What’s Happening in Space in 2021?
Mars 2020 rover, artist impression. Credit: NASA

What’s Happening in Space in 2021?

31/12/2020Written by Alex Thompson

2020 brought considerable success in space from all corners of the globe. What will happen in 2021?

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mascot Telescope Right
Image Credit: ESA

It’s that time of year again when we reflect on the space highlights of 2020 and look forward to those coming up in 2021. 

Three Mars missions are set to arrive at the Red Planet, including NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The missions launched in July 2020 during a critical window of alignment between Earth and Mars. 

The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch. Hubble’s successor, Webb could change our understanding of the most distant events and objects in the universe, such as the formation of the first galaxies.

50 years since Apollo 14 and 15, NASA’s plans to return to the Moon are gathering speed. The Artemis Team of astronauts has been selected, including Stephanie Wilson who visited the National Space Centre in 2006. NASA plans to land the first woman and next man to walk on the lunar surface in 2024.

Mars Missions

Mars Missions
Mars. Credit: NASA

Mars will be popular this February with the arrival of not one, not two, but three missions at the Red Planet. 

First, the UAE’s Emirates Mars Mission is due for orbital insertion on 09 February. The Hope orbiter will study the planet’s weather and atmosphere and, if successful, will be the first Martian mission by any Arab or West Asian country. 

Just a few days later we should see China’s Tianwen-1 arrive at Mars. The mission, which will look for current and past life as well as study Mars’ environment, will comprise of an orbiter and a rover, with the latter planned to touchdown the following month, on 23 April. This will make China only the second country to land on the Martian surface after the USA. 

NASA will make it a crowd on 18 February with the landing of the Perseverance rover. Part of the Mars 2020 programme, the rover will be accompanied by the Ingenuity helicopter, which will help Perseverance by scouting for possible locations to study. Like Tianwen-1 this mission will be looking for signs of life too, as well as studying rock and soil samples and testing the atmosphere’s oxygen production ahead of possible future human missions to Mars. 

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope
Artist impression of James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA

Originally planned for 2007, there is a high chance we will finally see the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2021. 

The long term successor to Hubble, Webb will primarily use infrared vision to be able to look out further into the Universe than ever possible before. The 21ft primary mirror will help scientists get a closer look at exoplanets with the right conditions for life and will also see the most distant objects in the Universe, allowing us to study the formation of the first galaxies. 

When Webb does launch it will be a game-changer with the potential to change our understanding of the Universe and life itself. Having been delayed numerous times, the launch date has now been set for 31 October. 

The Moon

The Moon
The Artemis program has the goal of landing "the first woman and the next man" on the Moon. Credit: NASA
The Moon
Full Moon from the International Space Station Image credit NASA

50 years on from the first use of a Moon buggy on the lunar surface, 2021 will lay the groundwork for humans to return to Earth’s natural satellite in 2024. 

October will see the Intuitive Machines 1 mission carry five NASA payloads and commercial cargo to the Moon, before the planned launch of the first Artemis mission the following month. This uncrewed mission will also be the first launch of the Space Launch System, the 365ft rocket that will carry the next humans to the Moon and, potentially, the first people to Mars. A crewed flyby of the Moon is expected to follow in 2023 before the planned Artemis III mission in 2024, which will see the first woman and next man set foot on the lunar surface. 

Russia is also looking to explore the Moon further with Luna 25, the first mission to carry the Luna name in 45 years. This new part of the programme, called Luna-Glob, will progress towards a fully robotic lunar base before Russia begin their first crewed missions to the Moon. 

After the disappointment of a communication problem causing the failure of Chandrayaan-2 in 2019, India will look to bounce back with Chandrayaan-3, a repeat of the doomed part of the previous mission that they hope will see them go one step further and touchdown their first lander on the Moon. This one might just sneak in before the end of the year but any delays may mean the mission will take place in early 2022. 

Human Spaceflight

Human Spaceflight
NASA Astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft Credit: NASA
Human Spaceflight
Mock up of the finished CST-100 Starliner. Credit: Boeing

It finally happened! After four consecutive years of predicting it in this blog, in 2020 we finally saw a private company launch humans into space, as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon carried NASA astronauts to the ISS. This relationship is set to continue with more crewed launches in 2021 and there are more exciting plans to keep your eyes on. 

Boeing will look to follow SpaceX’s lead by delivering a NASA crew to the ISS this summer with their Starliner spacecraft. Before this, however, the company must succeed with their second uncrewed mission with the capsule, with a launch currently set for 29 March. This is to make sure there is no repeat of the partial failure of the previous uncrewed Starliner mission. The software incorrectly kept mission time and forced an abortion of a rendezvous with the International Space Station. If this is a success, it will pave the way for Starliner to complete its first human mission at the start of July. 

China is set to take a big leap in their construction of their own space station with the Tianhe core module set for launch in spring. This will be followed by the arrival of the Wentian lab module and we could possibly see the first humans on board the station by the end of the year. All being well, construction of the station, which will be of similar size to the Russian Mir space station, will be completed in 2022. 

Asteroids and Planets

Asteroids and Planets
Jupiter captured by Juno. Credit: NASA
Asteroids and Planets
BepiColombo at Mercury, artist impression. Credit: ESA/NASA

NASA’s Lucy space probe is scheduled to begin a twelve year journey this autumn that will see it visit seven different asteroids; one in the asteroid belt and six Jupiter trojans (asteroids that follow Jupiter’s orbit around that Sun). The probe was named after the Lucy hominin skeleton as the mission could possibly reveal the “fossils of planet formation.” 

The space probe DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) will launch in July in an attempt to redirect the trajectory of the double asteroid Didymos. Neither of these two asteroids poses any danger to Earth, but NASA want to test if an impactor spacecraft could successfully deflect an asteroid away from Earth if needed in the future.  

A sad goodbye is being prepared for 16 July for the Juno probe. The spacecraft – that has studied Jupiter and returned some stunning photos of the planet since 2016 – has lasted three and a half years longer than the initial mission was scheduled for. There is still the possibility that NASA could extend its life a little longer, but it’s looking increasingly likely that the probe will disintegrate into Jupiter’s atmosphere to prevent contamination of the Jovian system. 

ESA’s BepiColombo mission will complete its first flyby of Mercury on 02 October. The spacecraft is on a seven-year journey to reach the closest planet to our Sun and will study it using a MIXS spectrometer that was designed and built at the University of Leicester. 

Key Anniversaries

Key Anniversaries
Helen Sharman mission photo. Courtesy of Helen Sharman

31 January – 9 February – 50 years since Apollo 14. Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell become the 5th and 6th humans to walk on the lunar surface whilst Stuart Roosa remained in lunar orbit. Mitchell and Shepard also took part in the Lunar Olympics 

12 April – 60 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in spaceGagarin completed one orbit of the Earth in one of the most historic achievements for humankind. 

5 May – 60 years since the launch of the first American to space. 10 years before Apollo 14, Shepard completed a 15 minute suborbital flight. 

18 May – 30 years since Helen Sharman became the first Briton in spaceSharman spent eight days in space on Russia’s Mir Space Station. 

30 June – 20 years since the National Space Centre opened to the public. 

21 July – 10 years since the end of the Space Shuttle programme with the landing of Atlantis.

26 July – 7 August 50 years since Apollo 15. The fourth mission to land on the Moon had a greater focus on science and saw the first use of the Lunar Roving Vehicle.

These are just some of the amazing space events that await in 2021.
We cannot wait to welcome you back to the Centre 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.