Space exploration accomplished some significant firsts in 2020, including commercial human spaceflight and the return of samples from an asteroid to Earth, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The year ahead promises to be equally exciting. Here are some of the missions to keep an eye on.
Artemis 1 is the first flight of an international NASA-led Artemis program that aims to carry astronauts back to the moon by 2024.
It will consist of an unmanned Orion spacecraft sent around the moon during a three-week mission.
It will cross a maximum distance of 450,000 km from Earth – the farthest distance ever reached by a spacecraft capable of bringing humans into space.
NASA’s first Space Launch Vehicle, the most powerful rocket ever designed, will launch Artemis 1 into Earth orbit.
The Orion capsule will be propelled from Earth’s orbit through the cryogenic interstage of the rocket to another orbit towards the moon.
With the aid of a European Space Agency (ESA) support module, the Orion capsule will then travel to the moon.
The mission will allow Earth engineers to assess the performance in deep space of the spacecraft and will serve as a prelude to later crewed lunar missions.
The launch of Artemis 1 is currently scheduled for late 2021.
Missions to Mars
Mars will be hosting a flotilla of terrestrial robotic visitors from many countries in February.
The Arab world’s first interplanetary mission is the United Arab Emirates ‘Al Amal (Hope) spacecraft.
It is expected to arrive on Feb. 9 in Mars orbit, where it will spend two years studying the fading atmosphere and Martian weather.
Tianwen-1 of the China National Space Administration, consisting of an orbiter and a surface rover, will arrive a few weeks after Al Amal.
Until depositing the rover on the surface, the spacecraft will enter orbit around Mars for several months.
China would become the third country to land anything on Mars if successful.
The project has many objectives, including the mapping of the surface’s mineral composition and the search for deposits of subsurface water.
On Feb. 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover will land at Jezero Crater to look for signs of ancient life that may have been preserved there in the clay deposits.
Samples from the Martian surface will also be supplied – the first phase of a very ambitious international program to return samples from Mars to Earth.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) aims to initiate its third lunar mission in March 2021: Chandrayaan-3.
Chandrayaan-1 was launched in 2008 and was one of the Indian space program’s first major missions.
The mission was one of the first to prove signs of water on the Moon, consisting of an orbiter and a surface probe.
Communication with the spacecraft sadly broke off after less than a year. Unfortunately, with its successor, Chandrayaan-2, consisting of an orbiter, a lander (Vikram), and a lunar rover, there was a similar mishap (Pragyan).
A few months later, Chandrayaan-3 was revealed.
As the orbiter from the previous mission is still operating and providing data, it will consist of only a lander and a rover.
If all goes well, in the Aitken Basin of the Lunar South Pole, the Chandrayaan-3 rover will touch down.
This is of particular interest because numerous water ice deposits under the surface are known to be contained – an important component for potential sustainable moon colonization.
James Webb Telescope for Vacuum
The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is the James Webb Space Telescope, but it has had a rocky path to launch.
Originally planned for a 2007 launch, the Webb telescope is nearly 14 years behind schedule and has cost about $10 billion (£7.4 billion) after apparent underestimates and overruns, similar to Hubble.
While Hubble has provided some amazing views of the universe in the visible and ultraviolet regions of light, Webb plans to concentrate observations in the infrared wavelength region.
The explanation is that gas clouds are likely to get in the way when viewing very distant objects.
These gas clouds block very small wavelengths of light, such as X-rays and ultraviolet light, while longer wavelengths, such as infrared, microwaves and radio, pass through more easily. So we can see more of the universe by studying these longer wavelengths.
Webb also has a much larger mirror with a diameter of 6.5 meters compared to Hubble’s mirror with a diameter