the Kepler Space Telescope, was declared dead in October after nine years.

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Having worked beyond its expected lifetime, the spacecraft had been running low on fuel for months and was struggling to point out specific regions in the cosmos at the beginning of October.

On its mission, Kepler uncovered more than 2,600 planets outside our solar system, which included rocky planets similar to Earth which could harbour life.

Parker Solar Probe closest ever to the Sun

A Nasa space probe got closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft in October, surpassing the previous record of 26.6 million miles set in 1976.

We’re getting closer to “touching” the Sun! ☀️#ParkerSolarProbe became the closest-ever spacecraft to the Sun when it passed within 26.55 million miles of the Sun’s surface. Find out more: https://t.co/DVvHLRB1Appic.twitter.com/7YPJJwLrp1

— NASA (@NASA) October 29, 2018

Over the next seven years, the Parker Solar Probe will make 24 close approaches to the Sun and aims to eventually get within 3.8 million miles.