10 Amazing Space Technology Developments to Watch For in 2013


As per NASA's prediction, the world did not end on December 21.

With that worry behind us, it is time to turn our eye to the future of the space industry, where 2013 looks to be an exciting year with the United States, Russia, and China all making huge strides.

1. NASA's Z1 Spacesuit

NASA's spacesuit has looked much the same over the years, but all of that is about to change. In 2012, scientists and engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center completed a prototype of the new Z-1 spacesuit, which was named one of the year's best inventions by TIME Magazine. The new suit, which bears a Buzz Lightyears-esque appearance with its green accents, boasts superior mobility over the old suits, a large entrance port for easy donning, and increased radiation protection to allow for longer spacewalks.

With the Z-1 protype ready and several successful tests completed, NASA looks to commence testing and creation of a Z-2 successor that incorporates additional improvements, and has set a goal of flying a final product by 2017. Look for updates from the agency in the next few months as it works towards this goal.

2. SpaceX's Grasshopper

On May 25, SpaceX became the first private company to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. On December 17, the company delivered its encore with a successful test of its Grasshopper reusable rocket, in which the rocket hovered at an altitutde of over 130 feet before landing safely. Over the next few months, SpaceX has higher and more sophisticated "hops" planned for the Grasshopper. As the first ever completely reusable spaceflight system, the rocket has the potential to dramatically lower the cost of future launches if SpaceX successfully sends it into low-earth orbit.

3. Orbital Sciences' Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demo Flight

While SpaceX currently holds the distinction of being the only private space company to launch a vehicle into low-Earth orbit, the possibility exists that it will not hold this title for much longer. Orbital Sciences, a Dulles, Va. based space company, is scheduled to launch its Cygnus spacecraft in 2013 as part of its NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) agreement. The system, like SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, was developed under a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract with NASA. If Orbital's launch is successful, it could mark the beginning of a U.S. commercial space race, leading to more efficient technologies and increased private sector funding.

4. Asteroid Mining

As the exhaustion point of Earth's natural resources grows imminent, NASA scientists have suggested that elements such as platinum and cobalt may be mined from asteroids to satisfy our current demand.

In 2012, space entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis launched Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based company dedicated to achieving this goal. So far, the firm has released details on three satellites it has developed (Akyrd 100, 200 and 300) used to assess asteroids for viability. The next step will be to develop spacecraft to capture asteroidal samples and perform extraction experiments. While Planetary Resources has not yet publicized its work on this front, look for some updates in 2013.

5. KickSat's Launch

In 1999, Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) jointly developed the concept of a CubeSat: A miniaturized satellite that has a volume of exactly 1 liter and has a mass of no more than 1.33 kg (2.93 pounds). The concept garnered widespread interest in academic circles due to its relatively low launch cost.

In 2011, this concept was adapted by Zachary Manchester, a PhD student at Cornell University, as a mode of mass deployment for miniature spacecraft. The project (which draws its name from its Kickstarter funding platform) is slated to launch in 2013, and, if successful, could revolutionize future access to space research.

6. Space Tourism and Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo

Space Adventures, Ltd., has arguably been the most prolific global supplier of civilian space tourism, having sent clients such as Mark Shuttleworth and Anousheh Ansari up to the International Space Station for the reported price of $20 million per person. Virgin Group subsidiary Virgin Galactic, operating from New Mexico's Spaceport America launch site, seeks to eradicate the exclusivity of this venture. In 2004, the company completed the first privately-funded human spaceflight with its SpaceShipOne vehicle, wherein its pilot and only passenger, Mike Melvill, became the first non-governmental astronaut. Virgin Galactic will look to expand on this success in 2013 with the new SpaceShipTwo vehicle, with pre-bookings selling at $200,000 per seat, a significant discount over Space Adventures' prices.

7. Spaceport Colorado

With the rise of the commercial space industry, the United States will soon look to increase its launch sites past Cape Canaveral, Fla. and Spaceport America, New Mexico. First in line to claim this role is Colorado's Front Range Airport, located just east of Denver, which has received more than $660,000 in support from public partners as of November 2012. The next step towards the creation of "Spaceport Colorado," as the project has been dubbed, will be the satisfactory completion of FAA feasibility studies during the first six months of 2013. If achieved, launch activity from the spaceport could commence in early 2014.

8. NASA's MAVEN Probe

While NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, a.k.a. Curiosity rover, has taken front stage in recent months, a project that remains in development is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe, an unmanned spacecraft that will be used to sample Mars' environment. The probe is scheduled for launch in November 2013 and is expected to reach Mars in 2014. While Curiosity continues to relay data back to earth from Mars' Gale crater, MAVEN will provide measurements from Mars' atmosphere, allowing for a more complete picture of the planet's environment.

9. Russia's Angara rocket

This list would not be complete without some acknowledgement of non-U.S. space developments ... and so the first nod goes to Russia for its Angara rocket, scheduled for launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in 2013. The rocket, while largely similar to existing launch technologies, will seek to secure Russia's independent access to space by phasing out the Ukranian rocket technology currently used for launches. If successful, Russia will see greatly reduced reliance on Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome as a launch site, and will instead keep its launches contained within the country.

To supplement its current Plesetsk Cosmodrome north of Moscow, Russia is also developing the Vostochny Cosmodrome towards the country's east side for additional Angara launches.

10. China's Tiangong-2 Space Station

The Tiangong-2 is a planned Chinese space laboratory expected to succeed China's current Tiangong-1 prototype module, which was launched in September 2011. The China National Space Agency has planned the new station's launch for 2013. While China's space program has so far lagged behind the United States' and Russia's, the country made international headlines in June with its successful Shenzhou-9 spacecraft launch. If the new space station is successful, it would solidify China's status as a serious space power, and might be the tipping point to start the new space race of this millennium.