Space exploration achievements offered a bright spot in 2020 amid a global pandemic with the return to astronaut launches from the U.S., a robotic moon mission and two asteroid sample collections -- but 2021 promises to top it.
Coming into the new year, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will step down as a new White House administration comes into office, meaning there will be some big changes in store for the U.S. space program. It’s unclear who will lead the agency under President-Elect Joe Biden’s administration but regardless of who leads NASA, some of its missions have been ongoing under multiple presidents.
Let’s take a look at just a few space milestones to be excited about in 2021.
Mars, Mars and more Mars
You’ll be hearing a lot about Mars early on this year as three robotic missions to Mars from three counties are set to arrive in February.
Following a successful launch in July on a ULA rocket, NASA’s newest Mars rover and the first Martian helicopter are in route to the Red Planet set for a Feb. 18 arrival. When the spacecraft carrying the rover, known as Perseverance, and the chopper, nicknamed Ingenuity, begins approaching its destination, we can expect more regular updates on the spacecraft.
The U.S. space agency has the best track recorded with robotic landings on the red planet and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue but the final moments before touchdown are known as the “seven minutes of terror” for a reason. It’s still a daring maneuver to land a rover on another world.
The new rover looks a lot like NASA’s current red planet rover, known as Curiosity, but it has new wheels, new science instruments-- including the ability to collect samples-- and several microphones. The sensitive microphones will record sounds during landing, how the rover’s wheels sound and the “pew pew” of the robot’s laser as it hits rocks on Mars.
[Mic check: Listen to NASA’s Mars rover traveling through space]
The little helicopter is strapped to the rover’s belly and will deploy after a safe touchdown.
Meanwhile, China and the United Arab Emirates also launched spacecraft to Mars in 2020. Those orbiters should also reach their destination in February after a journey of seven months and 300 million miles.
More astronaut launches from Florida (hopefully) in 2 spacecraft
For the first time in nearly a decade, NASA astronauts and their international partners will have several rides to the International Space Station next year if all goes well for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft final test without astronauts.
The company is set to repeat its orbital flight test from Cape Canaveral to the space station and back to Earth in March. This is a do-over for Boeing after Starliner suffered some computer glitches during the first attempt in December 2019. If all goes well, Boeing could launch four astronauts to the ISS no earlier than June.
SpaceX marked the return to human spaceflight from Florida’s coast in 2020 with two astronaut launches and has at least two more scheduled for 2021. If you missed that historic launch and splashdown return, here’s what the astronauts say it was like.
Elon Musk’s private company then did it again in November, sending four astronauts to the ISS on the Crew-1 mission. Next year, it has at least two launches planned with the Crew Dragon spacecraft sending astronauts to the space station.
In March, four astronauts will launch on the Crew-2 mission. That international crew includes NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and ESA’s Thomas Pesquet. McArthur’s husband, Bob Behnken, was on the first crewed test flight of Crew Dragon earlier this year.
The Crew-3 mission is slated for fall 2021. Two NASA astronauts, Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn will be joined by European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer for the Crew-3 mission in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Selection for a fourth crewmate is still ongoing between NASA and its international partners.
James Webb Space Telescope launch
After decades of planning (and delays) the most powerful space telescope is set to launch from the French Guiana in late 2021 on a European Ariane 5 rocket. The James Webb Space Telescope is led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.
The infrared telescope is designed to eventually replace the Hubble Space Telescope, however NASA prefers to call it Hubble’s successor. Webb will study our own solar system, look to distant worlds outside ours and probe the origins of our universe including the very first galaxies, according to NASA.
With a sunshield the length of a tennis court, Webb will have a 6.5 meter diameter primary mirror, giving it a significantly larger collecting area than Hubble’s 2.4 meter mirror. Webb will also have a noticeably larger field of view, covering 15 times the area Hubble can currently.
When it launches, Webb will not orbit Earth like Hubble does but head farther out into space about 1.5 million kilometers away.
Webb is scheduled to launch on Oct. 31.
Artemis-1 launch from Kennedy Space Center
NASA is in the final stages of testing its mega rocket known as the Space Launch System with the Orion spacecraft, now classified under the Artemis moon program.
Late in 2021, NASA plans to launch the SLS and Orion on what’s known as the Artemis-1 mission from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39B. Atemis-1 will be an uncrewed flight that will demonstrate the deep space exploration system, sending the spacecraft on a wide loop around the moon and returning to Earth. The mission will last about three weeks.
The implications of this test cannot be underestimated. NASA plans to use this launch system to send astronauts back to the moon surface by 2024, whether the agency is able to achieve that timeline remains to be seen. Under the direction of President Donald Trump, NASA moved up the moon return by four years.
NASA recently revealed the names of the 18 astronauts training for the U.S. return to the lunar surface.
SpaceX’s recent test of its interplanetary spaceship called Starship was a sight you did not want to miss. If you didn’t catch it, watch it here.
More than 500,000 people tuned in on SpaceX’s livestream to view the suborbital flight. The goal was to reach around 50,000 feet, the highest yet for any Starship test flight and performing an aerial maneuver before coming back for landing. About seven minutes after liftoff, after achieving the first two goals, Starship came back down to land but exploded upon impact.
The private space company hopes Starship can take people to distant destinations, such as the moon and Mars.
After the test, Musk celebrated, tweeting, “Mars, here we come!!”
SpaceX is already preparing another prototype to test next year. You can bet the internet will be watching again.
What are you excited about in space in the new year? Email me at email@example.com.
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