Did you get a chance to catch the SpaceX launch from Vandenberg AFB on December 22, 2017? Almost all of Los Angeles was able to catch the marvelous display (many not realizing just what it was they were seeing). It was the final SpaceX launch for the year, but there’s a lot more in store with this company when it comes to space exploration.

SpaceX seems to be leading the charge on innovative space engineering, but what else can we expect to see in the coming years? How is NASA fairing these days, and who else is dipping their toes into rockets and satellites? Let’s take a look at what the future of space engineering holds:

Satellite Evolution and Debris

Satellites have changed a lot in the past decade. NASA and the US military used to be leaders in deploying new satellite technology, but now much of that has shifted to private large corporations. Google and SpaceX are just a couple of the companies spending billions of dollars on developing, testing, and launching new rocket and satellite technology. Interestingly enough, their focus isn’t on imagery or recon but on providing low-cost internet access to people around the globe. Their satellites are often low-orbiting, small, and can operate at a high capacity.

Besides Google and SpaceX, there are also the companies Planet Labs and Skybox which are investing in Nanosats (small satellites). These low-orbiting mini satellites are utilized to get constant high-resolution images of the Earth below, and according to Planet Labs, new satellites are launched every 3 to 4 months.

However, all this new technology and exciting forays into satellite evolution has created one big problem: space junk. As noted by Ohio University, only about a third of the satellites currently in orbit are actually being used. The rest are no longer operational, and many will eventually fall to earth. This is already happening with China’s space station (Tiangong-1), which is expected to fall to Earth sometime in March of this year.

The large amount of space junk in orbit is causing other problems as well, and some scientists expect that it could eventually be impossible to actually leave the Earth’s orbit simply because of all the debris that is no longer operational. This has prompted some Chinese researchers to start considering an alternate form of clean up via laser technology.

With the rapid rate at which new satellites are being launched, and the overwhelming amount of space junk simply waiting to fall to earth, we could very well see some new problems on the horizon. Will scientists be able to find a more graceful or sustainable way for their creations to go out of commission? Or will space lasers solve all our problems? Only time will tell.

Space Robotics

Although NASA might be slowing down on their satellite launches, they haven’t been slowing down on their robotics. Currently, NASA is planning a New Frontier mission to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Although the mission is only in the beginning stages and could take years to complete, they’re turning to some of the nations top robotic engineers to get ideas rolling.

Penn State University is collaborating with John Hopkins University to create a series of drone-like robots for the task nicknamed Dragonfly. NASA will be holding a contest between the Dragonfly team and another group (led by Cornell) that will determine which project will receive full funding for the mission. The trickiest obstacles to overcome will be penetrating Titan’s dense atmosphere and low-gravity, but already the Dragonfly group has successfully created miniaturized versions of the drone and is planning to implement their research into constructing a wind farm that mimics the atmosphere of Titan.

NASA also has some exciting plans for robotics, including robot swarms to explore the surface of the moon (also through a collaboration with John Hopkins University), and wind-powered robots that can investigate the gaseous planets of our solar system. The field of robotic engineering is growing slowly but steadily, and NASA is eager to partner with the best graduate programs and the sharpest minds to get new ideas. This includes a group of high schoolers in Australia who won the Zero Robotics challenge to help code robots for the International Space Station.

Space Exploration

But NASA (of course) isn’t the only organization looking at space exploration and engineering. Elon Musk’s SpaceX program is famous for the creator’s vision of exploring — and potentially colonizing — Mars. Already, he’s unveiled the Tesla Roadster that will be making a trip to Mars’ orbit on an upcoming launch. But Musk is also semi-opposed to robotics (despite owning Tesla, which is famous for its self-driving algorithms), as evident in his overwhelming fear of an AI apocalypse.

Regardless, Musk has spent billions of dollars on his exploration mission, and hopes to get the first US commercial manned mission to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of the year. This will be in partnership with NASA (who will be providing astronauts and some funding), but SpaceX is facing some tough competition via Boeing who will also be competing for the opportunity. If neither are successful, NASA will have to fall back on Russia, who has done the majority of manned trips to the ISS since the program was closed in the US in 2011.

Overall, there could be some delays to the project, as much of the funding is still being held by the US government, and Congress is notorious for redirecting funding elsewhere. Additionally, SpaceX has faced a few problems in past launches, including a recent one at Cape Canaveral on January 7, 2018, that made it off the ground but failed during the deployment stages.

2018 will certainly be an exciting year for space engineering. With the continued progress of programs such as SpaceX and the exceptional partnership opportunities that NASA offers, there will be plenty of milestones made in the coming year. Although Musk might not be offering trips to Mars anytime soon, each little discovery and invention will pave the way to a more space-filled future.

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