When it comes to humanity’s exploration of space, 2021 is looking like it’s going to be an exciting year, with a lot of beginnings, a bittersweet end, and certainly some periods that will keep us quite tense.
February Is All About Mars
After their launches last summer, there are currently three missions set to arrive at the Red Planet in February. The Emirates Mars Mission will enter orbit around Mars on February 8. NASA’s rover and helicopter combo, Perseverance and Ingenuity, is expected to land on February 18. China’s Orbiter, lander, and rover Tianwen-1 is expected to enter Martian orbit on February 10, with the lander being deployed in May.
These exciting missions promise to explore Mars in more depth than ever before, providing new insights into the possibility of life having existed – or maybe still existing – in some hidden niche somewhere.
We (OK, Robots) Are Going Back To The Moon
Mars is the goal for future human space exploration, but the next big leap remains closer to home. Multiple space agencies are working towards taking humans back to the Moon first. These preparations require robotic investigations and we’ll see several new missions to our natural satellite
NASA is launching its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) to deliver and science and technology equipment to the lunar surface. In July, Astrobotic is expected to launch its Peregrine lander, carrying among its important scientific cargo the ashes of Arthur C Clarke. A second CLPS launch is expected in October from space company Intuitive Machines.
November will see the first Artemis mission, a 25-day uncrewed cruise to demonstrate that NASA's Artemis Program is ready to take humans back to the Moon.
It's not just the USA going back to the Moon. After China's recent success bringing home Moon samples, Russia's Luna 25 is scheduled to launch and land near the Lunar southern Pole in October. The Soviet Luna 24 mission collected samples on the Moon and brought them back to Earth in 1976.
India's Chandrayaan-3 may also launch at the end of the year, attempting the first soft-landing on the Moon by the Asian country. Its predecessor, Chandrayaan-2, unfortunately did not succeed in this complex feat last year.
Over the last several years, we have fallen in love with the beauty of Jupiter's swirling clouds snapped in incredible detail by NASA’s Juno mission and rendered brilliantly thanks to the hard work of citizen scientists.
Sadly the mission comes to an end in 2021. Juno is scheduled to swan dive into Jupiter at the end of July.
Update: The news of Juno's death has been greatly exaggerated. On January 8, 2021, NASA announced that the mission will be extended "through September 2025, or its end of life (whichever comes first)."
Low-Earth Orbit Will Get A Lot More Visitors
2021 will also see the beginning of China’s new Orbital Space Station. It will be humanity's third modular space station after MIR and the International Space Station. Its core module Tianhe (“joining of Heavens”) is due to launch and connect to the Tianzhou-1 ("Heavenly Vessel") cargo spaceship that launched back in 2017.
After the successful launch from SpaceX Crew-1 in July last year, this year will also see the first crewed test of the second partner in NASA's Commercial Crew Program, Boeing. The first uncrewed test of its Starliner module is expected in March, with a crewed test expected sometime in mid-2021. All going well, the first operational mission for Starliner is expected in 2022.
Focus On The Asteroids
Two NASA missions will launch this year with a focus on asteroids. DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) will attempt to change the orbit of the small moon around asteroid Didymos. This will ideally show if we are capable of changing the orbit of an asteroid if one were on a collision course with Earth. DART will launch in June 2021.
The second mission is Lucy, expected to launch in October. In its 12-year mission, Lucy will study eight different asteroids, one in the Main Belt and seven Trojan asteroids, the group of space rocks that lead and trail Jupiter in its orbit.
Is This Year Actually Going To Be The Year?
After many, many delays (it was originally scheduled for 2007), this might actually be the year that the James Webb Space Telescope is finally launched. This incredible machine will take the mantle from Hubble as NASA's flagship space observatory and will be about 100 times as powerful, making it the most powerful space telescope ever. Unlike its predecessor, it will be located beyond the orbit of the Moon so its deployment has to be error-proof – there’s no way for us to go and fix it if something goes wrong. All going well, JWST will launch on October 31.