The year in space 2021
With rovers and helicopters on Mars, multiple private crewed missions, robotic probes flying into the Sun's atmosphere, and Captain Kirk boldly going to the final frontier, 2021 was a bumper year in space. New Atlas looks at the top stories in the Cosmos.
Perseverance Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet
On February 18, NASA's Perseverance Mars rover landed in the Jezero Crater on the surface of the Red Planet to begin the most ambitious interplanetary mission to date. This marks the first time since 1976 that a mission was sent successfully to Mars with the purpose of seeking direct signs of past or present life, and will work in tandem with later missions to collect and return the first samples of Martian rock and soil to Earth for laboratory analysis.
NASA's Mars Helicopter makes historic first flight
One exciting first for the Perseverance mission came on April 19 when the Ingenuity robotic helicopter that was deployed on the Martian surface not only survived the intense cold of the Martian night, but also became the first aircraft to lift off from the Red Planet, clocking up over 30 minutes of flight time by the end of this year in a series of increasingly ambitious aerial sorties.
China launches first crew to Tiangong space station
2021 also saw China realizing its ambitions to become a major space-faring nation by sending a crew of three astronauts to its Tiangong space station in low-Earth orbit. The core module of the station was launched on April 29 before Commander Nie Haisheng, Operator Liu Boming, and System Operator Tang Hongbo aboard the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft docked with the space laboratory on June 17. They spent 90 days in orbit before returning to Earth.
China becomes the third country to land on the surface of Mars
On May 14, China became the third country to land on the Red Planet and the second country to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars and deploy a rover. After seven months of travel from Earth, the Tianwen-1 Lander separated from the Orbiter module and descended to touch down on the Utopia Planitia region of the Red Planet. On June 1, the Zhurong rover rolled off the Lander's ramp to begin its 90-day exploration mission that has now gone on for over 210 days.
Sir Richard Branson (almost) flies into space on VSS Unity
July 11 saw British billionaire Sir Richard Branson almost, but not quite, fly into space on a suborbital flight as a passenger aboard the privately built and operated Virgin Galactic spaceplane, VSS Unity. Taking off from Spaceport America, New Mexico, the flight also included pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci at the controls, and mission specialists Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor; Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations. However, though the craft did reach an altitude of 53.5 miles (86.1 km), which the United States recognizes as high enough to qualify as a flight into space, it fell short of the 62 miles (100 km), which is the international standard.
Blue Origin's New Shepard flies passengers to space and back
Not to be outdone, Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket achieved its first suborbital passenger flight on July 20, carrying founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year-old Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen to an altitude of 66.517 miles (107.05 km). Having shot the youngest person into space, Blue Origin followed this up on October 15, when it flew the oldest space passenger, 90-year-old actor William Shatner (AKA Captain Kirk) into the final frontier.
SpaceX's first all-private crewed space mission lifts off
Another passenger first came on September 15 when SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with four astronauts aboard. That may seem almost routine these days, but it was the first time in history that a crewed spacecraft on a completely private mission using a private spacecraft went into orbit.
NASA probe "touches the Sun" with historic entry into solar atmosphere
2021 marked the first time a spacecraft flew into the atmosphere of the Sun. As it made its eighth close encounter with the Sun in April, NASA's Parker Solar probe reached speeds of up to 330,000 mph (532,000 km/h) and came within 6.5 million miles (10.4 million km) of the solar surface. Later analysis of data sent back by the probe confirmed that it had come close enough to pass through the outer atmosphere of the Sun, known as the corona.
SpaceX successfully lands its massive Starship for the first time
After a string of literally explosive setbacks, SpaceX finally managed to land its massive next-generation Starship rocket safely after a suborbital test flight on May 5. The SN15 mission reached an altitude of 10 km (6.2 miles) before transitioning to a horizontal attitude for descent and then back to vertical for the final powered landing in Texas.
Juno probe snaps first close-up images of Ganymede in over 20 years
Meanwhile, several hundreds of millions of miles away, NASA's Juno deep-space probe marked 2021 by sending back the first close-up images of Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede, to be captured in two decades. The stunning images were taken by the JunoCam and Stellar Reference Unit during Juno's flyby of the moon on June 7.
NASA's Juno probe delivers the first 3D picture of Jupiter's atmosphere
The overachieving Juno probe also perked up scientific attention by providing the most complete picture of Jupiter's famously colorful and chaotic atmosphere to create what scientists call the first 3D picture of the Jovian atmosphere.
OSIRIS-REx headed back to Earth with "abundance" of asteroid samples
The climax of NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) robotic deep-space mission, the OSIRIS-REx probe is now en route home from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, beginning its 2.5-year journey back to Earth laden with samples.
New Horizons snaps a photo of Voyager 1 from 11 billion miles away
New Horizons currently has a lot of time on its hands as it coasts towards interstellar space. To celebrate passing a new milestone distance in 2021, it took a snap of its predecessor, Voyager 1 – or, at least, the patch of sky where it is.
ELSA-d spacecraft captures "space debris" in orbit for the first time
Space may get a bit cleaner in the future after the private orbital debris removal company Astroscale demonstrated its magnetic capture system that is designed to tackle the problem of space junk. This year, the company's ELSA-d servicer satellite managed to capture a simulated piece of space debris in orbit.
BepiColombo and Solar Orbiter have a close encounter with Venus
On August 11, the BepiColombo orbiter probe passed within 552 km (343 miles) of Venus as it completed one of nine flybys on its way to Mercury. Shortly after the encounter, the ESA/JAXA mission snapped a picture of Venus at a distance of 1,573 km (977 miles).
Cold traps that could contain solid CO2 confirmed on the Moon
In November, a new study by the Planetary Science Institute and UCLA confirmed that there are areas in the lunar south polar region where frozen carbon dioxide could exist, raising hopes that there could be significant resources to support future Moon missions.
Have astronomers just discovered the first exoplanet outside our galaxy?
In October, news was released that NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have spotted the first exoplanet outside the Milky Way. Located in M51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, the giant exoplanet candidate circles a black hole or neutron star 28 million light years from Earth.
The Apollo 11 Ascent Stage may still be orbiting the Moon
This year also saw what may be the solution to an historical enigma: What happened to the Ascent Stage of the Apollo 11 mission's Eagle Lunar Module that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back into lunar orbit at the end of their historic first moonwalk? According to a new mathematical study, the Ascent Stage may not have crashed into the Moon but may still be in a stable orbit around it.
James Webb Space Telescope finally makes it to space
Last, but certainly not least, on December 25, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was finally launched after numerous delays, cost blowouts and a major redesign. Originally slated to launch in 2007, the JWST is now making its way to its final destination near the second Lagrange point (L2), from where it will let us peer further back into the history of the universe than ever before.