At the end of July last year, we brought you the live launches of not one, not two, but three missions to Mars. The first to arrive will be Hope, the ambitious first mission for the United Arab Emirates. Hope will study the weather and atmosphere of Mars from orbit, looking to answer questions such as why hydrogen and oxygen are being lost to space at a high rate.
Next, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft will arrive on February 10 and settle into orbit while preparing for the country’s first rover touchdown on Mars later on in May. The mission seeks to answer questions about life on the red planet, either past or present, and is a sign of the continuing engineering progress being made in China’s space program.
Finally, NASA’s Perseverance rover will arrive on February 18 and give us another Seven Minutes of Terror landing event to rival that of Curiosity. The target destination for the landing is Jezero Crater, where there was once a vast lake that could have been habitable millions of years ago. Percy’s mission is to look for signs of life, particularly microbes under the topsoil and in the sedimentary layers.
Onboard Perseverance is NASA’s experimental helicopter, Ingenuity. The drone is set to test just how well-controlled flight might work on another planet, and it comes with carbon-fiber blades that spin at 2400 rpm, as well as solar cells and batteries but no science instrumentation. Before it can potentially fly, Ingenuity has to survive the trip to Mars, deploy from Percy, keep itself warm and charge itself. Only then will the team attempt to fly the helicopter.
While Earth has been regularly populating mars with robots and probes for the last couple of decades, the Moon had been pretty neglected until recently. In 2020 we say many nations land, with more and less success, on the moon, and in 2021, efforts to work toward a return of humans to the moon will take shape. Two of the larger missions come from traditional powerhouses: The US and Russia.
If all goes well, no later than November 2021, we’ll see the first launch of a Space Launch System rocket. While a lot of companies start with test flights and hops, SLS is going to go from zero launches to lunar orbit in a single go, if all goes well. The current plan is for SLS to launch with an unoccupied Orion crew capsule as well as a suite of CubeSats. This is an international mission, with Orion’s service module being provided by the ESA. Orion will carry a number of experiments, including tests using mannequins to measure the radiation levels we can expect astronauts to experience.
The SLS mission is exceedingly over budget and behind schedule, and I put even odds on this mission being canceled, failing on launch, or succeeding reasonably well. Time can only tell, and we’d like to remind everyone that space is hard.
While SLS has been under development for years and years and years and is likely to leave us waiting through most of 2021, Russia is fast-tracking its own travels. Back in the 1970s, the USSR’s Luna program brought back rock load after rock load after the Apollo missions had become just memories. After seeing China, Israel, and India all head back to the Moon, in August 2020 Roscosmos announced it will launch Luna 25, nominally in October 2021. According to Scientific American, Roscosmos has stated, The Luna-25 space project opens a long-term Russian lunar program, which includes missions to study the moon from orbit and surface, the collection and return of lunar soil to Earth, as well as, in the future, the construction of a visited lunar base and full-scale development of our satellite.
I don’t know how to put odds on this occurring. Roscosmos has proven they can incrementally advance old technology to do new tricks for decades, and if anyone can resurrect 40-year-old spacecraft plans to produce something new, this is the space agency to do it. I think it’s safe to say, a new space race is on, and this time the question is, which nation will build the first lunar base.
Space Missions to Watch in 2021 (Smithsonian Magazine)
Six space missions to look forward to in 2021 (The Conversation)