It’s this time of year when we make predictions for the upcoming year. What should we look for in the year 2018? What event or mission will be on everyone’s lips next year?
Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

There are a couple of big missions coming from SpaceX that I think will keep people on their toes. The first, of course is the launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Rocket, which has been delayed for several years now. This will bring serious heavy lift capability to SpaceX, which has only been possible from the traditional launch providers. In addition, SpaceX is expected to launch a couple of space tourists on circumlunar trajectory on board a Dragon capsule This will be the first time humans have gone beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo era. Of course, SpaceX timelines will likely slip, so it's entirely possible that these predictions will be totally wrong.

In terms of astronomy, I think the result I'm most excited about will be the first pictures from the Event Horizon Telescope, which gathered data back in April 2017. To think that we'll see an image of the region around a black hole is mind boggling.

Of course, the biggest things will be the unexpected. 2017 surprised us, and I'm sure 2018 will surprise us too.

Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)

Although I’m a big fan of every “branch” of space exploration, I’m especially interested in planetary exploration (and that’s why I wrote a book about it!) There are several big planetary events coming up in 2018 and I’m looking forward to all of them. The InSight seismology probe is scheduled to launch to Mars in May, and land later this year. There are two asteroid sample missions that will arrive at their destinations this year: OSIRIS-REx will reach Bennu in August, and Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to reach Ryugu in July. Also, ESA and JAXA are teaming up to launch BepiColombo to Mercury in October (arriving in 2025). China is expected to launch the Chang'e 4 lander/rover sometime this year to land on the moon’s far side.

Of course, all the current planetary missions will continue to awe and amaze us: Juno is telling us more about Jupiter while sending back incredible images; the two Mars rovers carry on with their journeys across the surface of the Red Planet, Dawn is still orbiting Ceres, and at the end of the year, New Horizons will be approaching its next target, an intruging Kuiper Belt Object. So, there will be no shortage of exciting planetary science news to cover in 2018!

Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Discovery of a new, big planet in the outer solar system.

Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

The first thing should be the launch of the Falcon Heavy. We don’t yet know how important a launch vehicle the Heavy will be, but stay tuned for a wonderful spectacle as multiple boosters return to the launch site at once.

The planned launch of TESS is probably the biggest item on my list. It will take a few months to settle into the science, but towards the end of 2018 TESS should start delivering a much better census of planets, especially Earths and Super Earths that are relatively near to us compared to Kepler’s discoveries. We might even find some Earth-like planets quite close by. Along with follow-up ground observations, this should push us truly into the golden age of exoplanet discoveries.

Another big event at about the same time as the TESS launch is the Gaia DR2 data release. I am especially hoping for much smaller error bars on the distance to Boyajian’s Star, which would help to constrain theories about what causes the slow dimming ad brightening episodes we observe.

Next Giant Leap

It looks like we’re about to become a multiplanetary species in a matter of 10-15 years. Would you choose to risk and become a part of a history as one of the first settlers arriving on Mars or would you wait until it gets safer? What would you take with you to kill boredom on a months long trip?

andrewraderAndrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

The answer to that question depends on the specific circumstances, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out going myself if given the opportunity.

I’d play a lot of board games in computerized form (hopefully some turn-based ones with friends at home). I can do that for weeks on end and be perfectly happy.

sethshostakSeth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Of course I’d love to go into space, but who knows if they’d TAKE me!


imageNicole Guggliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)

You know, when I was younger than I am now, I’d say, “sign me up!” But I think today I’d pass since I like the cool stuff I’m doing here on Earth. When they start needing astronomy professors on Mars, then I’ll go, with the caveat that my dog has to come, too! As for boredom… I have a huge to-read list on my Kindle, so I’m all ready for that. 🙂

frasercain1Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

Although I’d love to take a safe vacation on Mars, I really love Planet Earth. Living on Mars will be a constant struggle, and that takes a special kind of person, willing to take the risks to push humanity forward. Anyone will to step forward, and is aware of the risks has my support. But personally, I haven’t even finished exploring Earth yet.

paulcarrPaul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

In the unlikely event that I could qualify to go on an early Mars Mission, it is not the risk that would deter me, even though I regard the risks as considerable. The dangers, it seems to me, are roughly comparable to those faced by countless generations of humans before us when they struck out in search of new lands and new freedoms. There are risks of disease, deprivation, and exposure to harsh environments. I have little doubt that at least some of the early Mars pioneers will meet an untimely death. As Geoffrey Landis wrote in his novel Mars Crossing, Mars is for heroes. I believe it eventually will become much more repeatable and safer, but the wait might be too long. I think there will a surplus of volunteers, even after the first deaths. Even those who successfully establish colonies and begin to raise families on Mars will find it tough going with many challenges. I believe the early Mars generations will genetically engineer themselves to adapt better, as well as their plants, and perhaps even their animals.

To kill boredom on the long trip, of course the younger crew members will immerse themselves in VR environments and play games all day when not working out on the treadmill. However, we older folks who remember rotary dial phones and manual transmissions – we will immerse ourselves in VR environments and play games all day.

Bright spots on Ceres

When Dawn spacecaft arrived at Ceres we were all baffled by the bright spots on the surface of dwarf planet. I asked our panel about their predictions what those bright spots might be. What fascinating things will New Horizons find when it arrives at Pluto?
Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

No one knows what the bright spots on Ceres are, but my bet would be some sort of ice, producing a “specular reflection” that looks exceptionally bright. These objects contain a lot of water of course, and that water’s going to be frozen, so the ice hypothesis seems reasonable, if perhaps dull. Pluto is larger than Ceres, and consequently will have a greater amount of internal heat generated by the slow radioactive decay of substances in its interior. That heat could occasionally break through to the surface in the form of icy geysers, much as occurs on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. If so, the dead ice ball image many people have of Pluto could be enlivened by some real drama. It’s an unknown world, and in the unknown there’s always plenty of opportunity for surprise.

Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

It’s important to understand that the spots look bright because the contrast on Ceres has been cranked up so high so they look like spots of light. But they’re really just about as bright as ice compared to the dark asphalt landscape of Ceres. And that’s what I think they are; nothing more than regions of ice on the surface of Ceres. Of course, that makes them incredibly interesting. Why are they just in craters? How did they form? Are they ancient, or are new ones forming all the time? The more time Dawn spends, the more we’ll learn, and I’m really glad the spacecraft made this journey in the first place.
The greatest part about all of these missions is the discovery of things we never expected. Just like the white spots on Ceres, New Horizons is going to find completely unexpected features on Pluto, which will have us all arguing until the next mission is sent to Pluto.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)
High reflective material, some kind of ice? For Pluto, learn about the composition of outer solar system objects for our system and others. It goes back to the formation of our solar system. That’s a very old ice cube out there.