Welcome to the Modern-Day Space Race

By Mika McKinnon on at

Between competing government space agencies, commercial enterprises, humans, and robots, we have one very odd space race going on. Here’s the highs and lows of exploration that happened in the year that was 2015!

Welcome to the Modern-Day Space RaceEven Akatsuki’s first-light instrument tests are producing new data on Venus. Image credit: JAXA

Epic Win for Japan: Recovering a Wayward Venus Orbiter

The Japanese Space Agency took a painful hit in 2005 when their Akatsuki spacecraft whizzed right past Venus. But after a decade of impressive ingenuity, the engineering team seized their second chance and tucked the spacecraft into orbit. As an extra bit of bragging points, it was already producing novel observations in under a week.

Heartbreaking Loss for the Martian Robots: Failed Tests Delay Exploration

We know, we know, it’s better delayed than destroyed, but it’s still absolutely heartbreaking to accept the Mars InSight lander won’t be launching next year. Rubbing salt in the wounds is yet another parachute failure for the tests of NASA’s prototype for an improved landing system. Until they work out the kinks, we can only dream of upgrading to heavier and more impressive explorers.

Welcome to the Modern-Day Space Race

A chance hit by a massive solar storm could knock out our electrical grid. Image credit: NASA

Obscure Win for Space Weather: Finally Stepping Up Mitigation

Space weather is gorgeous when it produces aurora, but it has the potential to throw our civilisation back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. But we’re finally treating the threat seriously. First, we launched new satellites to track magnetic reconnection to improve our space weather forecasts. Second, the United States is finally putting together an action plan for preparing for the eventual catastrophe. Sure, no one really noticed, but it’s still a win!

Loss for the Planet: Crippled Soil Moisture Satellite

Less than a year into operations, NASA’s new soil satellite gave up half a ghost. Its passive radiometer is still functional, but its active radar sputtered offline already. All attempts to fix it failed, so it looks like the satellite will just need to make do with half its tools from here on out. Ah well, the planet is just trying to kill us anyway.

Welcome to the Modern-Day Space RaceBlue Origin makes a successful vertical landing just a month before SpaceX returns the Falcon 9 to flight. Image credit: Blue Origin

Bittersweet Win for SpaceX: Landing the Falcon 9 Rocket

After their Falcon 9 rocket exploded while launching a cargo run to the space station, SpaceX had to take a time-out to redesign and rebuild. Worse, Blue Origin triumphantly released video of their New Shepard spacecraft successfully landing a month before SpaceX was finished licking their wounds. But when the Falcon 9 came back for a return-to-flight, it did it with style by nailing its first-ever attempt at landing the stage 1 rocket on land at Cape Canaveral. Nicely done!

Tentative Win for Private Industry: Commercial Crew Finds a Way

We got a bit annoyed when Congress threatened to shortchange NASA’s budget for the commercial crew program, but the politicians pulled through with a useable budget for 2016. At least, we hope it’s enough money — NASA’s already assigned Boeing’s Starliner two crew transport flights, and one to SpaceX’s Dragon. It’d be a shame if something as petty as money left our astronauts hitching a ride yet again.

Welcome to the Modern-Day Space RaceMark Watney takes a break from sciencing. Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Blockbuster Win for NASA: The Martian Wins Hearts for Human Exploration

The debate of humans versus robots for space exploration is perpetually ongoing. Humans have versatility and emotional resonance, yet are fragile and expensive compared to their robotic kin. But once we saw one of our own in a love letter to science set in a possible future on Mars, everyone was ready to science the shit out of everything.

Creaky Win for Humans in Deep Space: Construction Continues

After a successful test flight in 2014, the second Orion spacecraft for human exploration is under construction for a new round of tests. At the same time, tests continue on the Space Launch System, the colossal rocket destined to fire Orion into deep space. Yet progress is underwhelming: the biggest excitement was a new design reducing the total number of welds needed to make the spacecraft.

Welcome to the Modern-Day Space Race

Temporary Win for Aliens: Slow Going in Telescope Construction

James Webb Space Telescope construction marches on slowly but surely, hitting the halfway mark for mounting mirrors last week. Yet it’s still a long way from being operational and hunting out signs of life on distant worlds. Looks like prospective aliens get to keep their privacy. For now.

Win for Curiosity: 1,000 Exoplanets

The incredible Kepler Space Telescope never fails to impress. Assigned to study a new patch of sky to compensate for failing hardware, the spacecraft still managed to break into the quadruple digits of exoplanets, including the most Earth-like planet yet. Kepler’s found even more suspected exoplanet candidates, which even when they aren’t planets are still fascinating. So much juicy data to explore, we just want to happily roll around in it cackling about alien worlds!

Welcome to the Modern-Day Space Race

Despite glitchy communication, the LightSail phoned home with a photograph of its deployed solar sails. Image credit: The Planetary Society

Crowdfunded Win for Solar Sails: Deployment of a Prototype LightSail

The low-budget proof-of-concept mission hit a snag when a software glitch kept knocking the spacecraft out of communication. But after a few days, the Planetary Society was able to get in touch with their spacecraft and download a photo proving the solar sails successfully deployed. It wasn’t graceful, but a win is a win even when it’s messy.

Fussy Win for Physics: the Search for Gravitational Waves Makes Orbit

The European Space Agency launched their LISA Pathfinder mission. The high-precision spacecraft is balancing tiny weights within calibrated chambers, waiting for any disturbances in its search for gravitational waves. Cool.

Welcome to the Modern-Day Space Race

Valeri Polyakov toasts his record-breaking 437.7 continuous days in space with tea ...in 1995. Image credit: Roscosmos

Effortless Win for Russia: Human Spaceflight Duration

The Year in Space with Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko has been a big deal for NASA, with Kelly breaking all sorts of American duration records as the months march on. Yet, poor Kornienko isn’t breaking records since this is all old hat to the Russian space program. It’s hard to feel too smug about NASA’s record of 215 continuous days in space when placed against Russia’s decade-old record of 437.7 days.

Heartwarming Win for Humanity: Sustained International Cooperation

The International Space Station celebrated 15 years of continuous habitation in November. Built an operated by an international consortium, the station has hosted over 220 astronauts from more than 18 countries. It is undoubtably the most politically complex space exploration program ever attempted, and a tribute to the benefits of cooperation instead of competition. The new coffee machine probably doesn’t hurt.

Top image: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage rocket successfully landing at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.