‘Tis the season for dwarf planets with an impending flood of Pluto flyby data and Dawn just about to point its spectrometer at the weird white spots on Ceres. Add in ocean floor explorations, a pair of weights in perpetual free-fall, and a rash of rocket launches and we just know this year is going out in a bang of discovery.

While it’s difficult to anticipate the timeline of discovery, the complex logistics of expeditions and spaceflight make them a wee bit more tractable to predict. In roughly chronological order, here’s the exploration, data downlinks, launches, and releases we’re looking forward to in the next few months.


Discovering What We Saw at Pluto

Pluto during the day and night. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons resumes its data downlink on September 5th with images released every Friday as we restart the flow of excitement as we see what else the spacecraft captured during the Pluto flyby. It’s also time to pick a Kuiper Belt Object and execute burns to place the probe on the correct trajectory in the hope the extended research mission is approved. The spacecraft is still collecting particle and plasma data to see how it changes in the environment beyond Pluto and to help with instrument calibration.


Exploring the Seafloor Near Hawaii

The Deep Discoverer (D2) ROV transfers a piece of an unknown Corallium species 2,078 meters below the sea into its isolated sample bucket. Image credit: NOAA


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s Okeanos Explorer research ship moved to Pearl Harbor this summer, and is busy exploring marine protected areas in the Pacific. Its remote operated submersible is using its freshly-upgraded bucket to take biological and geological samples for the very first time. Although the current cruise wraps up on September 30, 2015, the ship will be exploring more Pacific seamounts, sponge gardens, and deep-sea coral in additional expeditions in the spring and summer of 2016 and 2017.

Mapping Carbon Sources and Sinks


The first global map of carbon distributions will soon be replaced by an improved version created by reprocessing better-calibrated data. Image credit: NASA/OCO

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) team refined their orbit for the Fall, snuggling in closer to CloudSat and CALIPSO in the Afternoon Train of Earth-observing satellites. This means that researchers will be able to pair up the one million daily measurements of carbon dioxide made by OCO-2 with cloud and aerosol measurements made by the other satellites. They’ve also been working on instrument calibration and data reprocessing, which means we’ll be getting a new, improved visualizations of how carbon is moving around our planet very soon.

Poking at Storms with a Remote-Operated Drone


NASA’s remotely-piloted Global Hawk will be wrapping up this summer’s field stint of chasing storms for NOAA, allowing the science team to spend the fall mulling over their data. The remote-piloted drone provides on-location measurements to calibrate satellite data, staying at high-impact weather events longer than a crewed craft could manage. On on more grim note, they’re also testing the feasibility of using drones as a temporary patch to keep feeding the National Weather Service data if a satellite dies during the delayed and creakingly-slow replacement of the aging constellation of weather satellites.

Nudging the Commercial Crew Vehicles Closer to Certification


SpaceX proved its Dragon can save astronauts from a bad launch from the pad; next it takes on a mid-flight abort. Image credit: SpaceX

NASA’s investments in the Boeing Corporation’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are nearing fruition, with both companies intending to complete all certification milestones on-time to launch in 2017. Despite questionable funding on NASA’s end, SpaceX is currently planning to run the Crew Dragon through its midflight abort tests in the next few months.

Investigating Sea Surface Topography


Tracking sea surface heights helps us understand ocean dynamics and climate change. Image credit: NASA/JPL/CNES

This will be the fall of sea surface topography mapping. Not only is the launch of the collaborative NASA/NOAA Jason 3 satellite is tentatively launching as soon as post-explosion investigation into SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is completed. The next European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel satellite deployment (Sentinel 3A) will also measure the ocean’s surface. Between the two, we’ll be seeing all sorts of sloshes, thermal expansions, currents, and other ways in which “sea level” is anything but flat.

Resuming Business as Usual for Commercial Cargo Runs


The Antares rocket explosion destroyed a Cygnus capsule in October 2014 [left] while the Falcon 9 rocket explosion took out a Dragon capsule in June 2015 [right] Image credits: NASA TV [left]; AP/John Raoux [right]

Both Orbital’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon most recent attempts at cargo runs to the International Space Station ended in a messy explosion destroying the payloads and triggering lengthy investigations. SpaceX has its first first post-explosion Dragon cargo run scheduled for sometime soon-ish and again on December 9th, while Orbital is swapping rockets to get the Cygnus back in service for a to-be-determined date in December.

Hoping for the Recovery of Active Soil Moisture Measurements


Soil moisture map created during radar and radiometer instrument testing May 4 and May 11, 2015 with gaps from cycling the instruments on and off. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

The brand-new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite hit a snag where its passive radiometer is working fantastically but the active radar is grumpily refusing to take measurements. The team is currently running through troubleshooting, and will get back to us in the next few weeks about if SMAP can be fixed or if we’ll be relying only on the passive measurement mode from here on out.

Launching of an All-New Rocket


First look at the Long March 6 [left] and hot fire engine tests [right]. Image credits: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation/China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology

The Chinese space program is creeping up on yet another major accomplishment in September. While less splashy than their quickly-progressing lunar exploration, the first launch of the Long March 6 (长征六号运载火箭) will mark the successful development of a new rocket capable of pushing a 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pound) payload into a sun-synchronous orbit. It will also use a kerosene/liquid oxygen propellant mix, which is theoretically relatively ecologically-friendly for a rocket.

Getting Serious About Mapping Ceres


The two-faced pyramidal mountain on Ceres seen from just 1,470 kilometers (915 miles) away on August 19, 2015 to a resolution of 140 meters (450 feet) per pixel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn spacecraft is currently spiraling into its high-altitude mapping orbit and will complete six full-globe maps of the dwarf planet within the next two months. It should reach 1,450 kilometers (901 miles) altitude by October 17th, dropping down to just 373 kilometers (232 miles) altitude by December for its low-altitude mapping orbit. The most exciting part of this is that the spacecraft will use its spectrometer to figure out exactly what minerals makes up those infuriatingly-mysterious white splotches!

Amping Up The Power of Particles


The world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator is finally up to full power. Image credit: CERN

The CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is almost done stabilizing at its new full power setup. The particle accelerator is flinging protons around its 27-kilometer tunnels 11,000 times a second to reach a ludicrous staggering 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV). After scrubbing the pipes over the summer to release gas molecules trapped in the walls, the accelerator is getting down to business by dropping the timing between each bunch of protons from 50 nanoseconds to just 25 nanoseconds for twenty-hour intervals. Assuming they can maintain stability in the new configuration, researchers will be conducting a series of special physics runs in October.

Stepping up India’s Space Program with a Dedicated Astronomical Satellite


Astrosat undergoing testing after full instrument integration and mechanical fit tests. Image credit: ISRO

India is planning on launching their Astrosat in October, deploying their first dedicated astronomical satellite. The multiwavelength observatory will measure visible and UV light, X-rays, and collect some particle data. Paired with their successful Mars mission, it will be a major milestone in the low-budget space program developing independent operational capacity for more complex space missions.

Flying Past Enceladus One Last Time


Enceladus seen by Cassini from approximately 30,000 to 48,000 kilometers (18,750 to 30,000 miles) away on October 5, 2008. The spacecraft will make a close approach to the south [left] and north [right] poles this October. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft is continuing its farewell tour of the Saturn system by teasing the ice-covered oceans of Enceladus. On October 14, Cassini will make its first flyby of the moon’s north pole. On October 28th, the spacecraft a daringly close skim just 49 kilometers (30.4 miles) above the south pole to investigate water plumes spewing into space. The spacecraft will make its final targeted flyby of Saturn’s sixth-largest moon on December 19th.

Bringing the Search for Gravitational Waves to Free-fall


LISA’s electrode housing boxes will shelter the test masses from sunlight and the solar wind . Image credit: CGS SpA

In November, ESA is intensifying the search for gravitational waves by deploying the LISA Pathfinder experiment at the L1 Lagrange point on November 27th. The experiment will drop a pair of 4.6 centimeter (1.8 inch) solid gold–platinum cubes in near-perfect free-fall, waiting for gravitational waves like surfers for a swell. The experiment is highly sensitive to both displacement and acceleration, measuring any motion produced by gravitational waves without fussing over pesky things like drag or planetary gravity.

Investigating X-Ray Structures all over the Universe


Astro-H thermal vacuum test on June 19, 2015. Image credit: JAXA

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is launching their Astro-H X-ray observatory in November. The satellite will pair observations from a soft X-ray telescope with an X-ray calorimeter spectrometer in an effort to trace growth of the largest structures in the universe, shock acceleration structures in galaxy clusters, and peer into the details of a black hole’s jets.

Sciencing Even More in 2016


The Orion capsule shortly before a parachute failure test on August 25, 2015. Image credit: Jason Davis/The Planetary Society

The new year will bring a whole new batch of science. The Orion deep space explorer will have its crew module will outfitted for EM-1 test flights, and the real service module arrives from overseas. Its partner-rocket, the massive Space Launch System, is continuing its development sequence with tests on the five-segment rocket booster in the spring and structural tests of the upper and core stage components in summer 2016.

SpaceX plans to continue their barge landing attempts for the Falcon 9, and blast off with the first Falcon Heavy test flight. NASA and NOAA are pairing up to launch GOES-R, the first of the next-generation geostationary weather satellites to replace the current aging constellation. Finally, both ESA and NASA will be launching new Mars missions: NASA’s InSight lander carries a payload to root around in the subsurface with both temperature and seismic measurements, while ExoMars carries a Trace Gas Orbiter and their Schiaparelli lander.


What scientific expeditions or missions are you looking forward to?

Thank you to Stuart Robbins with New Horizons; Sarah Graddy and Monica Allen with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); David Crisp, Alan Buis, and Karen Yuen with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2); Steve Cole with the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP); Kim Henry with the Space Launch System; and Rachel Kraft with the Orion Spacecraft.

Top Image: Last successful Cygnus/Antares launch[top left]; Large Hadron Collider tunnel; day side of Pluto; preliminary soil moisture map; Astro-H; preliminary carbon dioxide map [middle left]; Enceladus; Deep Discoverer marine ROV; Global Hawk drone; inspecting Orion; Long March 6 engine test; Astrosat [bottom left]; Falcon 9 barge landing attempt; LISA Pathfinder electrode chamber; Ceres; last successful Falcon 9/Dragon launch. Credit: Mika McKinnon

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