What’s Happening in Space in 2020?
Mars 2020 rover, artist impression. Credit: NASA

What’s Happening in Space in 2020?

06/01/2020Written by Tamela Maciel

At the start of 2020, we look ahead at the most exciting space adventures that await.

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mascot Telescope Right
Hubble's Sharpest View Of Mars - Credit: NASA

It’s that time of year again when we reflect on the space highlights of 2019 and look forward to those coming up in 2020. 

2020 promises to be the year of Mars as we look forward to four new missions to the Red Planet, including NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover. All missions plan to launch in July 2020 during a critical window of alignment between Earth and Mars.

In 2020, we’ll also see the launch of Europe’s Solar Orbiter mission and China’s Chang’e-5 mission to the Moon, which will collect and return samples of the lunar soil.

It’s also a big year for private space companies. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, and Blue Origin all plan to launch humans into space in 2020, but take this prediction with a pinch of salt as we’ve been here before over the past three years!

Summer of Mars

Summer of Mars
Evidence of ancient lakes on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Summer of Mars
Hohmann transfer for InSight. Credit: Phoenix7777
Summer of Mars
ExoMars rover, artist impression. Credit: ESA
Summer of Mars
Mars 2020 helicopter animation. Credit: NASA
Summer of Mars
Emirates Mars Mission Hope spacecraft. Credit: UAE Space Agency
Summer of Mars
China Mars 2020 rover, artist impression. Credit: Xinhau

Every 2.2 years, a launch window between Earth and Mars opens up. The two planets are close together and the Hohmann transfer journey takes the least amount of time and rocket fuel.

In July-August 2020, this window opens, and not one but four different space agencies are gearing up to launch a mission to Mars. This is an unprecedented level of Martian activity, largely focused on searching for signs of alien life and advancing our knowledge of the habitability of the red planet.

1. Europe’s ExoMars rover – Rosalind Franklin

For the first time ever, the European Space Agency is sending a rover to Mars. This historic rover is named after a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin and will focus on the search for past or present life beneath the Martian surface. The Rosalind Franklin rover is the second part of the ExoMars programme. It will demonstrate the feasibility of several technologies that are essential for future exploration missions, such as the planned Mars Sample Return mission. The rover will also carry the largest drill (2 metres long) ever sent to Mars, in order to retrieve soil samples that may contain evidence of microbial life deep below the surface.

The Rosalind Franklin rover will guide itself across the Martian surface by using advanced camera eyes and artificial intelligence.

The rover was built in the UK, and is scheduled for launch on 25 July 2020. Additional critical testing of its main parachutes will take place in February and will determine the final go/no-go for the mission in 2020.

2. NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission

NASA is also sending a rover to Mars in 2020, as part of its long-duration programme of Mars robotic exploration.

The Mars 2020 rover will be the size of an average car and will follow in the wheel tracks of the Curiosity rover by searching for signs of ancient microbial life under the surface of Mars.

The rover will collect and analyse promising core samples, but it will also store them for future missions for later return to Earth.

Perhaps most exciting for the public, the Mars 2020 rover will be joined by a companion helicopter that will scout the terrain ahead of the rover and capture HD videos flying above the Martian landscape. These videos will help the rover plan more efficient routes to the most interesting research sites, but they also promise to make spectacular viewing from down here on Earth.

3. UAE Space Agency’s Hope Spacecraft

For the first time, the UAE is also sending a mission to Mars. The Emirates Mars Mission plans to launch the Mars Hope orbiter in July 2020, in order to study the atmosphere and climate on Mars. The spacecraft will include a camera for HD images of the Martian surface and an Infra-Red and Ultraviolet Spectrometer to examine the temperature patterns and study the upper atmosphere for any trace oxygen.

The exact launch date is still TBC.

4. China’s Mars 2020 Mission

And finally, China is planning to send an orbiter and a rover on the same trip, in order to take full advantage of the 2020 launch window.

The Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover will contain a total of 12 scientific instruments, and the mission will search for both current and previous life, and monitor the planet’s surface and climate.

The launch is planned for 23 July 2020.

Commercial human spaceflight

Commercial human spaceflight
SpaceX's test flight of Crew Dragon (Demo-1). Credit: SpaceX
Commercial human spaceflight
Commercial human spaceflight
Boeing Starliner capsule. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
Commercial human spaceflight
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo
Commercial human spaceflight
Credit: Blue Origin

Once again, we go on record to say that 2020 will be a big year for private human spaceflight. Hmm… haven’t we been here before? And before? And before that? For the past three years we’ve been saying this and we’re starting to sound like a broken record. So take these predictions with a pinch of salt. But with no less than four different private space companies planning to launch humans into space in 2020, there’s a good chance we’ll see at least one or two of them succeed… at last!

For companies aiming for the International Space Station (ISS), a successful crewed flight would be in the service of NASA, carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS. It would mark a return to human spaceflight launched from US soil after the end of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011.

Here are the four companies to keep an eye on:

SpaceX – Elon Musk’s company has never lacked ambition, but in the past two years they’ve really proven their model of reusable rockets with a record-breaking 21 launches in 2018, and 13 launches in 2019. The highlight for SpaceX in 2019 was their maiden flight of Crew Dragon capsule in March. This uncrewed test mission docked with the ISS and spent nearly a week in space. Unfortunately, the company had a setback in April when a ground static fire test caused the same Crew Dragon to explode. This delayed their planned crew flight, with a new target set for mid-2020.

But first, SpaceX needs to test its abort system for Crew Dragon. In mid-January 2020, they plan to launch the Crew Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9, and then in mid-flight, activate the abort engines on the capsule to pull it free from the rocket. If this goes smoothly, we may see humans on the next Crew Dragon flight as early as February, but more likely by June 2020.

Boeing – This company has also been contracted by NASA to fly astronauts up to the ISS, using their new Starliner spacecraft.

Boeing plans to launch NASA astronauts to the ISS in mid-2020, but a recent maiden test flight of Starliner did not go exactly to plan. The Orbital Flight Test on 20 December 2019 had a timer issue and did not reach the required orbit, burning too much fuel in the process. While the launch and landing were successful, this issue may cause further delays to their astronaut programme.

Both SpaceX and Boeing’s crew spacecraft are designed to carry up to seven astronauts at a time, which will greatly increase the number of available flights for US astronauts.

Virgin Galactic – In 2018 and 2019, Virgin Galactic finally made good on its long-standing promise to launch people on sub-orbital flights to the edge of space. There have now been two successful flights of the SpaceShipTwo craft, flown by test pilots. Further test flights are planned, and we may even see the company owner Richard Branson fly in 2020.

Beyond this, the company will open up regular space flights to its list of space tourists who’ve already bought tickets at the tune of ~200,000 USD.

Blue Origin – Last but not least, Jeff Bezos’ space company has been quietly but surely ticking off impressive milestone after milestone in its bid to reuse rockets and launch tourists to the edge of space. In 2019, Blue Origin launched the same New Shepard 3 rocket three times, for a record-breaking total of six flights for the same reusable booster.

Blue Origin is currently testing its New Shepard 4 rocket and Crew Capsule, and has hinted at a crewed sub-orbital flight for the first time in 2020.

Solar Orbiter

Solar Orbiter
Solar Orbiter, artist impression. Credit: ESA

In early February, Europe will launch Solar Orbiter, a Sun-observing mission to study the origins of the solar wind and how it affects the inner planets. Solar Orbiter will fly in a heliocentric orbit, using numerous flybys of Venus and Earth to slingshot it over the poles of the Sun. This will be the first mission to capture images of the Sun’s polar regions.

Solar Orbiter is a European Space Agency mission, built here in UK. It will carry 10 different instruments that will sample the plasma and magnetic fields of our closest star, and will compliment the data already being collected by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.

By better understanding the solar wind, we will be able more accurately predict solar weather that could damage our communication and GPS satellites in orbit, as well as the astronauts on the ISS.

Rocks from space, satellite internet, and cosmic alignments

Rocks from space, satellite internet, and cosmic alignments
Hayabusa 2 and Ryugu asteroid, artist impression. Credit: DLR
Rocks from space, satellite internet, and cosmic alignments
Annular eclipse. Credit: timeanddate.com
Rocks from space, satellite internet, and cosmic alignments
Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC, artist impression. Credit: BBC

We’ll see major milestones in 2020 for two separate asteroid missions. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will collect samples of the asteroid Bennu in July and Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission will return to Earth in December with its samples from asteroid Ryugu. Hayabusa2’s precious samples will be sent around the world for study, including locally to scientists at the University of Leicester.

Following the successful return to flight of the Long March 5 rocket in December 2019, China is planning to push ahead its launch of the Chang’e-5 mission to the Moon in late 2020. This rover will follow in the footsteps of the Chang’e-4 rover, which became the first soft lander on the far side of the Moon in January 2019. Chang’e-5 will go one step further and collect two kilograms of lunar soil for return to Earth. This hasn’t been done since the Soviet Luna programme in the 1970s, and will make China the third country to return Moon rock to Earth.

In 2020, private companies will continue to develop low-cost internet from space by launching large constellations of satellites. SpaceX plans to have Starlink operational with more than 700 small satellites in low-earth orbit by the end of 2020, launched in batches of 60 satellites. The huge numbers have not been without controversy due to the night sky interference that these satellites create for astronomers.

Similarly, UK company OneWeb also plans to make its satellite internet operational in 2020. After a maiden launch of six satellites in February 2019, OneWeb hopes to begin monthly launches of 30 satellites apiece, starting in January 2019. The initial constellation will be 650 satellites in total.

Looking up, the night sky will be putting on some spectacular shows in 2020. Apart from the usual planets and regular meteor showers, stargazers have 4 supermoons, 4 penumbral lunar eclipses, and two solar eclipses to look forward to. But if you’re based in the UK, travel will be necessary to see the solar eclipses. An annular solar eclipse will take place on 21 June 2020 and will be visible across Africa and Asia. A spectacular total solar eclipse will occur on 14 December, but will only be visible from southern Chile and Argentina.

Finally, on the winter solstice, 21 December 2020, a rare ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn will occur, alongside the annual Ursid meteor shower. A conjunction is when two objects align and appear close to each other in the night sky. While Jupiter and Saturn are commonly visible with the naked eye, a conjunction this close is rare and last occurred in 2000. The two bright planets will appear two make a bright double planet low in the west after sunset.

Key anniversaries

Key anniversaries
Pale Blue Dot, showing Earth as a faint dot in a beam of sunlight. Credit: NASA
Key anniversaries
Earthrise on Apollo 8. Credit: NASA

14 February 1990 – 30 years since Pale Blue Dot photo taken by Voyager 1.

11-17 April 1970 – 50 years since the Apollo 13 mission. This ‘successful failure’ of an aborted Moon mission tested the ingenuity and courage of mission controllers as they raced against the clock to bring the three astronauts safely home.

22 April 1970 – 50 years since the first celebration of Earth Day. 50 years ago, nearly 20 million Americans gathered across the country to protest environmental damage to the planet. It remains one of the largest civic movements in human history. The Earthrise image taken by the Apollo 8 mission was an iconic bolster for this movement, showcasing the fragility of Earth’s oasis.

24 April 1990 – 30 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Arguably the most iconic space telescope of the 20th century, Hubble has delved deep into the early years of the universe, played a critical part in the discovering that the expanding universe is accelerating, and probed the atmospheres of planets around distant stars.

2 November 2000 – 20th anniversary of continuous habitation of the ISS. The last time that all humans were on the planet together was 1 November 2000.

These are just some of the amazing space events that await in 2020.
As always, the unexpected news is often the most spectacular, and we look forward to sharing them with you all.

About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.