Rocket Launches, Trips to the Moon and More Space and Astronomy Events in 2019

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Below are some of the launches, space science and other events we anticipate. You’ll find these and others added to your calendar as their dates approach.

The year is set to start with a moon landing by China’s Chang’e-4 mission. The spacecraft launched in December and reached lunar orbit four and a half days later. If its lander and rover succeed, Chang’e-4 will be the first spacecraft to make a soft, or intact, landing on the moon’s far side — the side that always faces away from Earth.

The Chinese spacecraft may be the first of a series of lunar landings.

An Israeli company, SpaceIL, is scheduled to send a lander to the moon in February. Originally, SpaceIL was one of four finalists in Google’s Lunar X Prize. But the prize went unclaimed when none of the companies were able to meet a launch deadline of March 31, 2018. If the Israeli mission succeeds, it would make that country only the fourth to complete a soft landing on the moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union and China.

But Israel could get beaten to that distinction by India, which may launch Chandrayaan-2, the nation’s first moon lander and rover, as soon as late January. (Chandrayaan-1, an orbiter, launched in 2008.) The mission was expected to launch last year, but met with delays.

This lunar activity may serve as a setup for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, when humans first walked on the moon. And China has the opportunity to bookend 2019 with a second moon mission, Chang’e-5, which could land on the moon late in the year, collect samples and later return them to Earth for study.

Since 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis completed its final mission, astronauts from the United States and other countries have relied on Russia’s Soyuz capsules to make journeys to and from the International Space Station. That could change later this year. SpaceX and Boeing have both built new capsules to carry crews for NASA and other space agencies. Delayed repeatedly in 2018, the capsules seem likely to get off the launchpad in 2019.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is scheduled for its first uncrewed test launch on Jan. 17. If that succeeds, a test launch with crew aboard could follow in June. Boeing’s Starliner also may fly with no crew in March, followed by a test flight carrying astronauts in August.

But even if test flights are completed for both capsules, NASA will need to assess their readiness and safety before the spacecraft begin carrying crew to the space station.

Last year was a busy one for private spaceflight. The Falcon Heavy was tested successfully, giving SpaceX the most powerful rocket currently able to launch from Earth. Rocket Lab put payloads into orbit three times during the year, hinting at the promise of small rockets for the satellite business. And Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crossed the 50-mile threshold into the atmosphere, making it the most advanced entrant in space tourism.

These companies could be joined by other small rocket makers in 2019. One company likely to make it to space is Virgin Orbit. Related to Virgin Galactic, the company sends rockets high into the atmosphere aboard a 747 jet plane, and then releases and launches them into orbit. Its preparations for a test launch appeared to be progressing toward the end of 2018.

Another contender, Vector, was started by a founder of SpaceX and aims to mass-produce small rockets on the cheap. It could complete its first orbital test this year, from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska.

Other private operators may materialize, too. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has been steadily testing its New Shepard rocket. And Falcon Heavy, following its exciting test launch last February, could carry satellites to high orbits twice in the first half of this year.

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