Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
In this illustration of its descent to Mars, the spacecraft containing the Perseverance rover slows down by using the drag generated by plunging through the Martian atmosphere.
enlarge In this illustration of its descent to Mars, the spacecraft containing the Perseverance rover slows down by using the drag generated by plunging through the Martian atmosphere.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Writing about the space industry kept me sane through the tumultuous and difficult times of 2020. As the pandemic swept across the world and America faced extremely divisive social and political issues, the space industry more or less puffed.

Three missions launched to Mars. NASA returned to the game of human spaceflight, thanks to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft hit an asteroid, while a Japanese vehicle returned with several grams of asteroid regolith, and China returned some moon rocks to Earth. In South Texas some Starships lived and some died. It was all wonderful to see.

As we look ahead to a new year, there is just as much, if not more, space goodness to come. I asked readers for suggestions on Twitter about what they expect in the coming year and received more than 400 responses. This list is a distillation of those ideas, plus some of my own, to put together the space goodness we’re most looking forward to in 2021. Spoiler alert: There’s very much.

But first a warning: history has taught us that not all of this will happen (see, for example, last year’s space example). And if a rocket or other major engineering program has a timeline that culminates that far away in a “Q4” flight next year, it will most likely slip in the following year. Nevertheless, we’re taking our best guess at what could happen in space this year.

The Mars fleet arrives

Three Mars missions launched from Earth in the summer of 2020 are now all approaching the Red Planet. The big question is: will all three get there safely in February?

The United Arab Emirates’ first mission to the Red Planet, Mars Hope, will arrive on February 9. like 1,000 miles. If all goes well, the spacecraft will spend a Martian year — 687 Earth days — studying the planet’s atmosphere and better understanding the weather.

China has not said exactly when its ambitious Tianwen-1 mission will arrive at Mars, but it is expected in mid-February. After the spacecraft enters orbit, it will spend a few months preparing for its descent to the surface to assess its planned landing site in the Utopia Planitia region. Then China will attempt to become the second country to soft-land a spacecraft on Mars that survives more than a handful of seconds. It will be a huge moment for the country’s space program.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance will likely be the last of three missions to arrive at Mars, reach the Red Planet in mid-February, and attempt to land in Jezero Crater on February 18. in 2012 – becomes a must-see TV.

History suggests that at least one of these three missions will fail, but we hope to defy those odds.

More Starship Flights

SpaceX flew its Starship vehicle three times in 2020. Twice it sent prototypes with a single engine up to 150 meters. It then sent a full-size prototype to an altitude of about 12.5 km in December. During this stunning flight, the vehicle — complete with three Raptor engines, a nose cone and flaps — performed a belly flap maneuver and landed almost safely in South Texas.

We can probably expect many more flights to higher altitudes in 2021. As SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained to Ars in February, SpaceX was focused on building the machine to build the machine in South Texas. Now much of that work has been completed and SpaceX is rapidly producing Starship vehicles at the Boca Chica launch site. In late December, when the company rolled out its “Serial Number 9” Starship, components from vehicles 10 through 17 were in various stages of development at the factory under tents.

At the same time, SpaceX will also begin manufacturing the Super Heavy rocket that will serve as the first stage of the Starship. It seems likely that one of the Starships currently under construction will attempt an orbital flight atop Super Heavy this year. Or not. One thing’s for sure, it’ll be fun to see the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of SpaceX as it tries to build an interplanetary spaceship never seen before.

James Webb Space Telescope

Grumbling about the launch schedule delays of the ultra-ambitious James Webb Space Telescope has become commonplace in the space community, and indeed, this flagship astrophysics mission is way behind schedule and over budget.

However, it appears that NASA’s current scientific leadership has addressed a number of technical and management issues that plagued the telescope program, causing delay after delay. Now there seems to be quiet confidence that NASA’s space telescope will stick to its October 31, 2021 launch date on a European Ariane V rocket.

Deployment timeline for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Deployment timeline for the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA

After launch, fears will only grow as the telescope undergoes a two-week process that involves deploying a sunshade, as well as primary and secondary mirror assemblies. All of this could spell an exciting end to 2021 for astronomers — or a heartbreaking one if this complex process goes awry.

By akfire1

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