Top 5 Space Stories To Watch In 2016

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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The coming year will likely be a huge one for space exploration.

In January alone, the private space race literally exploded, then in the same week, scientists found more potential evidence of aliens in our galaxy, and good evidence emerged that a ninth planet exists in the Solar System. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency and NASA are preparing to make sizeable changes to planned Mars missions in response to major budget changes.

Here’s a brief rundown of the biggest news space stories to keep an eye out for in 2016, from big cuts to the Mars program to potentially technologically advanced alien life around a distant star.

1: Obama’s Deep Cuts To Mars Missions

“For the past few years the Obama administration has touted plans to send astronauts to Mars while simultaneously attempting to cut the programs that will take them there,” Texas Republican Rep. [crscore]Lamar Smith[/crscore], chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Just this past year, the president proposed drastically cutting NASA deep space exploration priorities. These cuts would make it impossible to keep NASA’s plans for visiting Mars on track.”

President Barack Obama has utterly changed NASA plans to go to Mars and even tried to totally cut out all spending for future Mars missions in the 2012 budget. NASA now has a plan called, “Journey to Mars,” but it has been repeatedly criticized.

[dcquiz] “It is difficult to take seriously the administration’s recent ‘Journey to Mars’ report,” Representative Smith commented. “It contains no budget, no schedule and no deadlines. A few pretty photographs and some nice words do not constitute a strategic roadmap.”

The previous Bush administration plan to go to Mars would have cost $230 billion in 2004 and managed to attract considerable political support. The project was canceled under Obama after most of the money appropriated for it had been spent. The remaining funding was given to NASA environmental programs and the Asteroid Redirect Mission — another program that’s been criticized for lacking scientific merit.

2: Private Space Race For Renewable Rocketry

Spaceflight was once the sole reserve of the Russian and American governments. These days, there’s a huge boom in the private space sector as hundreds of companies compete over the lucrative new space industry, which is already valued at over $300 billion. Privatized rockets and space stations open up orbital access to nations, businesses and even people.

The biggest area of competition is the race to develop reusable rocketry, which has the potential to substantially reduce the costs of getting into space.

Blue Origin, SpaceX and other companies have been competing to develop reusable rockets which can land. Each SpaceX Falcon 9 launch presently costs around $54 million. If NASA’s Space Shuttle design was around today, it would have an average cost of more than $1.6 billion per launch.

SpaceX successfully landed a reusable rocket on land last month in Florida, a month after competitor Blue Origin accomplished a similar technical feat.

Despite recent failures by SpaceX, which resulted in the loss of several rockets, the company has a big year planned. Under NASA contract, SpaceX has already flown several supply missions to the International Space Station, and other companies, such as Boeing and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are working on spaceplane-based approaches.

Federal budget pressures make it unlikely NASA will have much launch capacity for decades to come.

3: Improbable, But Potential “Alien Megastructure” Around The Star KIC 8462852 

In October 2015, astronomers with Yale University and other top schools published a study that found that the star KIC 8462852 had light patterns consistent with unusual large orbiting masses, which could indicate an intelligent and advanced species of aliens.

The dense formations near the star are similar to “Dyson spheres,” hypothetical, energy-harvesting “megastuctures” aliens could build by rearranging their solar system. Scientists have pondered the existence of Dyson Spheres since the 1960s, thinking they could be a potential solution to energy problems faced by an extremely old civilization. Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) scientists have long argued humans could detect distant alien civilizations by looking for technological artifacts orbiting other stars.

A new analysis scientists submitted last week dismissed the best naturalistic explanation for a star that astronomers from several top universities suspect may show evidence of alien life in our galaxy.

In October, the best naturalistic explanation was that a huge mass of comets was erratically orbiting the star and creating enough dust to dim the light. Last week’s new analysis of the star’s history has rendered that hypothesis implausible, as the unprecedented dimming has continued for over a century. In order to dim for such a long time period, the star would need to have millions of times more dust and comets orbiting it than expected.

Astronomers in the latest study estimate that the dimming would require roughly 648,000 giant comets of 200 kilometers in diameter all aligned to pass in front of the star. The chances of such a formation render it essentially impossible, and there is currently no remotely plausible scientific explanation for what is going on with KIC 8462852.

“Either one of our refutations has some hidden loophole, or some theorist needs to come up with some other proposal,” Bradley Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University, told the New Scientist. “The comet-family idea was reasonably put forth as the best of the proposals, even while acknowledging that they all were a poor lot. But now we have a refutation of the idea, and indeed, of all published ideas.”

The masses near KIC 8462852 aren’t consistent with its age, leading scientists to believe they appeared around the star fairly recently. KIC 8462852 is only 1481 light years away from Earth, but is not visible to the naked eye.

4: James Webb Space Telescope

NASA announced last month that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is halfway completed, but the project is $7.2 billion over its initial budget and 7 years behind the original schedule.

The telescope has a long history of major cost overruns and delays. The JWST was initially projected to cost $1.6 billion and should have been launched in 2011. The Government Accountability Office now estimates the final cost at $8.8 billion, and NASA has now scheduled the telescope for an October 2018 launch.

The telescope likely costs $645.4 million in 2015 alone, and takes up roughly 13 percent of NASA’s annual science budget. The telescope has remained on schedule and within budget since December 2014, but it remains at risk of further delays, according to the Government Accountability Office.

JWST is relatively tiny relative to larger Earth-based telescopes, but its infrared capabilities and position above the atmosphere could allow it to locate potentially habitable planets around other stars, perhaps even extraterrestrial life.

5: Shifts In Funding From Space Exploration To Climate Science

The Obama administration’s obsession with getting NASA to finance global warming research through the agency’s Earth Science budget is crowding out funding for planetary science and exploration

“Just last year, the president proposed drastically cutting NASA’s exploration systems by more than $440 million dollars while Earth Science accounts have increased by 63 percent over the last 8 years,” Representative Smith commented. “Thirteen agencies do climate research, but only one conducts space exploration. I hope that 2016 will bring a change of heart for this administration, and that it will follow Congress’s lead in supporting American space exploration priorities.”

The budget of NASA’s Earth Science Mission Directorate is the largest and fastest-growing budget of any NASA science program. Over the same time period, the general NASA budget grew only by 10.6 percent — just enough to account for inflation. The directorate’s goal is to help NASA “meet the challenges of climate and environmental change.” The organization is also responsible for global warming models that have proven to be inaccurate.

Obama has repeatedly attempted to cut other NASA directorates, such as Planetary Sciences and Exploration, so that money could be redirected to Earth Science.

Even global-warming alarmist Bill Nye the “Science Guy,” who’s also the CEO of the Planetary Society, has criticized Obama’s attempts to cut NASA’s space exploration and planetary science programs in favor of global warming. NASA’s planetary science program has previously held car washes and bake sales to gain political support to maintain funding.

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