The committee of the RAeS SPACE GROUP take a look at some of the expected highlights for spaceflight in 2017. 

“New Space” is a growing theme in space technology and services. New players are emerging and new/ renewed development is taking in a number of areas with private industry leading the way. Evidence of this unfolding can be found in every area that we cover in this article. Get ready for a very interesting space ride into 2017 and beyond!


On 19 February a Space X Falcon 9 launched from NASA's historic Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center (SpaceX).

Similar to previous years, 2016 saw 83 launches take place. The lion’s share of these launches were performed by US and China (26% each), with Russia not far behind (22% of which 2 were from Guyane) although a number of recent Russian failures meant that they had a third fewer launches than in 2015. There were seven Ariane 5 launches, which is close to the maximum possible. Of the 83 launches in 2016 two were failures (China’s LM-4C in August, and Russia’s Soyuz-U in December)) and one a partial failure (China’s LM-2D in December). The 83 launches delivered a total of 132 payloads to orbit. At the time of writing, there are a total of 93 launches earmarked for 2017.

Percentage of yr 2016 launches by country. There were 83 launches in total. (Gunter's Space Page)

Space-X's Falcon-9 has successfully returned to flight in January 2017. A previous Falcon-9 had exploded during a launch preparation fueling activity last September (and thus doesn’t count as one of the 83 launches), destroying with it the Amos-6 communications satellite. The failure also set back the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy launcher, which is classified as a "super heavy lift" launch vehicle. It will be capable of taking more than 50,000kg into LEO, putting it in the same league as Saturn V, the Space Shuttle and Energia. In essence, the Falcon Heavy is a Falcon-9 with two additional 1st stage core engines strapped on as boosters. As part of their commitment to maximise the reuseability of their rockets, Space-X is attempting to gain approval for the simultaneous landing of all three 1st stage boosters at Cape Canaveral. The inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy is currently earmarked for the first half of 2017 and if successful a second flight is foreseen in the second half of the year carrying a group of US military and scientific research satellites. The year should also see the first reflight of a previously used Falcon 9 first-stage rocket booster – seen by the company as a step with the potential to reduce the cost of individual launches.

In the UK, several contenders are continuing to develop planning for Spaceports, giving both sub-orbital and orbital access to space and to reduced-gravity environments from British soil. The UK Government is introducing legislation to facilitate a Spaceport and is providing £10m to help organisations get involved.


SpaceIL is one of the five remaining teams competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize (SpaceIL). 

The Google Lunar X-Prize has now entered its final year. Originally announced in 2007 as a contest to put a robotic rover on the Moon by 2012, both the deadlines and the associated prize money were extended along the way. By obtaining verified launch contracts before the 31st Dec 2016 deadline, five remaining teams have secured their place in the final run to the $20million dollar main prize. These teams are: SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express (US), Synergy Moon (International), Team Indus (India) and Team Hakuto (Japan), respectively flying with SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Interorbital Systems, and ISRO for the Indian and Japanese teams. The teams have until the end of the year to land on the Moon and complete the Mission Requirements before the prize money expires. To put the achievements of these teams into perspective, the last two robotic rovers that landed on the Moon were the Russian Lunokhod 2 in 1973, and the Chinese Yutu (a.k.a. Jade Rabbit) in 2013. Neither ESA nor NASA has ever landed a robotic rover on the Moon.

Last September, ESA’s Space App Camp took place for the fifth time. ESA invited 20 developers to ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, to meet like-minded people and create mobile applications using Earth Observation satellite data in a buzzing, competitive atmosphere. The winning Saturnalia app allows users to scan a bottle of wine and displays the best year for that particular wine based on Sentinel-2, Sentinel-3 and meteorological data providing soil, atmosphere and weather information. The app also recommends wines cultivated in similar conditions. Who says space engineering can’t be tasty as well as exciting? If you’re interested, pre-registration for the 2017 edition has already opened.

On the back of EDRS becoming operational (see section Satellite Communication) Airbus Defence & Space has set up a SpaceDataHighway challenge, which is a global competition for individuals, students of all disciplines, SMEs, entrepreneurs and space experts to develop new ideas for laser communication via satellites. The main prize is a 75kEur cooperation contract. Registration closes 30 Apr 2017.

Constellations / NewSpace

OneWeb will begin launching its 648 satellite constellation in 2018 (OneWeb)

The new year started off well for Iridium who witnessed the successful kick-off of the long overdue rejuvenation of their Iridium communications constellation. The majority of its operational 66-spacecraft LEO constellation was launched back in the late 1990s. The January launch put the first 10 of their 2nd generation Iridium-NEXT spacecraft in orbit, introducing significant technical improvements and new capabilities to the communications system (but without the ability to generate the famous Iridium flare).

The system upgrade may come just in time, as strong competition is looming. New commercial ventures taking advantage of recent technological advances and new forms of financing are readying themselves to launch their own mega-constellation into LEO to provide alternative global communication solutions. Just before Christmas 2016 the 648-satellite OneWeb constellation got a major boost with the announcement that its round of investor financing was now complete thanks to a $1bn infusion of funds by Japan’s Softbank. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler gave his vision for global connectivity at the RAeS HQ in London on 22 February.

Startup companies like Sky and Space Global, Astrocast, and Kepler Communications are rapidly developing their constellations of cubesats to start offering M2M/IoT low data-rate services. All three are aiming to launch their first satellites into orbit sometime this year.

Satellite communication

ESA's communications relay satellite, EDRS-A, entered service in November. (ESA) 

EDRS-A, the first element of the European Data Relay System (EDRS) constellation, entered service last November providing commercial laser-based communications. EDRS is a public-private partnership between ESA and Airbus Defence & Space, with the European Commission as its main customer. EDRS-A incorporates a laser communications payload onboard the commercial geostationary Eutelsat 9B satellite and provides a high-speed, quasi-real time data downlink capacity from the Low-Earth-Orbiting Sentinel satellites of the European Commission’s Copernicus programme. EDRS-A additionally carries a Ka-band payload for inter-satellite links.

The second constellation element called EDRS-C is expected to be launched sometime this year with an Ariane 5. In contrast to EDRS-A (a payload on a commercial mission), EDRS-C is a full communications satellite in its own right (carrying a commercial communications payload called Hylas-3 for Avanti Plc.)

Space science

China is set to launch a lunar sample return mission in the second half of this year. (CCTV)

In the second half of this year China will launch its lunar sample return mission Chang'e 5 on top of a Long March 5 heavy lifting rocket from their new Wenchang spaceport, located on Hainan Island. Chang’e 5 will be the first lunar sample return mission in over 40 years, since Luna 24 by the USSR in 1976.

The venerable Cassini (of Cassini-Huygens fame) space probe will be retiring from its mission to observe Saturn and its moons. After an incredible mission spanning 13 years it will be deliberately destroyed by steering it into the planet’s atmosphere.

ExoMars 2016 was launched back in March last year. After 7 months of flight, it arrived at its destination: Mars. The Trace Gas Orbiter satellite of the ExoMars 2016 mission successfully entered Mars orbit. The Schiaparelli experimental lander that separated from TGO on 16 Oct however did not survive surface impact. TGO is expected to start science operations near the end of the year and will remain operational in anticipation of the arrival of ExoMars 2020.

China has not been very active in space science until very recently. 2017 should see the launch of its first major X-Ray astronomy mission called HXMT. The exact launch date has not yet been published.

Human spaceflight

Tim Peake will get a second mission to the ISS. (NASA)

On 26 January it was announced that British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake will return to the ISS for a second stay.

On 2 February, ESA announced the addition of a new astronaut to its astronaut corps. German Matthias Mauer is the 7th member of the “class of 2009” to become an astronaut.

The Frenchman Thomas Pesquet is currently staying at the ISS for a 6-month period as part of Expedition 50/51. When Expedition 51 starts the ISS crew size will go down from six to five due to Russia’s decision to cut down the number of participating cosmonauts in an attempt to reduce cost. In May Thomas will return to Earth and hand over to his Italian colleague Paolo Nespoli. It will be Paolo’s third visit to the ISS after having stayed there before in 2007 and 2010/2011.

The Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, a.k.a. Nauka or Нау́ка ) appears to be back on the launch agenda. Although tentatively earmarked for launch on 6 Dec of this year, it may slip to March/May 2018. The MLM is an ISS component that was initially foreseen to be launched in 2007. It would carry with it the “walking” European Robotic Arm (ERA) developed by ESA. ERA was completed and delivered to the customer in 2005. A spare elbow joint for ERA was preemptively sent to the ISS back in 2010. Technical and funding difficulties with the development of MLM have caused the decade-spanning delay, but with a little bit of luck MLM and ERA may yet make it into orbit after all.

The first inflatable, inhabitable space station module has made it into orbit last year. On April 8 a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule transported the experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the ISS. After installation on 16 April the module was finally successfully expanded and pressurized on 28 May. On 6 June the hatch of BEAM was opened for the first time to allow astronauts in to perform some measurements. The module will remain attached to the ISS for a two-year testing period.

BEAM module expansion on the ISS. (NASA TV)

The commercial space crew transportation vehicles under development by Boeing with their CST-100 Starliner, and SpaceX with their Dragon 2 capsule have both been further delayed. Their first test flights were to take place by end of 2017, but have now been pushed further back into 2018.

As a consequence, 2017 is set to be another year where only the RFSA (Russia) and the CNSA (China) are capable of human spaceflight. NASA will have to continue hitching rides with them until the commercial options become flight-ready.

China meanwhile is steaming ahead with their human spaceflight programme. Last year they placed their 2nd space station, Tiangong-2, into orbit and had two taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) stay there for 30 days. Its predecessor Tiangong-1 will, after having spent about six years in space, be re-entering Earth's atmosphere sometime in the latter half of this year. The reason for the uncertainty of when this is going to happen is because control of the station has been lost. Even up to a few days before its final curtain-call the "when exactly" won't be known more accurately than "give or take six-seven hours". There is a chance that some pieces won't burn up completely and instead will impact the Earth's surface.

2017 might be the first time that tourists take a ride to sub-orbital space - but if so, will it be on-board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo cheered on by Sir Richard Branson or on Blue Origin’s New Shepard with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as chief cheerleader. Bezos is notoriously secretive about his schedule but some in the industry are tipping him to over-take long-time space tourism front runner Virgin Galactic this year.


On 15 December 2016 the European Galileo GNSS officially started providing its navigation services to the general public. (ESA)

The European Galileo GNSS constellation continues to grow. The successful first 4-spacecraft launch on 17 November 2016 brought the number of operational Galileo s/c in orbit up to 18 out of the target 30, the minimum number of satellites needed to offer Initial Operational Capability (IOC) services. The initial Galileo navigation services officially opened up to the general public on 15 December 2016. The next four satellites should be launched around November of this year, depending to some extent on the ongoing investigation into observed onboard clock failures.
A major milestone in the US navigation programme is discussed in the military space section below.

Earth observation

Sentinel 2B is set to launch at the end of February. (ESA) 

ADM (Atmospheric Dynamics Mission) Aeolus, ESA’s 5th Earth Explorer Mission, is being readied for launch on top of Arianespace’s Vega rocket by the end of the year. Significant challenges were encountered during the development of the satellite’s key payload – an active Doppler Wind Lidar (DWL) called Aladin (Atmospheric LAser Doppler INstrument)– which has resulted in a 10-year delay from the originally planned launch date and a 50% cost overrun. Aladin is a ground-breaking instrument that will transmit ultraviolet laser signals to probe the lowermost 30 km of the atmosphere. The instrument makes ADM Aeolus the first satellite mission capable of performing global, three-dimensional wind component profiling.

Last year saw the successful launch of Sentinel-3A, a mission devoted to oceanography and land-vegetation monitoring and jointly operated by ESA and Eumetsat, and Sentinel-1B, the second satellite of the Sentinel-1 mission carrying a C-band SAR instrument to ensure historical continuity with data previously collected by ERS and Envisat. The Sentinel satellites form part of the space component of the Copernicus programme directed by the European Commission and ESA. In total, ESA is currently developing seven missions under the Sentinel programme with each mission consisting of at least 2 satellites.

Next up on the Sentinel launch calendar are Sentinel-2B (devoted to observing land surface and coastal zones) at the end of February, Sentinel-5 Precursor in June, and Sentinel-3B in November. Sentinel-5P is a stop-gap mission attempting to bridge the gap in data continuity between Envisat which ceased operation in 2012 and the launch of the Sentinel-5 mission foreseen in 2021. The Sentinel-5P satellite is dedicated to monitoring air pollution. It carries the Dutch-built Tropomi (TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument) instrument, which is a spectrometer capable of sensing ultraviolet (UV), visible (VIS), near (NIR) and short-wavelength infrared (SWIR). By observing these wavelengths it is possible to monitor ozone, methane, formaldehyde, aerosol, carbon monoxide, NO2 and SO2 in the atmosphere. TROPOMI will provide continuity with the observations performed by the OMI instrument on-board the Aura satellite and the SCIAMACHY instrument on-board Envisat.

The launch of the JPSS-1 in September is an important milestone for the US public sector. JPSS-1 is NOAA’s latest polar orbiting satellite and the first to be launched since the $6B-down-the-drain failed attempt to merge US military and civil weather satellites. The US military is still relying on left over instances of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and hasn’t decided what to do if and when the last one is launched – Congress refused to fund the launch of DMSP-20 last year.

NewSpace imagery

Planet imaging 'Doves' cubesats being launched in 2016 (NASA)

“NewSpace” startup companies are aiming to disrupt the established market with new approaches and offering all sorts of (near-) real-time data services previously only dreamt of, such as high resolution video from space and very low latency imaging.

“Planet” (Previously, PlanetLabs) continues to develop their constellation of Doves. Having launched a total of 32 Dove smallsats in 2016 they aim to soon launch an additional record-breaking 88 of them with a PSLV launcher from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. Launch date is currently set for 14 February, Valentine’s Day. After having previously acquired the RapidEye constellation back in 2015, they are now also adding the SkySat constellation to their portfolio by acquiring the Terra Bella company from Google / Alphabet.

Over the course of the past year, Spire launched 16 of their Lemur-2 cubesats. Dates for further launches this year can be expected, but are unknown at the time of writing. Using their constellation they can provide GPS radio occultation observation data on a commercial basis. In a similar vein, California-based start-up Capella space hopes to start providing SAR data commercially when the launch of their first of 30 Capella satellites goes well in December.

Military space

GPS Block IIIA may launch in 2017, or more likely slip to 2018. (USAF)

At least 14 military space missions are due to be launched in 2017: 11 American, and one each from Brazil, Italy and Japan – no doubt some of the Chinese and Russian launches will also carry military spacecraft, but they have not been advertised as such. One of the US missions is civil as well as military: the TDRSS M data relay satellite in August, while four of them are highly classified (“black”) and listed only by their National Reconnaissance Office numbers: NROL-42, 47, 52 and 79.

One US military mission awaited with interest around the world is the first of the new generation navigation satellites: GPS III-01. The satellite is more than two years behind schedule, but the ground segment that will support its advanced features is even later – perhaps not ready until 2021. A bare bones ($95m) ground segment has been put in place by the satellite contractor so that the satellites can at least provide a basic service. It remains to be seen whether GPS III-01 will be launched this year (current schedule is “late 2017”) or whether as some in the industry expect it will slip into 2018.

Upcoming events

'Yuri's Night' space party is back this year on 12 April. 

The 29th UKSEDS National Student Space Conference will take place 4-5 March at the University of Exeter, UK 

On 14 and 15 March the Disrupt Space Summit will take place in Berlin, Germany. The summit aims to connect promising entrepreneurs and startup companies with investors, executives and decision makers to collaboratively solve today's problems using space  

Space isn’t always about maths and engineering, as proven by “Yuri’s Night”. Each year, on 12 April, parties and events take place across the globe in celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight.

From 30 May to 1 June the annual UK Space Conference will bring out and showcase the very best of what UK has to offer in the space sector. [ 

International Space University’s 30th Space Studies Programme will be hosted this year in Cork, Ireland from 26 June to 25 August. A conference will be held as well during the weekend of 21-23 July.

Arguably the biggest conference in the space industry, the 68th International Astronautical Congress 2017 will be hosted in the town of Adelaide by the Space Industry Association of Australia from 25 to 29 September.

For the general public though, it’s the annual World Space Week that’s the biggest space event on Earth. Created in 1999 by a resolution of the United Nations WSW has a fixed place on the annual calendar from 4 to 10 October. 

The 2017 Conference on Big Data from Space (BiDS'17) will occur 28-30 November 2017 at the Centre de Congrès Pierre Baudis, Toulouse, France

And last but not least, all the upcoming RAeS events can be found here:




RAeS Space Group
24 February 2017

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