A new frontier: The year in space, 2020
Despite the challenges posed worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a bumper year when it comes to space exploration, marked by some incredible firsts and some sad farewells. It was a year of remarkable emerging technologies, a line up of ambitious new interplanetary missions, industry firsts, and the reemergence of the US in the field of human spaceflight. Most of all, 2020 saw commercial space companies coming into their own in ways that could impact space travel on a level not seen since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.
Arguably the biggest story in space for 2020 was the return of humans being transported to space from US soil. It wasn't just that astronauts lifted off from the US for the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, it was also that the mission didn't feature a traditional NASA spacecraft. For the first time, in any nation, a crew was sent into orbit in a spacecraft, by a launcher, from a launch pad, watched over by mission control, all of which were built, owned, and operated by a private company.
On May 30, 2020, a Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket – all owned (or, in the case of the land beneath the launch tower, leased) by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. About 19 hours later, it autonomously rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station (ISS).
That was just a test mission carried out under a NASA contract to certify the spacecraft and SpaceX's operations. The next mission, Crew-1, docked with the ISS on November 16. 2020 with the crew of Spacecraft Commander, US Air Force Colonel Mike Hopkins; Pilot, US Navy Commander Victor Glover; NASA Mission Specialist Shannon Walker; and JAXA Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi aboard.
Unlike the previous crewed mission, Demo-2, this was a standard mission to ferry new crew members to the space station and the first ever by a private company. SpaceX will carry out six such missions under a current NASA contract.
However, this is more than a technological achievement. Unlike previous NASA astronaut missions, SpaceX owns Crew Dragon outright and can sell its services to whomever it wishes. This is also true of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, the crewed launch of which was delayed by an aborted robotic test mission in 2019, and other companies pursuing similar ambitions, such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
The end of Arecibo
Contrasting with the dawn of commercial spaceflight was a dramatic sunset for the Arecibo radio telescope, which suffered n surprise collapse in Puerto Rico. Once the world's largest single-dish telescope, a cable unexpectedly snapped in August, damaging the 1,000-ft (305-m) dish, and the instrument was then slated for dismantling after more structural problems were found. Then, on December 1, the 900-tonne instrument platform fell and crashed into the dish as its three support towers collapsed.
Surveyor 2 returns
There was also a curious reunion in 2020 when the Centaur rocket booster from the 1966 Surveyor 2 Moon mission temporarily returned to Earth orbit for a brief visit before heading off into deep space in March 2021. First thought to be an asteroid, its mass and orbit suggested that it was actually an empty rocket. By tracing its orbit backwards to its possible launch date, the object's identity was later confirmed as it made a close flyby of Earth on December 10.
Back to the Moon
The Moon was very much in space news in 2020. On December 16, China's Chang’e-5 mission came to an end as a sample return capsule landed in Mongolia. Inside it were the first lunar samples to be returned to Earth since the USSR's Luna 24 robotic lander mission in 1976. Where three Soviet landers only brought back 301 g (10.6 oz) of lunar material, the Chinese effort returned a whopping kilogram (2.2 lb) in one go.
Meanwhile, NASA has been very busy as its Artemis program to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon ramps up. The largest rocket since the Apollo program made its debut on January 8 when the first of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) deep-space booster rockets rolled out of the space agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The Boeing-built SLS Core Stage was then shipped by barge to the Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi for hot-fire tests and then on to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where NASA engineers are assembling the giant rocket for the next Artemis mission to cislunar space.
Once American astronauts return to the Moon, they'll need some way to actually land on it, which means they'll need a, well, lander. In August, NASA took the wraps off the first full-scale mock-up of the Human Landing System (HLS), which is being developed by Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. Like the Apollo-era Lunar Module (LM), the HLS has an Ascent Element and Descent Element for landing on the Moon, but it takes the modular approach a step further. Where the LM was made to act as a single vehicle, the HLS modules can operate independently and can be swapped out for mission-specific versions.
To the Red Planet
We also saw more missions setting off for the planet Mars in 2020, including the first of a series of the most ambitious interplanetary missions to date. On July 30, NASA's Mars 2020 mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with the robotic Perseverance rover onboard. It may look like a more advanced version of the previous Curiosity rover, but after it lands on the Red Planet at the end of its 309-million-mile (497-million-km) voyage, it will be the first mission since the 1976 Viking landings to seek out possible life. More than that, it will collect samples of Martian soil and rock, seal them in tubes, and cache them on the surface. These will be retrieved by later missions, which will arrange a series of handoffs to other spacecraft to return them to Earth.
Eleven days before Mars 2020 left Earth, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched its own Mars mission from Tanegashima Island in Japan atop a Mitsubishi H-2A rocket. Called Al Amal (Hope), it's scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit in February 2021, where it will carry out studies of the Martian atmosphere.
2020 was also a momentous one for the study of asteroids. On October 20, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx moved in carefully and touched the asteroid Bennu, 205 million miles from Earth, where it used a burst of nitrogen to scoop up 2-oz (57-g) of regolith from the surface. Unfortunately, it did the job a little too well. The head of the sample collection device was so full that the lid jammed open and the contents began to leak. As a result, the spacecraft had to be kept very still and the mission timeline had to be amended so the sample could be safely stowed in the capsule that will protect it on its journey back to Earth.
On December 5, JAXA completed its second asteroid sample return mission when Hayabusa2's sample return capsule made a dramatic and fiery reentry in the skies over Australia before parachuting down on the Woomera Test Range where a JAXA helicopter tracked down its radio beacon. The capsule was then sent to Japan for unpacking and preliminary analysis, which confirmed the contents of the sample container were bits of asteroid Ryugu.
Hello, Voyager 2
Last but not least, 2020 was also the year when contact was reestablished with a true veteran of the Space Age. On October 29, NASA sent its first commands to the Voyager 2 probe after a communications blackout lasting eight months. Launched 43 years ago and currently around 11.6 billion miles (18.8 billion km) from the Earth and counting, Voyager 2 is on a one-way trajectory into interstellar space. Despite all that time, its nuclear power source will keep it functioning until about 2025.
However, it's only visible via NASA's Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43) near Canberra, Australia, which is unfortunate because it meant commands couldn't be sent while the main antenna undergoes an upgrade. Though NASA could listen to the probe, the space agency couldn't talk to it until the upgrade was nearing completion. The station is scheduled to become fully operational by February, so one of the most distant spacecraft launched by humanity will be a little less lonely.
What's your favorite space moment from 2020? Let us know in the comments.