Space Highlights 2021
NASA Perseverance Rover Selfie on Mars. Credit: NASA

Space Highlights 2021

29/12/2021Written by Alex Thompson

What happened in space in 2021? This was the year of Mars missions, the James Webb Space Telescope and space tourism.

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A lot has happened in space over the past 365 days, including the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, three missions arriving at Mars and the rise of space tourism. So here are our top 2021 highlights all wrapped up with a bow in one convenient place. 

Spacecrafts

Spacecrafts
Image Credit: ESA
Spacecrafts
Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube at the Didymos binary system. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben

Perhaps the most exciting development in space happened in the last few days of 2021 – the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Originally planned for lift-off in 2007, the wait was worth it as JWST will transform our knowledge of the Universe, from helping us in our search for alien life to transforming our knowledge of the early Universe by observing the first stars ever created. The telescope launched on Christmas Day, 25 December, and will begin scanning space after a six-month commissioning phase, where it will travel a distance of 1.5 million km away from planet Earth. 

Several other spacecrafts were launched in the year’s final quarter. NASA’s Lucy probe set off in October on its journey to eight different asteroids. Seven will be Jupiter Trojans (asteroids that share Jupiter’s orbit of the Sun) whilst the other will be in the Solar System’s asteroid belt. The spacecraft is named after the Lucy hominin fossils, which in turn was named after the Beatles song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’ 

The DART mission launched to much fanfare in November. The mission will look to slightly alter the orbit of the asteroid Didymos by deliberately crashing into it, The method is under consideration for future emergency use if a near-Earth object posed a threat to our planet; it will do this by deflecting the object away. 

The IXPE (Imaging X-Ray polarimetry Explorer) will study the polarisation of cosmic x-rays using its three telescopes. This will help teach us further about deep space objects such as black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, and the hot conditions these are created in.

Mars Rovers

Mars Rovers
NASA Perseverance Rover Selfie on Mars. Credit: NASA
Mars Rovers
An artist’s impression of the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft. CREDIT: Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center

The start of 2021 was all about Mars, with three different missions arriving at the Red Planet within nine days of each other.

First into Martian orbit on 09 February was Hope, the first spacecraft sent to Mars by the United Arab Emirates. Hope is an orbiter that is studying the planet from above, focusing on its weather events and cycles and how it varies in different regions. The successful journey meant that UAE became the first Arab country and fifth country overall to reach Mars.

The following day saw the arrival of China’s Tianwen-1 mission. A two-part spacecraft, Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter and a rover named Zhurong. The orbiter is studying the Martian atmosphere whilst Zhurong, which successfully landed on 14 May, is examining the soil, minerals, rocks, and geology from the ground. Some data has already been sent back to Earth.

Last to reach Mars was NASA’s Perseverance rover, making America the only country with two active rovers on the soil (Curiosity has been operational since 2012). Perseverance is currently searching for biosignatures of past life on the Red Planet, working in conjunction with its partner helicopter Ingenuity, which is helping Perseverance out from the air. The rover successfully touched down on 18 February, with Ingenuity deployed on 03 April before making the first aerodynamic flight on another planet a little over two weeks later. As of writing, Ingenuity had made 17 successful flights.

Space Tourism

Space Tourism
Wally Funk lands back on Earth after fulfilling her lifelong dream to go to space.
Space Tourism
Chris Sembroski, Hayley Arceneaux, Jared Isaacman and Sian Proctor float during a zero gravity training flight for Inspiration 4.
Space Tourism
Virgin Galactic's space plane flying over the Mojave desert. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Perhaps when all is said and done, 2021 in space might be best remembered for the huge steps taken in space tourism, with several companies delivering pioneering trips to paying civilians. 

Blue Origin successfully completed their first sub-orbital crewed flight in July using their Blue Shepard launch system and spacecraft. Joining company founder Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark on this maiden flight was Oliver Daemen, who became the youngest person to ever go to space (18 years old) and the first to have been born in the 21st century, and Wally Funk, a member of the Mercury 13 women in space programme in the 1960s who became the oldest ever space traveller at the age of 82.

Two more flights took place later in the year with travellers including Star Trek star William Shatner (who broke Funk’s record for oldest person in space, at age 90), Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of Alan Shepard (the first American in space) and Lane and Cameron Bess who became the first parent and child on the same spaceflight, with Cameron also being the first pansexual person to go to space. The three flights lasted a little over ten minutes each, travelling just over the Kármán line which is used to define the space boundary, with the onboard passengers experiencing several minutes of weightlessness before returning to the ground. The crews consisted of invited guests and paying customers, with more flights expected to take place next year. 

SpaceX launched their first private crewed spaceflight in September with their Inspiration4 mission, which was used as a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital in Tennessee. This was the company’s first all private citizen crew which consisted of mission commander Jared Isaacman, who pledged $100 million to St. Jude’s for the spaceflight; Sian Proctor, who became the first African American woman to pilot a spacecraft; Christopher Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin employee who had his seat gifted to him by a friend who won it as a prize; and Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude’s who became the youngest American woman in space and the first astronaut with prosthetic leg bones after surviving childhood cancer. The mission lasted three days and reached orbital attitude of 585 km, higher than the ISS and highest orbital human spaceflight this century. It concluded with the first touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean since Apollo 9 in 1969. 

A big step forward was also taken by Virgin Galactic this year too, as they completed the first suborbital crewed flight to space of a private enterprise fully funded by private money. Among the four passengers and two pilots onboard SpaceShip Two was company CEO Sir Richard Branson, the first time a spaceflight company founder has travelled on his own spacecraft to space, beating Bezos to the claim by several days. This claim is using NASA’s official space line of 80 km high instead of the more internationally recognised Kármán line of 100 km. Tourist flights are expected to begin next year after two more tests. 

International Space Station

International Space Station
International Space Station
Tiangong-1, artist impression. Credit: China Manned Space

Even the International Space Station (ISS) got in on the space tourism act, recently welcoming Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa along with his assistant, Yozo Hirano, plus experienced Russian cosmonaut Alexander Miskurin. During a twelve-day mission beginning 08 December, Maezawa attempted to complete as many as 100 tasks given to him by the public during his stay in space. 

This trip followed on from the 05 October arrival of cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, director Kim Shipenko and actress Yulia Pereslid. The two rookie cosmonauts began training in May in order to shoot the film ‘The Challenge’ at the ISS, making it the first feature-length film shot in outer space. Shkaplerov will appear in some scenes of the film along with fellow cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, with Dubrov also assisting in production with NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Both director and actress returned to Earth on 17 December, whilst Shkaplerov became the commander of the ISS in early November. 

There were several new additions to the ISS this year, and we’re not just talking about the astronauts. The Nauka module, funded by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, was launched this year after a delay as long as the one endured by JWST. Nauka is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module-Upgrade (MLM-U) and is the first major expansion of the Russian part of the ISS in two decades. Launched along with the European Robotic Arm (ERA) the docking wasn’t without problems; an accidental engine thrust caused the ISS to rotate one and half times. Luckily controllers were able to stop the rotation, returning the station to its correct position within an hour, and the astronauts on the ISS were never in danger. 

Currently docked to Nauku is an even newer Russian module, the Uzlovoy module, which launched in November. Uzlovoy was originally meant to become the first part of a new Russian space station, OPSEK, but plans for the station were scrapped in 2017. 

And whilst we’re talking about space stations, the construction of a brand new one started back in April. Tiangong will be a low-Earth space station and the third step of a three-point plan approved in 1992 by China to have a long-term station for long astronaut stays in space. The first module to be launched was Tianhe, which will also act as the core module, with two more to be launched by the end of next year. 

The National Space Centre reopened its doors in 2021, our 20th year, and we would all like to offer our sincere thanks for your support.

We cannot wait to welcome you back to the Centre in 2022 and will continue to tell the stories of space exploration and science; past, present and future.

About the author: Alex Thompson is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.