Having endured one of the most troubled and tumultuous years in recent memory, space exploration stands apart as a sphere about which we can truly be optimistic in 2021.
From further missions at Mars, to the end of a spectacular encounter with Jupiter, fleeting flybys of Venus and a new probe heading for Mercury, 2021 is set to be a fantastic year for robotic exploration of the Solar System.
And there’s a lot to look forward on the crewed side of spaceflight too, with NASA setting its eyes on pushing a return to the Moon and greater focus on setting human feet on Mars.
2021 is go for launch. Here’s what to look out for over the coming 12 months.
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Human spaceflight in 2021
While NASA sets its eyes on returning people to the Moon, commercial spaceflight is looking set to take over low-Earth orbit.
A rocket larger and more powerful than any in the world will open a new chapter in human spaceflight in 2021, as Florida reverberates under 39 million Newtons of thrust.
NASA’s mighty Space Launch System (SLS), fitted with four refurbished Space Shuttle engines and a pair of five-segment solid-fuelled boosters, will roar aloft from Pad 39B of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for Artemis-1, the inaugural flight of an Orion crew capsule to the Moon.
It will mark the first time that a ship built to carry people has crossed the 384,400km gulf to our closest celestial neighbour in almost half a century. And if all goes well, another hurdle will be cleared as NASA aims to plant human boots on lunar soil by 2024.
With Orion already in Florida and deep into processing for its two million-kilometre journey, the launch date hinges on the progress of the SLS itself.
Its boosters arrived at KSC in June 2020, to be joined by the 21-storey core stage after it completes a lengthy bout of testing. These gargantuan rocket parts will be fitted to an interim cryogenic propulsion stage to push Orion out of Earth orbit and onward to the Moon.
It promises to be nothing short of a game-changer in our exploration of deep space.
Although the eyes of the world will undoubtedly be focused on the uncrewed Artemis-1 mission, people will continue to fly into space in 2021. The Commercial Crew Program will finally hit its stride with Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ships.
Starliner is set for an uncrewed mission in January, before three NASA astronauts climb aboard for an all-up test flight to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, Crew Dragon will rotate ISS crews in the spring and summer, helping to maintain a permanent presence of seven humans aboard the sprawling orbital outpost.
Space tourism in 2021
With Crew Dragon also lined up for other clients, the Houston-based Axiom tourism firm is aiming for its maiden flight in 2021. Its crew features a former ISS commander, Hollywood film star Tom Cruise and producer Doug Liman to shoot part of a movie on the station.
Three Russian Soyuz missions are also planned, one of which includes a pair of tourists.
The ISS itself will change physically next year, with the departure of the long-serving Pirs docking hub to make room for Russia’s large Nauka science lab in April.
A new ‘node’ called Prichal will then arrive in September. Add to that 10 cargo deliveries (including the first flight by Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane) and the station promises to be an exceptionally busy place.
SpaceX is also midway through an extensive test programme at its Boca Chica facility in Texas for Starship, a next-generation launch vehicle that NASA picked in April 2020 as a candidate for returning humans to the Moon.
Standing 120m tall and weighing 5,000,000kg in its final form, small-scale Starship tests began in April 2019 and attained altitudes as high as 150m. Plans to climb incrementally higher are in progress and Starship may take its first commercial payloads into space in 2021.
Having already sent men and women into orbit under its own steam, China is planning a large modular space station, whose ‘core’ — the 19m-long Tianhe living quarters — might fly atop a Long March 5 booster in 2021.
In its final configuration, it will be a fifth as big as the ISS, with a pair of 15m-long science labs and power-producing solar arrays.
India too is prepping two uncrewed flights of its three-person Gaganyaan spacecraft. Work was stalled by the steady spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the South Asian country still hopes to send its first national astronauts into space as soon as December 2021.
And 60 years after Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering voyage, Virgin Galactic anticipates its first passenger flights to the edge of space.
Its SpaceShipTwo vehicles successfully exceeded 80km in altitude in December 2018 and February 2019, securing commercial astronauts’ wings for their crews in the process.
Two new test pilots were recently hired, expanding Virgin Galactic’s flying corps for a robust series of fare-paying trips in 2021. In addition to two qualified pilots, each flight can carry up to six passengers.
Planetary exploration in 2021
On 18 February 2021, 7 minutes of sheer terror (for NASA mission controllers, at least) will herald the dawn of our next phase of Mars exploration.
After seven months in flight and around 480 million kilometres travelled, NASA’s one-tonne Perseverance rover – guarded by its sturdy heat shield – will finally reach the Red Planet.
It will plunge into Mars’s thin atmosphere at 20,000km/h, heading for a landing in the 45km-wide Jezero Crater, just north of the equator. Supersonic parachutes, a rocket-propelled ‘sky crane’ and a pinch or two of old-fashioned good fortune will guide it down to the surface of an alien world.
Its hazardous descent is nothing new. In August 2012, the Curiosity rover followed an almost identical route and not only survived landing, but is still fully functional, still roves the ochre-hued plains of Mars and still gathers data to this day.
Perseverance is encumbered with an entirely new set of challenges. It will alight on the surface within a much smaller ‘landing ellipse’ than Curiosity did and attempt to reach an area littered with craters, boulders and possibly an ancient river delta.
Sheer madness, you might think, but the prize at the end is demonstrably worth it. For Jezero might contain the remnants of a long-vanished lake. (In fact, the very word ‘jezero’, in Slovenian, means ‘lake’.)
And it might be a promising location to sample water-bearing clays and carbonates. Perseverance will attempt to sniff out the ‘biosignatures’ of ancient life, gather rock samples, measure the Red Planet’s dust-driven weather and deploy the first helicopter, named Ingenuity, ever flown on another world.
That endeavour alone offers more than enough to inspire future generations, but 2021 has other contributions to make. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is sending its own Hope orbiter to Mars, as is China, whose Tianwen-1 mission also includes a rover equipped with ground-penetrating radar.
NASA’s Lucy probe, set to launch in October, will embark on a voyage to study a curious group of Jupiter-trailing asteroids, known as ‘Trojans’.
Examining these gravitationally trapped leftovers from the birth of our Solar System might yield clues not only about their origins, but also about our own.
Encounters with the Sun
Two months before Lucy launches, Solar Orbiter will hurtle past Venus and, in November 2021, it will also pass Earth as part of its decade-long odyssey to get up close and personal with our parent star.
The probe and its heavy-duty heat shield will perform several Venus ‘gravity-assists’ to creep to within 60 solar radii, a third of the distance between Earth and the Sun.
It promises Solar Orbiter a splendid (though blisteringly hot and extremely risky) ringside perspective of our star’s majestic fury.
Working in tandem with the 2018-launched Parker Solar Probe, it will investigate energetic plasmas, the mysterious heating mechanism behind the glowing corona and the nature of the solar wind.
Indeed, Venus will be a busy stopping-off place for spacecraft in 2021. Not only will Solar Orbiter pay it a visit, but so too will the ESA/JAXA mission BepiColombo.
While the Solar Orbiter will return to Venus time and again, BepiColombo will do so once; the fleeting encounter will reshape the spacecraft’s orbit to reach its own destination under optimum conditions.
And that destination is not Venus or the Sun, but the Solar System’s innermost planet, sparsely-explored Mercury. In October 2021, BepiColombo will perform the first of six flybys of Mercury, before entering orbit around this diminutive world.
That same month, Russia’s Luna 25 mission will also launch, bound for Boguslavsky Crater, near the Moon’s south pole, with Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander also due to fly atop the first Vulcan Centaur rocket.
As these missions begin, others will inexorably approach their end. OSIRIS-REx, which in October 2020 triumphantly touched the surface of asteroid Bennu some 321 million kilometres away and captured soil specimens with its touch-and-go sampling head, will begin its 30-month trek back to Earth in March 2021.
And the curtain will also descend on the long-serving Juno spacecraft, which has for five years unveiled the internal dynamics of Jupiter in unrivalled detail and returned astonishing views of its colourful clouds from polar orbit.
Juno will breathe its last in July 2021, with a destructive dive into the atmosphere of the Solar System’s largest planet.
Will JWST launch in 2021?
More than a decade overdue, repeatedly hamstrung by intractable technical difficulties and billions of dollars over budget, the James Webb Space Telescope will finally rise from Earth atop an Ariane 5 rocket on 31 October 2021.
Widely billed as the ‘successor’ to the Hubble Space Telescope, it will peer back to the dawn of time, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, when the earliest galaxies began to form. But Webb could not look physically more unlike Hubble if it tried.
Its distinctive — monstrous, even — appearance, with 18 hexagonal mirror-elements afford it unparalleled sensitivity at infrared wavelengths. And this allows it to view objects far more ancient than even Hubble can.
Launching aptly on Halloween, Webb has battled a multitude of demons over the years. It received praise for its capabilities and fierce derision for its insatiable guzzling of NASA funds.
It was even labelled “the telescope that ate astronomy”. But as it looks deep into the cosmos from a vantage point around 3,000 times higher than Hubble, chilled to –220˚C to keep its sensitive detectors running at their optimum level of performance, its $10 billion price tag promises to make Webb worth its own weight in gold-coated beryllium.
Important space dates in 2021
Early January Boeing Starliner uncrewed test flight
18 February NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars
February Emirates Mars Mission enters Mars orbit
11–24 February CNSA’s Tianwen-1 mission enters Mars orbit
March NASA’s OSIRIS-REx departure window from Bennu opens
April Tianwen-1 lands on Mars
April SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to International Space Station (ISS)
April–May ISS module Pirs detaches from ISS; Nauka launches
April–June Boeing Starliner crewed test flight
July Vulcan Centaur maiden flight with Peregine lander
31 July End of NASA’s Juno mission
8 August ESA’s Solar Orbiter flyby of Venus
11 August ESA/JAXA’s BepiColombo flyby of Venus
14 September Prichal launch to ISS
14 September First Dream Chaser mission to ISS
October Crew Dragon mission on behalf of Axiom Space
1 October First flyby of Mercury by the BepiColumbo mission
1 October Russia’s Luna-25 launch
21 October NASA’s Lucy launch
31 October James Webb Space Telescope launch
November SLS (Space Launch System) maiden flight with Artemis-1
26 November Solar Orbiter flyby of Earth
December First crewed flight of India’s Gaganyaan spacecraft
Late Crew Dragon mission to ISS
Late Long March 5 launch with China’s Tianhe space station module
Ben Evans is a journalist who writes about space exploration. He is author of several books on the history of spaceflight. This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.