Looking ahead at the year in space 2021
The pace of space exploration appears to have been meteoric in recent years, and 2021 has some major milestones to look forward to. From maiden flights to fiery endings, long-awaited launches to history-making first steps, here are some of the biggest upcoming events in space exploration this year.
Red Planet rush
Three separate missions are currently en route to Mars and set to arrive in February.
First up is the Emirates Mars Mission, due to rendezvous with the Red Planet on February 9. The Al Amal (or Hope) orbiter will study weather cycles and events in Mars’ atmosphere.
Next is Tianwen-1, a Chinese spacecraft scheduled to arrive from February 11. The mission consists of an orbiter that will map the surface and study the atmosphere, and a rover that will set down on the surface on April 23, performing chemical analyses on the soil and searching for signs of life.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land in Jezero Crater on February 18. There it will continue the mission of its long-running predecessor, Curiosity, searching for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover is also packing an experimental aerial drone, and will stash samples of surface soil and rocks away in an ambitious plan to eventually return them to Earth for study.
Moonshot take 2
In September 2019 the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Vikram lunar lander crashed into the Moon’s surface. And in the second quarter this year, the agency is taking another crack at it.
Chandrayaan-3 is essentially a mission repeat of 2019’s Chandrayaan-2, which included Vikram. To prevent too accurate a replay, the new lander has a different engine configuration and a Laser Doppler Velocimeter (LDV) to help the craft judge its descent speed more precisely.
This time around, the mission only involves a lander and rover – Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter is still operating just fine around the Moon. If successful, Chandrayaan-3’s rover will explore the lunar south pole for evidence of water.
Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since July 2016, and its mission is due to come to an end in July 2021. When that happens, the spacecraft will be deliberately deorbited – in other words, NASA will crash it into Jupiter.
Of course, the agency might throw Juno another lifeline and extend the mission, like it did in 2018. But at this stage it’s looking likely that this will be the end, giving it a similar fate to Cassini, which plunged into Saturn at the end of its mission in 2017.
Lucy in the sky with asteroids
Another NASA spacecraft will make a historic first this year – in October Lucy will launch on a 12-year journey to visit eight different asteroids.
After a few slingshot maneuvers around Earth, Lucy will whizz past a Main Belt asteroid in 2025, on her way to her true destination – the Trojans. These two asteroid families orbit the Sun at the distance of Jupiter in two big clusters, one ahead of and one behind the giant planet.
The craft will visit five asteroids in the first cloud between 2027 and 2028, before swinging back past Earth on its way to visit two more asteroids in the second cluster in 2033. After that, Lucy could continue to flit between the two Trojan clouds every six years.
The Trojans are essentially crumbs left over from the formation of the solar system, so the hope is that Lucy could shed new light on its history and evolution.
James Webb finally launches (hopefully)
After 25 years in development, the repeatedly delayed James Webb Space Telescope is finally due to launch in 2021. We’ll believe it when we see the first light images.
Originally scheduled for launch in 2007, James Webb has undergone redesigns, budget blowouts, technical issues and delay after delay, but the current launch date of October 31 seems to be the real deal. Hopefully.
The successor to Hubble and Spitzer, James Webb will scour the skies in infrared light, peering further into space and further back in time than any telescope before it. The hope is to detect light from the very first generation of stars, well over 13 billion years ago, as well as see how early galaxies formed and evolved. A bit closer to home, Webb will also study the many exoplanets that have been discovered in recent years, including searching for molecules in their atmospheres that may indicate the presence of life.
One giant leap back to the Moon
India isn’t the only one shooting for the Moon in 2021 – NASA has some grand plans of its own. Artemis I is currently due to launch in November on a 25-day journey to circumnavigate the Moon, in preparation of future human missions.
The uncrewed Orion craft will be launched onboard the maiden flight of NASA’s shiny new Space Launch System (SLS). It will then maneuver out of Earth orbit towards the Moon, eventually swooping to within 100 km (62 miles) of the surface to enter lunar orbit. It will stay there for six days, before returning to Earth and splashing down (hopefully) safely off the Californian coast for recovery.
Artemis I is essentially a test run to make sure the systems and craft are safe for humans. If all goes to plan, Artemis II will carry a crew of four on a similar journey around the Moon in 2023, and the following year Artemis III will return humans to the lunar surface for the first time in 50 years.
SpaceX does stuff
No doubt 2021 will be another big year for SpaceX, but what exactly it’ll hold is a little up in the air (pun extremely intended).
After the successful test flight (and less successful landing) of the Starship SN8 prototype on December 9, SpaceX is rolling out the next iteration, SN9, almost immediately. A static-fire test took place on January 6, and the next high-altitude test flight could happen as soon as January 8 or 9. After that, Elon Musk has hinted that SN10 will follow within a few weeks.
Musk and SpaceX have expressed hopes to launch Starship into Earth orbit and back in 2021, in advance of taking it to the Moon in 2022 and potentially Mars by 2024. But without a solid launch date, it remains to be seen whether we’ll see that milestone passed this year.
In the meantime, there will no doubt be many other steps made this year on the way to the company’s lofty goals. Musk has even tweeted plans to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, which would sure be a spectacle. Apparently we can look forward to that “in the next few months.”
This list is just scratching the surface of space exploration milestones coming up in 2021. Tell us what you're most looking forward to in the comments below!