For making rockets reusable, and Mars seem possible. Already the world’s most high-profile commercial spaceflight company, SpaceX continues to demonstrate its technical bona fides, racking up recent milestones as historic as they are diverse. Along with fielding a more muscular version of the workhorse Falcon 9 rocket (with engines that are 50% more powerful than their predecessors), the company conducted a series of test flights of its Grasshopper rocket, which traveled as high as 1,066 feet in June 2013 before depositing itself back on the launchpad, as opposed to dumping in the ocean. SpaceX flies fast, cheap, and always in control, making founder and CEO Elon Musk’s plan to eventually establish a permanent, 80,000-person Martian colony, seem less like a pipe dream, and more like the inevitable.
For keeping up with the commercial upstarts. The race to replace the Space Shuttle isn’t a sprint, so much as a marathon, with multiple companies competing for NASA’s patronage over the next few years. And while relative newcomers SpaceX and Sierra Nevada grab headlines with their novel spacecraft designs, venerable rocket maker Boeing is marching forward with its Apollo-style CST-100, a seven-person capsule that was fully unveiled this past year, and has since cleared hardware reviews, safety tests, and other hurdles on the way to restoring the United States’ ability to send astronauts into space (instead of hitching rides on Russian craft, especially in light of the current political tensions).
For joining the orbital delivery party. In February of this year, Orbital Sciences completed its first cargo run to the International Space Station, turning what had been something only SpaceX could do into a legitimate industry. It was the second time that the company’s Cygnus craft docked with the station, though on this visit it was carrying some 2,780 pounds of material. Orbital’s contract with NASA calls for seven more unmanned flights through 2016, and is worth $1.9 billion.
For resurrecting the spaceplane. Sierra Nevada’s biggest contribution to the nascent commercial spaceflight industry is its Dream Chaser, a smaller, and arguably smarter take on the defunct Space Shuttle. The two-to-seven-seat vehicle is designed to ride into orbit atop a standard rocket, and then glide home via standard, commercial runways (unlike the Shuttle, which required longer strips). And though a faulty landing gear marred an automated landing test in October 2013, the Dream Chaser is still on track to carry NASA astronauts into space as early as 2017. Even if the mini-shuttle fails to launch, Sierra Nevada will likely remain a player in private space—the company builds the hybrid rockets used on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane, which were flight-tested for the first time this past year.
For lighting a fire under space tourism. A decade since it was founded, and Virgin Galactic is still a gamble. But despite the daunting technical challenges and blown deadlines (suborbital flights, rising to a near-weightless altitude of 62 miles, were promised by the end of last year), Sir Richard Branson’s engineers and pilots have been hard at work, conducting the first pair of supersonic, rocket-powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo in 2013. The craft is now scheduled to start taking paying passengers—up to six at a time—to the brink of space later in 2014.
For building a rocket that runs like a car engine. XCOR’s claim to fame, a two-seat rocket plane called the Lynx, doesn’t actually exist yet. But the concept’s most important component, a piston pump-powered rocket engine intended to propel a pilot and single passenger to suborbital altitudes up to four times a day, is hurtling toward feasibility. XCOR conducted a hot-fire test (igniting the rocket while it's secured on the ground) last spring, confirming the basic principles of a design that’s mechanically simple, and highly reusable—its liquid oxygen and kerosene can be refilled without donning hazmat suits, and the rocket won’t have to be replaced after each flight, unlike Virgin Galactic’s single-use engines).
For using trendy tech to pioneer space-based manufacturing. This startup has a single goal: to take 3-D printing into orbit, creating everything from replacement parts and tools to massive, kilometer-size (or bigger) structures that would be too complex and fragile to survive a rocket launch. It’s a genuinely disruptive scheme that’s been endorsed by NASA—Made in Space is currently prepping a 3-D printer for shipment to the International Space Station in August.
For reenergizing electric propulsion. The main benefit of electric engines over chemical rockets is increased fuel efficiency, due to gradually heating propellant instead of combusting it. But that lack of explosive acceleration has made electric thrusters a niche technology, unsuitable for use in takeoff, and relegated to nudging satellites or powering unmanned vehicles on slow-but-steady voyages. Now, after decades of work by its founder and CEO Franklin Chang Diaz, Ad Astra passed the first NASA design review for its plasma thruster—which uses concentrated radio waves to more quickly generate thrust—en route to testing aboard the International Space Station in 2015. The engine could cut the energy cost of keeping that platform in a stable orbit by 90% or more, saving roughly $200M per year.
For turning asteroid mining into a reality, by any means necessary. With backers like director James Cameron and Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, it might seem surprising that Planetary Resources would take such measured steps toward its stated goal of mining nearby asteroids with robotic spacecraft, such as using Kickstarter to fund the planned launch of low-cost, publicly accessible satellite telescopes into orbit in 2014. Tacky as that campaign was—backers were offered "space selfie" photographs, with the Earth serving as a backdrop for an image displayed on the satellite—it’s evidence that this would-be mining interest plans to pay its own way to off-world resources.
For building a telescope with galactic ambitions. The Gaia telescope is inherently hard to fathom, with its billion-pixel camera and mission to monitor a billion stars over the next half-decade. It’s an attempt to craft the most detailed 3-D map of the Milky Way to date, gauging the relative movement of those stars while also building a catalog of their temperature, chemical makeup, and other basic traits. Gaia’s camera is still warming up at its vantage point some 932,000 miles from Earth, with full operations starting later this year. But the trailblazing telescope is a coup for its designer and builder, Airbus Defence & Space, and a reminder that some industry giants (it’s the world’s second biggest space tech company) are nimbler than they look, and still capable of unprecedented innovation.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this post erroneously identified Tom Shaver as the founder and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket.
[Image: Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video]