(ORDO NEWS) — In the coming year, we will see three space missions on Mars, the launch of the SLS and the James Webb Space Telescope, and more.
2020 has been another year of discovery in space. Last year, three missions were launched to the Red Planet, NASA took samples of the asteroid with Osiris-REX, and China and Japan successfully returned samples. 2020 also saw the return of manned space launches from the United States with the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
2021 promises to be another amazing year for space travel to and beyond low-earth orbit.
(Please note that the launch dates mentioned in this article are subject to change.)
Low Earth Orbit
Several private companies will go into space in 2021.
SpaceX will send three Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021, including Axiom Space’s first fully private mission aboard Resilience in October.
SpaceX, as well as OneWeb, which reopened after declaring bankruptcy earlier this year, will also continue adding satellites to its mega-constellations in 2021. These thousands of LEOs will eventually provide broadband Internet services, but they will have unintended consequences from interference with observational astronomy. Both companies plan to launch one batch of satellites every month in 2021. As of the end of 2020, SpaceX was already in beta testing to select customers for its Starlink service.
Orbital launches off the US East Coast will become much more frequent soon. Starting February 2021, Rocket Lab will launch an Electron rocket with a small satellite payload from NASA’s Wallops Island complex in Virginia.
The Boeing Starliner spacecraft, which is competing with SpaceX’s Dragon team for NASA funding, has returned to flight. Starliner launched in December 2019 but was unable to reach the ISS. A second uncrewed test flight was scheduled for late 2020 but has now been postponed to 29 March 2021.
Aerospace company Blue Origin may join the orbital club in 2021, when the first flight of a two-stage New Glenn rocket from the Cape Canaveral space station takes place in July.
In late 2020, space logistics company Aevum announced that it would soon begin launching small orbital payloads into the air from its RAVN-X unmanned platform, launching from the Cecil Cosmodrome in Jacksonville, Florida.
China’s big push in 2021 is the launch of Tianhe 1, the first main module for their next crewed space station. This launch is currently slated for March; crew and cargo flights will begin later this year.
The Indian Space Research Organization may complete its first unmanned flight on Gaganyan (Sanskrit for “spaceship”) in December 2021 in preparation for the first crewed launches in India in 2022.
2021 can also be a busy year in terms of lunar space travel.
First, NASA with Rocket Lab will launch an experiment on NASA’s Autonomous Positioning System (CAPSTONE) technology in April 2021. CAPSTONE will enter a highly elliptical polar orbit around the Moon, the precursor to the crewed Gateway lunar station.
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will make its maiden flight with the Artemis 1 unmanned launch in November. Artemis 1 will fly around and return to the Moon, testing key technologies ahead of the first crewed SLS launch in 2023. The MPCV ring adapter aboard Artemis 1 will also deploy 13 smaller lunar satellites, including Lunar Flashlight and Lunar Polar Hydrogen.
Two commercial missions will also head to the Moon as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program:
The first will be Astrobotics’ Peregrine Mission One, which will travel to the Moon aboard the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Heavy rocket in July 2021. Peregrine will land near the crater in Lacus Mortis Plain. It will launch three rovers, including Britain’s Spacebit, a four-legged rover that will explore what is known as a lava tube.
Then, in October, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will deliver the Lunar Mission One and Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander to the lunar surface. Nova-C will bring a number of scientific experiments to Oceanus Procellarum.
Russia also plans to launch the Luna-25 / Luna-Glob lander on October 1, 2021. This mission includes an orbiter and a descent vehicle that will head towards the Boguslavsky crater near the south pole of the moon. This is Russia’s first flight to the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
India may also make another lunar landing attempt in late 2021 with Chandrayaan 3. While its Chandrayaan 2 orbiter is still in service, the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover crashed on the Moon in September 2019.
Meet Friends on Mars
Early 2021 will be an exciting year of Mars exploration with three launches in the summer of 2020.
First, the United Arab Emirates Mars Hope mission will enter orbit around the Red Planet on February 9th. The Hope orbiter will be the first for the UAE and will join an armada of spacecraft operating around Mars, including NASA’s Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN missions, as well as the Mars Orbiter of India and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express missions.
On February 18, NASA will attempt a second sky-crane-style landing with the Perseverance rover over Jezero Crater. Unlike the first Mars rover Curiosity, which landed with a sky crane in 2012, Perseverance is specifically designed to search for evidence of life and will collect and store samples for a future sample return mission.
China’s first mission to Mars, Tianwen 1, will also enter Mars orbit in February. The Tianwen 1 end-to-end solution includes an orbiter, a lander and an all-terrain vehicle. The lander and rover aim to land in the Utopia Planitia area on 23 April.
Of course, the largest and most anticipated launch of 2021 is NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated for October 31, 2021. But first, there are a few other missions worth looking out for.
The LARES-2 satellite is launched on the ESA Vega-C rocket for the Italian Space Agency in June 2021. Continuing the first LARES mission in 2012, LARES-2 will further refine measurements of the relativistic effect.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on July 21, 2021. DART will travel to asteroid 65803 Didymos and collide with it in October 2022. DART also has a small asteroid imaging satellite (Light Italian Cubesat for the Imaging of Asteroids, or LICIACube) for the Italian Space Agency.
Looking into the inner solar system, the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission will make its second and closest flyby (552 kilometers) past Venus on August 11, 2021, before making its first flyby over Mercury on October 2, 2021. BepiColombo will orbit the innermost planet six times before entering orbit around Mercury in 2025.
SpaceX will launch NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) satellite in mid-September. The mission will employ three identical X-ray telescopes that will work in tandem to study the polarization of space-based X-ray sources.
NASA’s Lucy mission will then go to investigate Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. The mission will be launched from Cape Canaveral somewhere in the window from October 16 to November 5. Lucy will visit seven asteroids, starting with main belt asteroid 52246 Donaldjohanson in 2025.
Finally, if there is no further delay, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch on October 31, 2021. The JWST launch date has been a moving target over the past decade as it has gone through many technical challenges. But now an Ariane 5 rocket launch from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana could actually take place. The mission has good reason for caution: The JWST will head towards the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point to begin work, and unlike Hubble in low Earth orbit, cannot be reached for repair or maintenance. However, recent trials have passed without a hitch.
And that is not all. In 2022, we can expect the launch of ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) satellite and Rosalind Franklin’s delayed ExoMars rover. There are many exciting space missions to see in 2021 and beyond.
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