Much lays ahead in 2013 for NASA (provided that it does not lay shattered at the bottom of the fiscal cliff) and for things space in general, according to various media outlets. These include space missions and a possible comet of the century.
Space missions for 2013
Space.com reports that a number of space flights are scheduled for 2013.
Both Virgin Galactic and XCOR will test their suborbital space craft in anticipation of taking the well-heeled and adventurous on paying jaunts starting, perhaps, in 2014.
Other sectors of commercial space will proceed apace. The SpaceX Dragon will deliver more cargo to the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences Cygnus will launch, first on a test flight in February and then, if all goes well, a flight to the International Space Station in April. Astronauts will still be carried on board the Russian Soyuz.
China is scheduled to launch the Shenzhou 10 mission, which will be a repeat of Shenzhou 9 to the Tiangong 1 module. This is a practice flight for the time when China anticipates having its own space station, to be followed by flights to the moon.
Among the standout science missions scheduled for 2013 are NASA's Ladee and Maven. Ladee will study the moon's very thin atmosphere and dust. Maven will orbit Mars and will study how that planet loses atmospheric gases to space, an important question in determining how Mars was more Earth-like with possible life billions of years ago.
Space policy in 2013
Leonard David, also writing in Space.com, suggests that there may be a decision point in space policy in 2013. A recent report by the National Research Council found that there was no support for President Obama's humans to an asteroid plan, neither inside nor outside of NASA. Meanwhile, NASA Watch's Keith Cowing links to a number of news stories that together suggest that NASA's space exploration plans are in chaos, with suggestions for building a space station at one of the Earth/moon Lagrange points or actually diverting an asteroid and bringing it to lunar orbit swirling about. Will 2013 bring about the effort to achieve consensus that the NRC advised? Stay tuned.
The 'comet of the century'
Alan Boyle at NBC News reports that two comets will grace the night sky over Earth in 2013. One, Comet PANSTARRS, could shine as bright as Venus in March. But great hope is in store that Comet ION will outshine the moon in November and December, making it "the comet of the century."
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.