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Commercial spaceflight showed its ambitions in 2012

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Dec 31, 2012, 8:00 UTC

Sen—2012 saw commercial space make big strides and announce ambitious plans. Although astronauts continued to be ferried to and from the space station aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles, several companies made progress towards offering human spaceflight capability. The potential of commercial operators was highlighted by US company SpaceX which completed two successful trips to the space station with the cargo version of its Dragon spacecraft.

The year saw the third successful outing of Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV3) named Edoardo Amaldi. The unmanned cargo freighter launched in March and spent nearly six months docked with the station. 2012 was also the third successful outing of Japan's unmanned supply ship, the H-11 Transfer Vehicle (HTV). Nicknamed "Kounotori" the Japanese spacecraft delivered supplies for the Expedition 32 crew in July. Russia's Progress freighter also made deliveries to the orbiting outpost during the year. Amongst these state carriers appeared Dragon, becoming the first privately operated spacecraft to visit the International Space Station in May. This was the third and final demonstration mission by SpaceX working under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program under which it is outsourcing the shipment of supplies to and from the space station to private companies.

The success of SpaceX's demonstration mission in May led to its first commerical resupply mission in October. As well as being the first commercial contractor to supply the space station, SpaceX's Dragon added the capability to return goods from the orbiting laboratory - something missing since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011.

Having retired from service in 2011, the three surviving production shuttles - Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis - made their way to their retirment homes during the year, along with the shuttle prototype Enterprise. In April Discovery took its place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Endeavour made its way through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center, whilst Enterprise went on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York. The final shuttle to take its place was Atlantis which made its way in November to a purpose built complex at the Kennedy Space Center.

Whilst the transport of the shuttles to their museums took place, NASA provided additional funding to three of the US companies developing spacecraft that will replace the Space Shuttle. Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation each received new contracts from NASA under the next phase of the commercial crew program called CCiCap - Commercial Crew integrated Capability.

SpaceX Dragon at the ISS

SpaceX's Dragon grappled by Canadarm2 at the space station. Credit: NASA

NASA also made progress with its next big rocket, the Space Launch System, being designed to launch its Orion spacecraft to deep space destinations including the Moon, asteroids and Mars.

Outside of the US, Europe considered the future of its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and British company Reaction Engines announced it had made a major breakthrough with its hybrid jet-rocket engine that it hopes can lift its Skylon spaceplane to orbit in a single stage. After decades of research and development the team of engineers at Reaction Engines announced successful test results of their SABRE engine. The test results were validated by the European Space Agency. The engine takes in air as it passes through the atmosphere, removing the need to launch with a heavy fuel load, meaning a spaceplane such as Skylon could be propelled into orbit in a single stage. The major challenge of the air breathing technology has been how to cool rapidly the vast amount of air taken in. The testing has proved that SABRE's pre-cooler heat exchangers can cool air from over 1,000⁰C to minus 150⁰C in less than 1/100th of a second without the engine frosting up. Reaction Engines must now secure the investment necessary to complete the development of SABRE and the Skylon vehicle which would be fitted with them.

Reducing the costs of space launches is something that would benefit Planetary Resources, a new venture announced in April. Planetary resources announced its intentions to mine Near Earth asteroids for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals.

There were lots of developments reported by teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE, the richest incentive prize in history. First prize of $20 million will be awarded to the first company to land a robotic rover on the Moon, travel 500 metres and transmit video, images and data back to Earth. There are 23 teams such as Moon Express left competing for the total $30m prize pot - but the mission must complete before the prize expires in 2015. 

Lunar exploration has always been a matter for nation states, but 2012 emphasised the invention of private companies looking to land either robots or people on the Moon. Whilst the Google Lunar X PRIZE sets the challenge of landing a robotic rover, offers were also made for manned missions to the Moon. The Golden Spike Company was formed in 2012 by a mixture of NASA veterans, planetary scientists and engineers, and plans to develop missions from lunar tourism to the mining of the Moon's resources. The company's formation was announced in Washington on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the launch of the last manned mission to the Moon by Apollo 17 in 1972.

A trip around the Moon is on offer by Space Adventures, which has one unnamed client signed up for the $150m ticket. Two customers are required for the lunar orbit to happen. Although not bound for the Moon, singer Sarah Brightman announced she had signed up with Space Adventures for a trip to the space station.

Illustration of a Golden Spike space tourist on the Moon.

Artist illustration of a tourist astronaut on the Moon. Credit: Golden Spike

It was not just private companies making plans for a return to the Moon. China's space plans, announced in December 2011, included human exploration of the Moon. In 2012 China made progress towards its goals when its Shenzhou-9 spacecraft successfully docked with the country's orbiting Tiangong-1 embryonic space station.

Looking beyond the Moon, NASA made progress with the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, and private companies again set out their ambitions. SpaceX founder Elon Musk outlined long term plans for sending humans to Mars, and Mars One set out its plans to establish a colony on the Red Planet by 2023.

Beyond our Solar System, scientists using the European Southern Observatory's HARPS instrument found a planet orbiting our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Spaceflight visionaries met in September to discuss how humans could reach such star systems as the 100 Year Starship Public Symposium was held in Houston, Texas. The 100 Year Starship organisation, which received some funding earlier in the year from the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is headed by former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, who flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. Jemison explained: "The 100 Year Starship will make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system to another star a reality over the next 100 years."

In Memoriam. 

In 2012 two icons of spaceflight passed away: America's first female astronaut Sally Ride, and Neil Armstrong, the first human to step foot on another planetary body.

Neil Armstrong 1930 - 2012

Neil Armstrong 1930 - 2012. Photo: NASA

As for Sen, we continued to make progress publishing space stories every day of the week since December 2011. Our most popular story of the year was Mars One plans human settlement on the Red Planet by 2023