Bengaluru: While 2020 was defined by the Covid pandemic, astronomical and space missions continued to thrive, albeit with minor setbacks and delays. The year saw plenty of planetary findings, from Venus to the Moon to mysterious radio signals, fast radio bursts in the Milky Way, and a dimming star.
The new year promises to be equally exciting — with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) hoping to make a second attempt to land on the Moon, and NASA aiming to break new ground on future human missions to explore the depths of the universe that no one from Earth has ever travelled before.
The coming year will also provide a glimpse at the progress being made by the burgeoning private space industry — with multiple new rockets set for their maiden flights.
Mars will inarguably be the first and immediate newsmaker in the year, with not one or two, but three different missions set for the Red Planet.
In July, NASA launched its Mars 2020 mission, which consists of the Perseverance rover, and the Ingenuity helicopter, the first vehicle that will fly on Mars. The mission will land on Mars on 18 February, with the intention of finding signs of habitability and biosignatures or evidence of past life on the planet.
The same month, China’s Tianwen-1 (Tianwen translates to ‘Quest for Heavenly Truth’) rover will enter into Martian orbit, before attempting a landing on 23 April (tentative) on the planet’s surface. This is China’s first mission to Mars, and aims to study the planet’s geological structure, soil, and water.
The third project that was launched in the 2020 Mars launch window was the United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission. Also launched in July, it is expected to enter the Martian orbit on 9 February and remain there. This is the UAE’s first mission to Mars, and its objectives include studying the Martian atmosphere and climate.
India could launch the Chandrayaan-3 demonstrator mission to attempt a lunar landing again after the crash of the Vikram lander on the Chandrayaan-2 mission in July 2019.
In the first quarter of the year, NASA will launch its CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) mission. CAPSTONE is an orbiter that will test and verify the orbital stability for a proposed space station in the lunar orbit, to be called the Lunar Gateway.
Russian space agency Roscosmos will launch its Luna 25 lander mission in October, with an intention to explore natural resources on the Moon.
Private players are expected to perform major launches in 2021 to the Moon as well.
Germany’s PTScientists aims to launch the robotic lander ALINA on an Ariane 6 rocket (developed by the European Space Agency with over 600 companies, including the Airbus-Safran joint venture ArianeGroup), while the US’ Intuitive Machines will launch their Nova-C lunar lander on a Falcon 9 rocket of Elon Musk’s Space X. Another American company, Rocket Lab, will also launch its Photon mission to demonstrate orbital technology.
Astrobotic Technology, yet another American private player, will launch its Mission One in July, carrying the Peregrine lander and seven rovers: Andy (US), Iris (US), Spacebit Mission One (UK), Unity (Chile), Yaoki (Japan), Colmenla (Mexico), and Team Puli (Hungary).
After decades of planning, the world’s most powerful space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is expected to launch from French Guyana towards the end of the year. The infrared telescope will eventually replace the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, which is expected to decay in its orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in the 2030s or 40s.
The 6.5m telescope will study objects in our solar system as well as distant galaxies, and contribute to human understanding about the evolution of the universe. However, unlike Hubble, it will not be in orbit around Earth. Instead, it will be in a ‘halo orbit’ at the L2 Lagrangian point in the Sun-Earth orbit — a point where the gravitational fields of the two massive bodies are in a kind of balance, allowing the telescope to orbit around an empty point in space.
This year will also see the inauguration of the ground-based Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. The telescope will survey or photograph the sky continuously to study the galactic plane (the equator of the Milky Way, which divides it into exact halves), deep-sky objects, map the Milky Way, as well as study dark energy and dark matter. It will also function as a counterpart to the LIGO observatories, observing the afterglow of gravitational wave events.
NASA also hopes to launch a “planetary defence test” called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in July. The mission will be the first demonstration of a kinetic impactor technique to change an asteroid’s direction of motion in space. The objective of the mission is to help us pre-empt the potentially extremely devastating consequences that are predicted in the rare event of a space rock hitting Earth.
Its target is the moon of an asteroid called 65803 Didymos, which is about 11 million km from Earth. The moon, which is 160 m wide, will be hit with the impactor at a speed of 6.6 km/s, with an aim to change its speed of orbit around the asteroid, which will also change its orbital period.
In October, NASA will launch its Lucy mission towards Jupiter’s Trojans, or asteroids that share the same orbit as the planet, with one group in front of Jupiter and another trailing it. Lucy will travel for 12 years to study eight different asteroids.
NASA describes these asteroids as “time capsules from the birth of our Solar System more than 4 billion years ago” since they “are thought to be remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets”.
New rockets and human spaceflight
ISRO will launch its new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) for its first run in 2021. The small launcher is built for delivering payloads of less than 500 kg to low Earth orbit, and will enable the launch of smaller micro and nano satellites.
NASA is working to carry out one of its most complex missions yet as it tries to pave the way for deep space exploration by human beings. Artemis 1, according to NASA, “will be the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida”.
The uncrewed test flight is scheduled to take off towards the Moon in November for a three-week mission that will see it “fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown”.
The SLS, a super heavy-lift launch vehicle, is expected to carry humans to the Moon again in 2024. It will also eventually be the primary vehicle for the agency’s deep space exploration and planetary missions, as well as future crewed missions to Mars.
The American private company United Launch Alliance (ULA) is aiming for the first launch of its Vulcan Centaur, a heavy-lift launch vehicle, this year. Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will also conduct the maiden launch of its H3 heavy launch vehicle — developed with the country’s space agency JAXA — this year.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will see the launch of its New Glenn heavy-lift launch vehicle, with a reusable first stage, while SpaceX will see more launches of the Starship super heavy-lift launch vehicle, which performed a trial run in 2020 and is expected to be fully reusable.
Spain (the recoverable Miura 1), South Korea (Nuri), and Ukraine (Cyclone-4M) will also see maiden launches of new rockets, conducted by the countries’ space agencies.
Private player Boeing will see both an uncrewed test flight and a crewed test flight of the CST-100 Starliner capsule, which is capable of carrying humans to the International Space Station (ISS).
China will begin the construction of the Chinese Space Station (CSS) as part of its Tiangong space station programme. Launches of the Tianhe core module or the main cabin — and, likely, the Wentian lab module — are planned for 2021 too.