As of writing, the launch date for JWST is October 31, 2021. That’s right. We’re supposed to finally launch our biggest, fanciest space telescope to date on Halloween. Because what could be scarier? With all of the budget overruns and delays, the amount of skepticism surrounding this launch is high.
However, if we can get JWST launched and operational this year, we can finally begin to do some amazing science with the successor to the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. In particular, JWST is set to perform infrared observations of exoplanets and maybe even exomoons, providing us with the data necessary to understand those distant atmospheres. It’s even possible that, if they’re out there and if we look in the right direction, JWST could detect biosignatures of extraterrestrial life.
But we have to get JWST to launch first, and we’ll continue to update any changes to the current schedule as they are announced.
Remember 2019? It was about a decade ago, and at the end of that year, Boeing had the first test flight of their Starliner vehicle. It… did not go well, and Boeing had a lot of egg on their face for software full of errors and issues that could have potentially killed a crew. Not a good look at all.
Well, this year, on March 29, Boeing is going to try again. They’ve spent the last decade… I mean year… combing through their software and testing just about everything on Starliner. If successful, Boeing will be cleared to actually send crewed capsules to the ISS, joining SpaceX in the commercial transportation of astronauts. Of course, we’ll bring that test to you live, when it happens.
While astronauts are getting their new capsules, tourists are also getting new chances to make it to orbit and sub orbit. And we’re not talking about Virgin Galactic, although we do expect them to finally make it to space with a SpaceShipTwo this year. I’m actually talking about Axiom. Flying on a SpaceX Crew Dragon, Axiom Space intends to launch 4 people to ISS for an 8-day stay. While Tom Cruise and Doug Liman were originally scheduled to fly as part of a movie project, they have postponed for a later mission. If you want to fill their now empty seats, it will cost you $55 million.
On the suborbital tourism front, Blue Origin plans to put people in space on their New Shepard vehicle at some point this year. They have already launched New Shepard thirteen times, and their reusable booster has successfully landed after flights, just like the Falcon 9 booster. Space tourists can expect to enjoy eleven minutes of flight time and will technically be in space once they pass the Kármán line. They will get to reach speeds up to Mach 3 and then return to Earth via the capsule and its parachutes. Landings take place in west Texas. The ticket price isn’t officially listed, but industry expectations are in the range of 200-250 thousand dollars per seat.
Launching humans is cool because we can imagine ourselves in space when we see others fly, but sometimes it’s just awesome to see a giant rocket fly, with or without humans on board. In 2018 and 2019 we got to see the Falcon Heavy launch 3 times, but there has been no giant rocket joy since June 2019. That is all set to change on or shortly after February 28, when a Falcon Heavy is slated to launch a classified payload for the United States Air Force.
Not to be outdone, Blue Origin plans to launch its partially reusable New Glenn rocket on its inaugural flight sometime in 2021. This rocket follows the single tube design of the Saturn V, and its three-stage configuration will stand nearly as tall as the Saturn V. While New Glenn has yet to fly, Blue Origin has already scored contracts with OneWeb, Telesat, and other companies to launch their rockets.
While going to space is certainly much flashier than exploring from Earth, great science still comes from ground-based instruments.
COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on, well, everything to be honest. We’ve seen delay after delay in the world, and astronomy was hit like everyone else. The Vera Rubin Observatory had to postpone some of its scheduled construction, but first light for the telescope is still anticipated late this year. The observatory will then prepare to conduct the LSST — Legacy Survey of Space and Time — over 10 years beginning in 2022. This program seeks to image the entire visible sky every few nights, making it possible to capture and track changes in the night sky. These observations should open the door to further understanding of the observable Universe.
One of the potential finds for the Rubin Observatory is Planet 9 (or Planet X depending on who you are talking to). Well, maybe not a planet. There is the possibility that whatever is causing the perturbations in our outer solar system could be a black hole, and if that is the case, the Rubin Observatory is sensitive enough to catch when a small black hole has an accretion flare due to capturing an object like a comet.
It’s even possible that, if Planet X is a planet and is out there and happens to pass through the southern sky, it might be found within the LSST data. That’s a lot of possibility and not a lot of probability. Still, it would be great to know one way or another what Planet X is and isn’t, and the Rubin Observatory will likely make amazing discoveries no matter what.
Space calendar 2021 (CNET)
Launches and Landings (NASA)
Launch Schedule (Spaceflight Now)