Writing about the space industry kept me sane during the tumultuous and trying time of 2020. As the pandemic swept the world and America dealt with extremely conflicting social and political issues, the space industry was more or less connected.
Three missions launched on Mars. NASA has returned to the game of human spaceflight, thanks to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft struck an asteroid, while a Japanese vehicle returned with several grams of asteroid regolith, and China returned moon rocks to Earth. In South Texas some ships have lived and some ships have died. It was all beautiful to watch.
As we look to a New Year, there is as much, if not more, space goodness to come. I asked readers for suggestions on Twitter on their plans for the coming year and received over 400 responses. This list is a compendium of those ideas, as well as some of my own, to compile the spatial goodness we most have to look forward to in 2021. Spoiler alert: There is a lot.
But first, a caveat: History has taught us that all of this won’t happen (see, for example, last year’s space preview). And if a rocket or other major engineering program has a timeline that will result in a “Q4” flight next year this far, it will most likely slip into the following year. Still, we’re making our best guess at what might happen this year in space.
The Mars fleet is coming
Three missions to Mars were launched from Earth in the summer of 2020, and all three are now approaching the red planet. The big question is, will all three get there safely in February?
The UAE’s first mission to the Red Planet, Mars Hope, is scheduled to arrive on February 9. At that point, the spacecraft will perform a difficult maneuver to slow down and enter orbit around Mars at an altitude as low as the planet. like 1000 km. If all goes well, the spacecraft will spend a Martian year – 687 Earth days – studying the planet’s atmosphere and better understanding its climate.
China has not said exactly when its ambitious Tianwen-1 mission will arrive on Mars, but it is expected in mid-February. Once the spacecraft has entered orbit, it will spend a few months preparing to descend to the surface, assessing the planned landing site in the Utopia Planitia region. Then, China will attempt to become only the second country to gently land a spacecraft on Mars that survives for more than a handful of seconds. It will be a huge moment for the country’s space program.
NASA Perseverance on Mars wThis will likely be the last of three missions to arrive on Mars, reaching the Red Planet in mid-February and attempting to land in Jezero Crater on February 18. This phase of entry, descent and landing – a bit like with the Curiosity lander in 2012 – will be essential television.
History suggests that at least one of these three missions will fail, but we hope to challenge those odds.
More Starship flights
SpaceX ended up flying its Starship vehicle three times in 2020. Twice it sent prototypes with a single engine 150 meters away. Then, in December, he sent a full-size prototype to an altitude of about 12.5 km. During this breathtaking flight, the vehicle – with three Raptor engines, nose cone, and flaps – flopped on its stomach and almost landed safely in South Texas.
We can probably expect a lot more flights, at higher altitudes, in 2021. As SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained to Ars in February, SpaceX has focused on building the machine to build the machine in South Texas. Now, much of that work is done, and SpaceX is rapidly producing Starship vehicles at its Boca Chica launch site. At the end of December, as the company rolled its “Serial Number 9” ship onto the carpet, components from vehicles 10 to 17 were doing various jobs at the factory, under tents.
At the same time, SpaceX is also starting to manufacture the Super Heavy rocket that will serve as the first stage for Starship. It seems plausible that one of the spaceships currently under construction will attempt an orbital flight atop the Super Heavy this year. Or not. One thing is for sure: it will be fun to watch the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of SpaceX as it seeks to build an interplanetary spacecraft unlike anything seen before.
Télescope spatial James Webb
Delays in the launch schedule for the ultra-ambitious James Webb Space Telescope have become commonplace in the space community, and indeed, this flagship astrophysical mission is far overdue and over budget.
However, it appears that the current scientific leadership of NASA has resolved a number of technical and managerial issues that plagued the telescope program and caused delays. Now, there seems to be quiet confidence that NASA’s space telescope will stick to its October 31, 2021 launch date on a European Ariane V rocket.
After launch, the tension will only increase as the telescope undergoes a two-week process that will see the deployment of a sunshade as well as primary and secondary mirror assemblies. It could all be an exciting end to 2021 for astronomers – or heartbreaking if this complex process goes awry.