Space flight in 2020 did not go as planned. Like almost everything else in the world, space activity has been hit hard by the pandemic. And in 2021? Here's what's cooking.
Some of these space missions have turned out great: SpaceX sent astronauts to space. China has brought moon rocks back to Earth. Japan brought home material from an asteroid.
Unfortunately, many other space missions have had a different fate.
First, Europe and Russia's Rosalind Franklin rover has been postponed to 2022. Artemis 1, the first mission of NASA's new lunar exploration program that is expected to return people to the moon at the end of this decade, has not taken place.
Space missions 2021: good things are announced
Still, 2021 seems to be a pretty exciting time for space. Arguably, there's more in store, especially as NASA's ambitions to return to the Moon grow and the private space industry continues to grow faster than ever.
Here are the space missions scheduled (for now) in 2021 that I would be excited to see next year. Sure, space is unpredictable and there's a good chance many of these missions will be delayed, but fingers crossed.
1 February 2021: three missions to Mars
Mars will welcome the arrival of not one, not two, but three missions, each launched and run by a different nation. There is the orbiter Hope of the United Arab Emirates, the rover Perseverance launched by NASA and the mission Tianwen-1 (with orbiter, lander and rover) launched from China.
All three missions will reach Martian orbit in February, with Perseverance making its way to the surface at the end of the month, followed by Tianwen-1 in April.
Hope will help scientists answer questions about the Martian atmosphere. Tianwen-1 e Perseverance they will look for signs of past or present life and will try to understand Martian geology. Although NASA missions to Mars are on the agenda, this will be the first time that China and the UAE will be able to observe the planet closely.
Probability of success: 9/10. Missions have been launched, but all have to survive the journey and two have to face landing.
2 March, second test for the Boeing Starliner
SpaceX's Crew Dragon isn't the only vehicle NASA hopes to use to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Boeing also has a vehicle, called the Starliner, which has (so to speak) an unmanned space mission, which failed in December 2019. The spacecraft's software was full of errors, some of which could have led to the total destruction of the spacecraft. capsule. It wasn't Boeing's best moment.
The company will repeat its test mission in March, after careful checks and meticulous modifications. Hopefully, Starliner could send humans to the ISS later this year.
Probability of success: 8/10. A year never goes by by chance, even if Boeing has been running badly lately.
3 June (and October), first CLPS space missions to the moon
NASA's Artemis program, Apollo's successor, doesn't just include two trips to the moon and back. Artemis aims to bring people back to the moon permanently, and private industry is involved.
Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) NASA is an opportunity for small businesses interested in doing something with the moon, whether it be flying small payloads with new spacecraft, testing new spaceflight technologies, or conducting experiments.
The lander Peregrine of Astrobiotic Technology will bring the first batch of 28 CLPS payloads to the moon in June, including 14 from NASA. Hopefully, it will be the first private spaceship to successfully land on the moon. Intuitive Machines will launch its lander Nova-C to the moon in October (aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket). It will take at least five NASA payloads to the moon, along with several other payloads from other groups.
Probability of success: 6/10. Landing on the moon is still difficult for any "rookie".
4 July, goodbye Juno
In the past couple of months, there has been talk of some at NASA looking for an extension of the mission until September 2025, so that Juno can fly over some of Jupiter's moons and study them closely. Maybe that violent ending could be suspended for a few more years.
Probability of success: 10/10. Let's face it, Juno has already won: everything that will come, even if it is obviously important, is runny fat.
5 October, Luna 25: is Russia back too?
The last mission launched by the Russians to the moon was Luna 24, in 1976. Perhaps in response to the rapid development of NASA's Artemis program and China's space missions, Russia has resurrected the Luna program with the 25th planned mission, which is supposed to be launched in October.
Luna 25 it will be a lander heading towards the lunar south pole. It will test a new type of landing technology that Russia plans to use for future robotic space missions, but the lander also carries a suite of scientific instruments that will study the lunar soil.
Probability of success: 8/10. Russia knows how to land a spacecraft on the moon. His chaotic space agency just needs to launch it.
6 October, SpaceX Axiom Space
This mission will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon to send a private crew to the ISS for a stay of at least eight days.
It will be the first private mission to orbit, the first private mission to the ISS and the first time that SpaceX has sent private citizens into space.
Probability of success: 9/10. The mission will not start unless everything is perfect, but even small doubts or logistical hitches will lead to delays.
7 October, James Webb Space Telescope
Another NASA project that has faced delays after delays. The JWST is one of the most ambitious scientific space missions of recent memory. It is, in many ways, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but its infrared observation capability gives it tremendous potential to study the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and exoplanets and to investigate whether they might have biochemical signals of alien life.
Probability of success: 3/10. Sorry for the pessimism, but we've faced so many launch date delays that I won't be surprised by a new delay.
8 November, Artemis 1 / SLS 1
Eventually Orion, the space capsule that NASA is building to send humans back to the moon someday (I would no longer swear it will happen as early as 2024), will finally head into space for the first time since 2014, and for the first time in absolute beyond Earth's orbit.
For Artemis 1, an unmanned Orion will set off on a 25-day mission that will take it to the moon for a few days and bring it back to Earth safe and sound (hopefully). The mission will test Orion's hardware, software and life support systems. It will also contain two mannequins tied to a pair of seats, equipped with sensors that will measure the amount of radiation a crew might be exposed to inside the cabin during such a trip.
Artemis 1 will also involve the inaugural launch of the Space launch system, the most powerful rocket ever built. SLS development has been plagued with countless delays and there is no guarantee that Orion or SLS will be ready by November. It would be great if they were.
Probability of success: 1/10. The only NASA project with more delays than the JWST is SLS. This mission will almost certainly not happen as planned.
Among the space missions with an unscheduled date:
9 Beginning 2021, construction of the Chinese Space Station begins
The next phase of the Chinese Tiangong program is a modular orbital space station about one-fifth the size of the ISS. China plans to launch the first part in 2021, a core service module called Tinahe. It will be the first of 11 missions to completely build the station by 2023 and make it ready for use by crews of 3 taikonauts who will alternate for at least a decade.
Probability of success: 5/10. China isn't exactly good at meeting deadlines either, but its space agency doesn't face bureaucratic uncertainties like NASA does.
10 Beginning 2021, LauncherOne
Virgin Orbit already has customers lined up throughout 2021 for small-cargo missions, although it has yet to successfully complete a flight test of its launch vehicle LauncherOne. Virgin Orbit, like its subsidiary Virgin Galactic, is trying to accomplish its space missions through air launch technology. In summary: a plane catches a rocket in the air and releases it, and the rocket flies the rest of the way. The first attempt at such a launch, last May, was stopped due to propellant problems.
Virgin Orbit was supposed to try again in December, but Covid made it impossible. The company is expected to launch its vehicle as soon as a window opens: a new failure of the space mission would seriously jeopardize the rest of the company's program.
Probability of success: 8/10. If Virgin Galactic can take people into space, then surely Virgin Orbit can send a satellite into space. Quite right? Mh.
11 2021, the great year of Blue Origin
The company led by Jeff Bezos has two large space missions planned in 2021 to send people into space on a suborbital flight on the New Shepard vehicle. New Shepard has been launched 13 times and the booster has proven its reusability through vertical landings after flight (a bit like the SpaceX Falcon 9).
The company hopes to use New Shepard to send people on suborbital flights lasting a few minutes as a space tourism service.
Meanwhile, another bigger project could finally take off in 2021. It's called New glenn, a heavy launch vehicle that should be more powerful than even a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. While we haven't seen much of its hardware yet, Blue Origin hopes to launch New Glenn before the end of 2021.
Probability of success: 2/10. The company still wants to do a few more missions with the New Shepard before putting humans on board, so it may not be ready in 2021. And the development of New Glenn is progressing even more slowly.