This year could see the fulfillment of some long-promised achievements in human spaceflight. For the first time in 2020, private companies will be able to put people into orbit, and two different companies will be able to send paying tourists on suborbital missions. The aviation community has been watching and waiting for these milestones for years, but 2020 is likely to be the year for both.
We may also see some new rocket debuts this year, both large and small. A record number of missions – four – will also be launched to Mars from four different space agencies. That’s just the beginning of what promises to be an exciting year; here’s a look at what we’re most looking forward to in the next 11.5 months.
Yes, it happens. Probably† Both SpaceX and Boeing have made significant strides in launching humans to the International Space Station from Florida. They have also had setbacks. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon performed a successful test in March, but a month later the capsule exploded during a thruster test. Boeing completed an orbital unmanned test flight in December, but it was hampered by a software glitch and unable to perform its flight’s primary mission, approaching and docking the International Space Station.
These problems are probably surmountable. SpaceX plans to test its in-flight decomposition systems on Saturday, using a slightly modified version of the SuperDraco thrusters that caused problems in April. Success with this test could lead to a manned launch in late spring, depending on how quickly NASA can review data from those and other tests before approving crew readiness for flight.
Less clear is how long Boeing’s software problems will hold the company back. Starliner also encountered some problems with the bow thruster during its test flight. NASA has said it will spend the next two months looking at the issue before deciding how to proceed. The bottom line is that it seems likely that one or both companies will start getting manned flights in 2020. We can not wait.
Let’s face it: we’ve heard this before. Richard Branson has long promised to take tourists on a suborbital space flight. As early as July 2008, Sir Richard said Virgin Galactic would be ready to launch its first paying customers into space within 18 months. More than a decade has passed since then, but Virgin seems to be getting close.
The company has completed two successful suborbital test flights to the edge of space with its VSS Unity spacecraft, and Virgin has since begun refurbishing the cabin interior for customer missions. The first paying customers are likely to fly later this year, including Sir Richard himself.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s new Shepard vehicle had a quiet year in 2019, with a seven-month hiatus between unmanned missions from May to December. The company’s CEO Bob Smith said in October that Blue Origin had “stepped on the brakes a bit” to make sure everything in the six-person spacecraft was safe from humans. It seems reasonable to ask, “If people don’t fly New Shepar by 2020, will they ever do?”
A Martian quartet
Most readers will know that NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (along with a small helicopter) will be launched in July 2020. But this summer, as many as three other spacecraft could leave Earth for the red planet. That’s partly because summer is when the first launch window for Mars opens; this is the point every 26 months when the least amount of delta-v, or energy, is needed to get there.
The high number of launches is also because other countries want to participate in the red promotion. China plans to launch its first spacecraft to Mars, and the HX-1 mission is ambitious. It combines an orbiter, lander and rover in one mission. No country other than the United States has ever soft-landed a spacecraft on Mars and operated it for a significant period of time.
The European Space Agency, in consultation with Roscosmos, is also trying to place its ExoMars 2020 lander safely on Mars. There have been serious problems with the parachute testing and this mission, so it’s not clear whether ExoMars will actually launch in 2020 or won’t be released until the next launch opportunity.
Finally, during the July window, the United Arab Emirates will attempt to fly their Hope Mars Mission orbiter. The orbiter will be launched from Japan on an H2-A rocket. The mission aims to study the thin atmosphere of Mars and inspire a generation of Emirati engineers.
New smallsat missiles
Several smallsat launch companies said at the beginning of 2019 that they planned to launch their first orbital missions last year and, well, none of that happened. Instead, the biggest news in the small-satellite space has been Rocket Lab’s continued shutdown, with six successful missions, the construction of a new launch pad, and plans to reuse the Electron booster’s first stage (which the company may have). in 2020).
However, we really expect new players to join the smallsat launch race this year. Virgin Orbit has taken some final steps to fly its Launcher One booster from the Cosmic Girl plane. This mission could take place in the first quarter of 2020, and the company hopes to be up and running smoothly soon after with flights with an additional half a dozen missiles in production on the factory floor. (Good luck – the step from test flight to operational flight is often a big one).
Firefly Aerospace also says it is getting closer to the inaugural flight of the Alpha rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. After having to switch from an automated flight termination system to a more traditional system, the company is now targeting its first launch in April.
And then there might be some surprises in 2020. Astra Space, which has also gone through Stealth Space Company, may be coming out of a period of calm this year. In addition, a handful of other entities around the world — including Ariane Group’s Vega C rocket, India’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, and a few players in China — could come forward with orbital flights in 2020.