The coming year could be pretty bleak here on Earth as the economy tries to recover from the pandemic and vaccine-distribution hits snag after snag.
But in space, 2021 promises to be a banner year. New probes, landers, rovers and instruments are pushing deeper into the solar system and beyond, intensifying humanity’s efforts to extract valuable resources, prepare for manned missions and, perhaps most intriguingly, search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.
These are some of the most exciting space stories of 2021.
It seems like everyone wants to get to the moon these days. There’s a lot of important science we can do on the dusty orb and valuable things we can build in the moon’s weak gravity, using the satellite’s own resources. The moon’s also a possible launching pad for follow-on missions to Mars.
Under Donald Trump, NASA’s Artemis mission aimed to put astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. That was never a realistic goal, and President-elect Joe Biden seems likely to delay the mission by a few years. China is hot on America’s heels with its own manned mission that could reach the moon in the 2030s. Experts expect Russia to kick-start its own moon-landing effort in 2021.
In the meantime, more and more robots are moon-bound. Thanks in large part to the fast-growing private space industry, lunar probes have gotten so small and cheap that it’s hard to keep track of them all. These days a refrigerator-sized lander sells for a couple hundred million dollars, launch included.
Among other 2021 moon missions, Pittsburgh space firm Astrobotic is planning to launch one of its Peregrine landers in July. That craft is bound for a huge lunar crater called Lacus Mortis, where it will deliver as many as 28 NASA instruments. The payloads include devices that will test new lunar navigation and landing technology—key systems for future moon missions. A few months later in October, Intuitive Machines in Houston plans to launch one of its Nova-C landers, carrying five NASA instruments, to a shadowy lunar “dark spot” called Oceanus Procellarum. The mission is a sort of dress rehearsal for a later manned mission that could touch down at a similar location.
For moon-watchers, November should be huge. That’s when NASA plans to conduct the first test-launch of its decades-in-development Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, the main vehicles for America’s eventual manned mission to the Moon.
The U.S. space agency is taking advantage of the unmanned test mission to transport a bunch of shoe-box-sized “cubesats” to the moon. The idea is for the Lunar Flashlight, Lunar Icecube and LunaH cubesats to scan and map the moon’s dark south pole in the hope of pinpointing deposits of ice that future explorers could process into fuel.
“The success of the rocket and those missions will be a big leap and a very long time coming,” Matt Siegler, an astronomer with the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute, told The Daily Beast.
Years of work by three countries are coming to a head on the red planet in the span of just a few days in early 2021. That’s when “Mars gets competitive,” University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey told The Daily Beast.
NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land in mid-February, kicking off a decade-long sample-collection effort that’s part of a wider effort to find firm evidence of microbial life on Mars. (Although to be fair, at least one scientist believes we already found proof of life on the planet.)
Not to be outdone, the Chinese space agency has its own Mars probe, Tianwen-1. It should reach the red planet just a few days after Perseverance. Tianwen-1 is a combination orbiter-lander-rover, which Siegler described as “cool.” The orbiter scans potential landing sites before dropping the lander, which in turn deploys the rover.
“It’s also a huge political statement,” Siegler added. “China is on track to really lead in space-exploration and it will be a big decision for the U.S. as to how or if they will keep pace.”
The United Arab Emirates’ first Mars mission also arrives over the red planet in February. The Hope orbiter packs sensors for analyzing Mars’ atmosphere and climate. Getting a probe to Mars is “a huge achievement for a new spacefaring nation,” Siegler said.
All this competition on Mars, each mission feeding a growing body of research, is nudging us closer to what many scientists consider an inevitable, and profound, conclusion—that life has evolved on other planets.
The Perseverance rover is at the heart of this possible historic moment. “The big story for early 2021 won’t be that the rover has found some tantalizing evidence for biology beyond Earth–we expect it will,” Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the California-based SETI Institute, told The Daily Beast. “The big story would be a failure to find any promising sites.”
Since 1990, astronomers have relied on one multibillion-dollar instrument for many of their most important observations of other planets. The Hubble Space Telescope.
But Hubble is old, out of date and, frankly, falling apart. NASA has had to send astronauts to the 44-foot-long telescope to undertake repairs five separate times over the years.
Way back in 1996, NASA in conjunction with Northrop Grumman and Bell Aerospace began developing the new James Webb Space Telescope to replace Hubble. Ten billion dollars, multiple design hiccups and several launch-delays later, the 66-foot-long telescope is finally ready to go.
The mission is scheduled to blast off in October, 14 years later than NASA originally hoped.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s main mission is to inspect far-away galaxies for clues about the origin of the universe. But there are also tantalizing possibilities closer to home. “The big discovery of Webb might be to find a relatively nearby exoplanet—say, less than a few dozen light-years distant—with oxygen or methane in its atmosphere,” Shostak explained.
“That would be strong evidence that the talent of our solar system to cook up life is not terribly remarkable, and that biology is surely a cosmic infection, rather than a rare and semi-miraculous event.”
With likely important developments on the moon and Mars and the new space telescope’s planned deployment, the coming year could be a big one for humanity as it slowly expands into the cosmos… and looks for proof that it’s not alone.