2021 in space: Here’s what to watch out for, including a helicopter on Mars
- In 2020, SpaceX became the first private company to launch humans into orbit, Japan brought asteroid samples to Earth, and China's landed a spacecraft on the moon.
- But 2021 is set to be an even more ambitious year in space, with rovers set to land on Mars, new commercial astronaut missions, and much more.
- Here's what to watch for in 2021, month by month.
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Human spaceflight changed forever in May, when SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley toward the International Space Station.
It was the first time a company, rather than a government agency, had launched people into space.
"This is the next era in human spaceflight, where NASA gets to be the customer," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said in August, before the astronauts' splash landing in the Gulf of Mexico..
Space agencies, too, achieved new heights in 2020: NASA scooped its first sample of soil from an asteroid. Japan retrieved rock samples that a spacecraft had gathered from below a different asteroid's surface. China landed a dust-harvesting spacecraft on the moon.
In 2021, space exploration is expected to ramp up even further. SpaceX and Boeing plan to fly new astronaut crews, rovers and orbiters are on their way to Mars, and NASA is setting out to punch an asteroid. Hardly a few weeks will go by without a launch, or new findings from a probe somewhere in the solar system.
Month by month, here's what to watch in space in 2021.
Mid-January: LauncherOne's first orbital launch
Virgin Orbit, founded by Richard Branson, aims to fly small satellites and payloads to space with the help of modified Boeing 747 jet called "Cosmic Girl." But during the aerospace company's first orbital test launch in May, a breached fuel line caused the rocket's engine to prematurely shut off.
A follow-up test flight will likely launch in mid-January, according to the company. Riding the vehicle to orbit will be two dozen tiny satellites for NASA, universities, and other institutions - a rideshare mission called Educational Launch of NanoSatellites-20, or ELaNa-20.
Virgin Orbit has spent about $1 billion trying to get to orbit so far, Branson has said.
Early 2021: India launches its Chandrayaan-3 rover to the moon
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to re-attempt a moon landing in 2021. During its first such mission, in September 2019, the Chandrayaan-2 lander lost communications on descent and crashed into the lunar surface.
But that mission's orbiter is still circling the moon and seems to be in good health. If all goes according to plan, the Chandrayaan-3 lander will reach the lunar south pole, communicate with the orbiter, and pick up where Chandrayaan-2 left off.
Early 2021: Rocket Lab launches its first mission from the US
Rocket Lab, founded by CEO Peter Beck in 2006, has flown more than a dozen missions from New Zealand using Electron rockets. The company even took a page from SpaceX and is learning how to recover boosters - the most cumbersome and expensive part of a rocket to build.
To gain a share of lucrative US space missions, Rocket Lab is preparing to open its first US-based launch site at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The company has built infrastructure to support a dozen launches per year, plus the ability to recover boosters for reuse, Beck said.
February: The UAE's Hope orbiter reaches Mars
The Arab world's first mission to Mars is set to chart a global map of the planet's climate across one Martian year. It would be humanity's first such picture of Mars' atmosphere. The SUV-sized spacecraft arrives at the red planet in February, then should fall into an oval-shaped orbit.
"We'll be able to cover all of Mars, through all times of day, through an entire Martian year," Sarah Al Amiri, the mission's science lead, told Nature.
The orbiter launched in July, positioning it for a relatively short trip to Mars as the planet passes close to Earth. Hope is one of three Mars missions to take advantage of this window, and they all arrive in February.
February: China's Tianwen-1 mission arrives at Mars
If successful, Tianwen-1 will be the first Mars mission to drop a landing platform, deploy a rover, and send a spacecraft into the planet's orbit all at once. The rover is equipped with a radar system that can detect underground pockets of water. It aims to sniff out ancient reservoirs that could harbor life. It will also help China prepare for a mission to bring a sample from Mars to Earth.
For its first attempt at landing on another planet, China has chosen a site at Utopia Planitia, a vast field of volcanic rock, according to The Planetary Society.
February 18: NASA's Perseverance rover lands on Mars
NASA's newest nuclear-powered robot is en route to Mars, where it's set to scan and drill Martian soil for signs of alien life. The rover, called Perseverance, is programmed to stash samples away so a future mission can bring them back to Earth.
"This is the first time in history when NASA has dedicated a mission to what we call astrobiology: the search for life - either maybe now, or ancient life - on another world," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said ahead of the rover's launch.
February 20: Parker Solar Probe flies past Venus
NASA launched its first mission to the sun, the Parker Solar Probe, in August 2018. The probe has approached our star six times, coming closer than any spacecraft before it and traveling faster than any previous human-made object. It has traced the source of the solar wind of charged particles and discovered previously unseen bursts of that solar wind that bend the sun's magnetic field.
The spacecraft is on track to rocket around Venus for the fourth time in February, then swing back to circle the sun twice. Parker is scheduled to pass Venus again on October 16.
March: OSIRIS-REx starts its 2-year journey home
The $1 billion Osiris-Rex spacecraft landed successfully on the asteroid Bennu in October, where it scooped up alien rock and dust. Its trip home will take over two years; its sample-storage capsule is expected to land in Utah in September 2023.
March 29: Boeing tries to fly its Starliner spaceship to the ISS again
Boeing designed its CST-100 Starliner spaceship to fly astronauts to the ISS, but it hasn't yet launched with a crew.
In the company's first test flight of the space capsule in December 2019, a software error caused the Starliner to initiate a phase of the mission it had not yet reached. The spaceship burned through 25% of its fuel before Boeing corrected the error. So it had to skip docking with the space station - the primary goal of the mission.
The Starliner is set to try again in March, since NASA still wants to see the capsule make the trip on its own before carrying people.
Alongside SpaceX, Boeing is the benefactor of a decade-long NASA effort to restore the US's capacity for human spaceflight. NASA has poured $8 billion into the initiative.
March 30: SpaceX launches its Crew-2 astronaut mission for NASA
SpaceX's ongoing Crew-1 mission delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station in November - the company's first operational crewed flight, and the longest crewed mission ever launched from US soil.
This spring comes Crew-2, which will swap in four fresh crew members at the ISS. The exact launch date has yet to be publicly announced, but Spaceflight Now reports liftoff is planned for March 30. Riding on board SpaceX's Crew Dragon ship will be Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough of NASA, Akihiko Hoshide of JAXA, and Thomas Pesquet of ESA.
April 18: NASA launches a mini-satellite to follow the moon
The mission is a precursor to the permanent moon space station, the lunar Gateway, that NASA hopes to build. Called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), the foot-long spacecraft will attempt to follow the moon as it orbits Earth.
The tiny satellite is set to launch on a Rocket Lab rocket, travel for three months, then match the moon's orbit for at least six months.
June or later: Boeing launches its first NASA astronauts
If the re-do of Boeing's uncrewed test flight goes well in March, it will then launch a demo mission with a human crew: NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore, Mike Fincke, and Nicole Mann. The Starliner should fly them to the ISS then safely parachute them back to Earth a couple months later.
July 22: NASA launches an asteroid-bashing spacecraft
Hazardous asteroids pose a risk to life on Earth, but it's difficult to track dangerous asteroids, and harder yet to divert catastrophe if one is found to be careening toward Earth.
NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will test one method for deflecting killer space rocks. The spacecraft should travel to a pair of asteroids called Didymos (which pose no threat to Earth) to demonstrate what NASA calls the "kinetic impactor" technique.
That simply means that DART will crash head-on into the smaller asteroid, which is about 525 feet wide, in order to push it into a closer orbit around the larger asteroid. Impact is scheduled for September 30, 2022.
August 8: The Solar Orbiter zips around Venus
NASA launched the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter in February. Five months later, the probe beamed back the closest photos ever taken of the sun.
Over its seven-year mission, the orbiter is expected to take the first photos of the sun's poles and capture images of the largest holes in its atmosphere. The spacecraft is also designed to pinpoint the origins of space weather and track eruptions on the sun in near-real time.
In order to see the sun's poles, the orbiter must fly past Venus and use the planet's gravity to swing itself into an orbit that takes it above the plane of our solar system. It will do so three more times over the course of its mission.
October 16: Lucy the Trojan asteroid-hunter launches
Ahead of and behind Jupiter exist two mysterious traffic jams of Trojan asteroids: space rocks that flank planets in their solar orbits. Humanity knows little about Jupiter's, other than their colour (a dark, wine-like burgundy) and the fact they're nearly as old as the sun.
The Lucy spacecraft is slated to spend 11 years flying out to, visiting, and investigating six of Jupiter's Trojan asteroids to study the solar system's early history.
"Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins," Harold Levison, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a NASA press release.
October 31: NASA launches the James Webb Space Telescope
It's been 30 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA's prized cosmos-investigating satellite. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is intended to complement and supersede it. JWST packs new infrared technology to detect light beyond what the human eye can see. That will help it scan the universe for life-hosting planets and possibly discover clues about the origins of the black hole at our galaxy's centre.
A 21-foot-wide folding beryllium mirror will help the telescope observe faraway objects in detail. A five-layer, tennis court-size shield protects it from the sun's heat and blocks sunlight that could interfere with the images.
The farther JWST looks out into space, the more it will look back in time. Its goal is to study every phase of the universe's history. It could even detect the first glows of the Big Bang.
October: Tom Cruise may launch to the space station
Axiom Space, a startup that's chartering SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicles (and building a private space station), hopes to fly the first all-private mission to the ISS in late 2021. That would make former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegríathe first private space commander.
López-Alegría's three crewmates are anything but typical. One is Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli fighter pilot-cum-millionaire businessman. The others are likely to be actor Tom Cruise and film director Doug Liman, though Axiom has not yet made an announcement.
November: NASA launches the first Orion test flight
This will be the first major test run for the spacecraft, which NASA hopes will ferry the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024. On this mission, called Artemis I, an uncrewed Orion ship will orbit the moon for three days then return to Earth.
December or later: Boeing launches its first operational astronaut mission for NASA
If Boeing's crewed demo mission goes well, NASA is likely officially certify its human-spaceflight system, paving the way for the company's first crew-rotation mission for the agency: Starliner-1.
Three NASA astronauts have been assigned to fly to the ISS on that mission: Commander Sunita Williams, pilot Josh Cassada, and mission specialist Jeanette Epps. In total, NASA has contracted six round-trip astronaut flights from Boeing.
Late 2021: Japan launches a mini moon lander
The tiny lander, weighing just over 30 pounds, is expected to launch on NASA's Artemis 1 mission - one of two mini-satellites, or CubeSats, made by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and University of Tokyo. Its landing is meant to test moon-landing maneuvers and technology. If it lands without breaking, the lander, called OMOTENASHI, will collect data on lunar radioactivity.
The second CubeSat, EQUULEUS, will measure how plasma is distributed around Earth to help scientists better understand radiation in the region of space surrounding our planet.
Late 2021: SpaceX flies its first Starship to orbit
SpaceX's Starship-Super Heavy rocket system is a two-stage, steel-bodied vehicle that's fully reusable. It may launch into orbit in 2021. Elon Musk's rocket company is already flying Starship spaceship prototypes on suborbital "hops" in Boca Chica, Texas.
"I'm 80-90% confident we'll reach orbit with Starship next year," Musk told Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, in October. But Musk added that he's only "50% confident" that SpaceX will land the Starship spaceship and Super Heavy rocket booster in one piece.
"That's more of a dicey situation. We'll probably lose a few ships before we really get the atmospheric return and landing right," he said.
Before a launch, SpaceX needs a license from the US Federal Aviation Administration - and the FAA, in turn, wants the company to first re-study its environmental impact.
Late 2021: The world's heftiest drone launches a rocket to orbit
Aevum, an rocket-launch startup based in Alabama, is building an autonomous, space rocket-carrying drone called Ravn X to fly small payloads to space. It is the largest unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by mass.
The US Air Force and Space Force have assigned Aevum a launch contract worth $4.9 million. The startup has until the end of 2021 to fly the mission, called Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer 45. Jay Skylus, the founder and CEO of Aevum, previously told Business Insider that "2021 is very reasonable for us to be able to deliver our payloads to orbit on this mission."
Sometime in 2021: China begins constructing its own space station
China plans to launch its station's first and primary module, Tianhe, in the first half of 2021. The country aims to complete its space station by 2023.
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