In 2020, spaceflight did not proceed as planned. Space activity, like practically everything else in the world, was severely impacted by the pandemic. Last year, SpaceX launched astronauts into space!
China has returned moon rocks to Earth! However, a number of other things didn’t happen: the Rosalind Franklin rover for Europe and Russia was postponed until 2022. The SpaceX Starship was not launched into orbit (though it did go high).
By the time the virus shut down most of NASA’s facilities, any remaining expectations that Artemis 1, the first mission in NASA’s new lunar exploration program, which is supposed to return people to the moon later this decade, would still fly in 2020 had been dashed.
Nonetheless, 2021 appears to be a very interesting year for space exploration.
More could be on the way, especially as NASA’s plans to return to the moon gain steam and the private space industry expands at a breakneck pace. The missions we’re most excited to see a launch or reach new milestones this year are listed below. Keep in mind that space is unpredictable, and many of these missions could be postponed for months or even years.
Mars Will Welcome Three Missions
Not one, not two, but three missions will arrive on Mars, each launched and operated by a different country. There’s the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, NASA’s Perseverance rover, and China’s Tianwen-1 mission (which includes an orbiter, lander, and rover). In February, all three missions will enter Martian orbit, with Perseverance arriving on the surface later that month and Tianwen-1 arriving in April.
Hope will assist scientists in answering concerns about the atmosphere, such as why the Earth loses hydrogen and oxygen. Tianwen-1 and Perseverance will be on the lookout for traces of past or present life on Mars, as well as learning more about the planet’s geology. While NASA Mars missions are frequent, this will be China’s and the UAE’s first opportunity to see the planet up close.
The Second Uncrewed Test Mission of the Starliner
When Boeing’s commercial crew Starliner Orbital Test Flight-1 (OFT-1) launched into space in 2019, it had a number of issues — it didn’t make it to the International Space Station as planned, and both NASA and the company investigated and implemented some lessons learned in preparation for the second attempt in 2021.
After correcting the software faults that prevented Starliner from reaching its target the first time, Boeing expects to launch a second attempt on March 29, 2021. If Boeing succeeds, Starliner will become the second commercial crew spacecraft, following SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, to be licensed to carry astronauts into orbit.
Yaoki Rides ULA’s 1st Vulcan rocket
Yaoki, Japan’s first moon rover, will launch in 2021 on the first mission for United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. The new booster will gradually phase out the Russian-built engines that previously powered ULA’s Atlas line, replacing them with Blue Origin-built engines.
On a mission sponsored by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, Yaoki will fly to the moon alongside Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander from Pittsburgh. The cremated remains of famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke will be put on the moon if the mission goes as planned.
The New Glenn Rocket from Blue Origin Makes its debut
If all goes according to plan, Blue Origin, based in Washington state, will launch its first orbital rocket in 2021. The rocket, named after NASA Mercury astronaut John Glenn, has a payload capacity of 14 tons (13 metric tons) for geostationary orbit and 50 tons (45 metric tons) for low Earth orbit.
NASA and Blue Origin just announced that the rocket will be added to NASA’s inventory of commercial launch vehicles. Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket New Shepard has already been used by NASA (named after NASA Mercury astronaut Al Shepard.)
End of Juno
Since July 2016, NASA’s Juno mission has been orbiting Jupiter, giving the most detailed information yet on Jupiter’s atmosphere, gravitational field, magnetic field, and geology.
Juno has revealed some unexpected facts about our solar system’s largest planet, as well as magnificent photos of the planet’s vibrantly coloured clouds from above. However, on July 30, Juno will plummet into Jupiter’s atmosphere, collecting as much data as possible before being ripped apart by the intense pressures.
In recent months, there has been speculation that some NASA officials are pushing for a mission extension until September 2025, so Juno can pass by some of Jupiter’s moons and examine them up close. Perhaps the violent end will be postponed for a few years.
On October 31, The James Webb Space Telescope launch date
NASA’s ambitious James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which scientists believe will disclose more about exoplanet atmospheres and the early cosmos, has already been pushed back several years from its planned 2007 launch date. Despite these setbacks, the telescope is nearly complete, with final testing underway on some of its more sophisticated components, such as the sun-shield.
The pandemic led JWST to postpone its launch by seven months, from March to October, in July 2020. While the telescope may meet this deadline, NASA says it wants to get it properly the first time and will take the time it needs.
Artemis 1 / SLS 1
Orion, NASA’s deep-space capsule that will eventually return humans to the moon (though don’t hold your breath until 2024), will finally launch into space for the first time since 2014—and for the first time ever beyond Earth’s orbit. For Artemis 1, an uncrewed Orion will go on a 25.5-day mission that will take it to the moon for a few days before safely returning to Earth (hopefully).
The mission will examine the hardware, software, and life support systems of the Orion spacecraft. It will even have two mannequins strapped into a pair of chairs, each with sensors that will measure how much radiation a crew inside the cabin is exposed to during such a journey.
Artemis 1 will also be the first flight of the Space Launch System, the world’s most powerful rocket. There have been numerous delays in the development of SLS, and there is no guarantee that Orion or SLS will be completed by November. But if they are, brace yourselves for a spectacular launch.
SpaceX Axiom Space 1
This mission will transport a private crew to the ISS for at least eight days using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. It will be the first private mission into orbit, as well as the first private mission to the International Space Station. It will also be the first time SpaceX has flown private citizens into space. It’s also possible that Tom Cruise will be involved.
Early in the year 2021, China will Establish a Space Station
The Tiangong program’s next phase is a modular orbital space station about one-fifth the size of the International Space Station. China intends to introduce the first phase, a Tinahe core service module, in 2021. This is the first of 11 trips that will take place over the next two years to complete the station and make it suitable for taikonaut personnel to utilize for at least a decade.
Early 2021, LauncherOne
Even though Virgin Orbit has yet to complete a successful flight test of its flagship LauncherOne launch vehicle, the business already has customers lined up for small-payload flights in 2021.
Virgin Orbit, like its sister business Virgin Galactic, is attempting to carry out its flights using air-launch technology, in which an aircraft launches a rocket into the air and lets it fly the rest of the way. Last May, the first attempt at such a launch was cancelled due to a faulty propellant line.
Virgin Orbit planned to try again in December, but covid constraints prevented them from doing so. As soon as a window opens up, the business plans to deploy its aircraft. If the mission fails a second time, the rest of the company’s schedule is jeopardized.
Space junk cleanup test
In March 2021, the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) mission will launch from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket in an attempt to address the rising problem of space trash in orbit.
The mission’s two spacecraft, a 385-pound (175-kg) “servicer” and a 37-pound (17-kg) “client,” would rendezvous and capture each other in orbit using rendezvous technology and a magnetic capture mechanism. As more firms send small spacecraft into low Earth orbit, the number of orbital debris is projected to increase in the coming years.
Astronauts from the Private Sector Fly to the International Space Station
In 2021, SpaceX and Houston-based business Axiom Space aim to launch astronauts into space for a mission to the International Space Station.
The journey will most likely last eight days at the station and two days on the route. While people have previously visited the space station, Axiom claims that this will be the “first-ever entirely private” excursion.
NASA aims to open up the space station for even more commercial options in the future, despite the fact that Congress did not provide the agency with enough funding for these plans in fiscal 2021.