Space Highlights 2020
Astronaut Christina Koch Credit: NASA

Space Highlights 2020

23/12/2020Written by Alex Thompson

Another year is almost over, but 2020 has brought considerable success in space from all corners of the globe.

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NASA Astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft Credit: NASA

One mission that captured the public’s attention was the return of launching astronauts from US soil. On 30 May 2020, SpaceX and NASA launched astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken to the International Space Station aboard its Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft.

This marked the first time the USA had been able to launch its own astronauts from its own country since the retirement of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011.

Officially named ‘Demo-2’, the spacecraft successfully returned both men to Earth two months later, before launching four more astronauts with ‘Crew-1’ on 15 November.

SpaceX didn’t have a year without issues; two different prototypes of Starship, the company’s 394ft rocket to carry humans and cargo to Mars, met fiery ends this year. However, no injuries were recorded and SpaceX bosses and CEO Elon Musk considered this year a massive step on the road to the red planet.

Emirates Mars Mission Hope Spacecraft Credit: UAE Space Agency

This year also saw three major missions to Mars that extended our understanding of the planet.

The first took place on 19 July 2020 with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Hope orbiter; if all goes to plan, it will be the first successful Martian mission by any West Asian, Arab or Muslim-majority country.

Four days later this was followed by China’s Tianwein-1, consisting of an orbiter, camera, lander and rover.

The third came on 30 July 2020 with the launch of the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity robotic helicopter as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.

All three missions are expected to reach Mars in early 2021 and will look for signs of past and present life, as well as further study the planet’s surface and atmosphere.

Unfortunately ESA’s Exomars mission was expected to join the three Martian missions with a July 2020 launch window, but ultimately it was decided that more time was needed to fully test all components of the spacecraft. ESA now plans to launch Exomars and its Rosalind Franklin rover in 2022.

Artist impression of Chang’e 5 touching down on the Moon Credit: CNSA

China’s efforts to become a space superpower have significantly increased during 2020 with many important successes.

Following launch failures in the early part of the year, the Long March-5B rocket finally completed a successful test mission in May 2020, allowing the launch of Tianwein-1 in July 2020.

This also paved the way for the Chang’e 5 mission, the next stage of China’s Lunar programme.

Launching on 23 November 2020, the spacecraft landed on the Moon on 01 December 2020 and collected over 1.7kg of rocks and soil.

These were then returned in a capsule to Earth, making China only the third country to successfully complete a lunar sample return mission and the first by anyone since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976.

The main spacecraft is now on an extended mission to a Sun-Earth Lagrange point (a Lagrange point is a location in space where the combined gravitational forces of two large bodies) to carry out observations of the Sun, the local environment and to perform operational tests.

Artist impression of Hayabusa2 and Ryugu asteroid Credit: DLR

Whilst Chang’e 5 was a success, it was not the only sample return mission this year, in fact it was not the only sample return mission this month.

On 05 December 2020, samples of asteroid 162173 Ryugu were returned to Woomera in Australia by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft.

Having originally launched in Tanegashima on 03 December 2014, the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid in June 2018, surveying it and taking samples before its departure in November 2019.

These samples should provide additional knowledge about the origins of the inner planets, as well as water and organic compounds on Earth and, as a result, the origin of life itself.

Like Chang’e 5, Hayabusa2 is now on an extended mission, with planned flybys and rendezvous’ with other asteroids in the coming years.

NASA Astronaut Victor Glover Credit: NASA

Eighteen astronauts have travelled into space and lived aboard the International Space Station (ISS) this year, with a couple of important milestones taking place.

On her return to Earth on 06 February 2020, Christina Koch set a new continuous time in space by a woman record, at 328 days, earning her a spot in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 alongside fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir.

Our final mention goes to a member of the ‘Crew-1’ mission, Victor Glover, pilot on the first operational flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon. Victor is currently in the midst of Expedition 64/65, that has seen him become the first black astronaut to live long term on the ISS.

This has been a truly unprecedented year, that has seen our doors closed and teams furloughed for the safety of visitors and staff.

We would all like to offer our sincere thanks for your support and understanding.

We cannot wait to welcome you back to the Centre in 2021 and will continue to tell the stories of space exploration and science; past, present and future.