Friday, March 31, 2023

The 11 biggest space missions of 2021

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A trio of Martian missions, February

Mars will welcome not one, not two, but Three missions – each initiated and operated by a different nation. There is the Hope Orbiter from the United Arab Emirates, the Perseverance rover launched by NASA and the Tianwen-1 mission (with orbiter, lander and rover) launched by China. All three missions will reach Martian orbit in February, with Perseverance rising to the surface later that month, followed by Tianwen-1 in April.

Hope will help scientists answer atmospheric questions such as why the planet is hemorrhaging with hydrogen and oxygen. Tianwen-1 and Perseverance look for signs of past or present life and seek to understand Martian geology. Although NASA missions to Mars are commonplace, this will be the first time that China and the United Arab Emirates have observed the planet up close.

Probability of success: 9/10. The missions have been launched, but they must all survive the trip, and two must stay on the landing.

Boeing’s second Starliner test, March 29

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may have returned crewed missions to US soil, but it’s not the only vehicle NASA hopes to use to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Boeing also has a vehicle, called a Starliner, which had a failed unmanned mission to the ISS in December 2019. The spaceship software was riddled with errors, including some that could have led to the complete destruction of the capsule. It wasn’t Boeing’s best time.

But the company is redoing its testing mission in March, after going through all of Starliner’s code and running the systems through a series of rigorous new tests. If all goes well, Starliner could send humans to the ISS later this year.

Probability of success: 8/10. After all that has happened, nothing with Boeing is certain.

The first CLPS missions to the Moon, June and October

NASA’s Artemis program, Apollo’s successor, will not only include a few quick trips to the moon and back. Artemis is meant to bring people back to the moon permanently, and private industry is involved. NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) is an opportunity for small businesses interested in making Something with the moon, whether it’s flying small payloads out there with new spaceships, testing new space flight tech on the moon, or conducting cool lunar science.

Astrobiotic Technology’s Peregrine lander (to be launched on the maiden flight of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket) will take the first batch of 28 CLPS payloads to the moon in June, including 14 from NASA. If all goes well, it will be the first private spacecraft to successfully land on the moon. Intuitive Machines will launch its Nova-C lander to the moon in October (aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket). It will take at least five NASA payloads on the moon, along with several other payloads from other groups.

Probability of success: 6/10. Landing on the moon is always tricky for any beginner.

The south pole of Jupiter observed by Juno.


End of June, July 30

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter since July 2016, providing our best data yet on the Jovian atmosphere, gravitational field, magnetic field, and geology. Juno showed us surprising things on the largest planet in our solar system, as well as breathtaking views of the brightly colored clouds of the planet from above. But the mission ends on July 30, when Juno dives into Jupiter’s atmosphere, collecting as much data as possible before the violent pressures tear the spacecraft apart.

It has been talked about in recent months that some at NASA are looking for a mission extension until September 2025, so Juno can fly over some of Jupiter’s moons and study them closely. Perhaps this violent ending could be put on hold for a few more years.

Probability of success: 10/10. If Juno’s mission ends as planned, there’s virtually no way to spoil the destruction of your own spaceship.

Luna 25, October

The last mission the Russians launched to the moon was Luna 24, in 1976. Perhaps in response to the rapid development of NASA’s Artemis program and China’s lunar exploration program, Russia resurrected the Luna program. with the 25th mission scheduled, scheduled to launch in October. Luna 25 will be a lander heading towards the lunar south pole. It will test a new type of landing technology that Russia plans to use for future robotic missions, but the lander also carries a suite of scientific instruments that will study the moon’s soil.

Probability of success: 8/10. Russia knows how to land a spaceship on the moon. His chaotic space agency just needs to run it.

SpaceX Axiom Space 1, October

This mission will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon to send a private crew to the ISS for a stay of at least eight days. This will be the first private mission to orbit, the first private mission to the ISS, and the first time SpaceX has sent private citizens into space. And that may involve Tom Cruise.

Probability of success: 9/10. The mission will only be launched if everyone involved is satisfied that it is safe, but even minor doubts or logistical issues will cause delays.

James Webb Space Telescope, October 31

Another NASA project facing delays after delays, JWST is one of the most ambitious science missions in recent memory. It is, in many ways, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but its emphasis on cutting-edge infrared observations from Earth orbit means that it has extraordinary potential for studying the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and exomunes, and investigate. if they could have signs of biochemistry generated by extraterrestrial life. Nice way to celebrate Halloween, right?

Probability of success: 3/10. We’ve been facing so many delays in its launch date at this point that exactly no one will be surprised if another delay is announced.

artemis 1 nasa orion
An illustration of Artemis 1 traveling around the moon.


Artemis 1 / SLS 1, November

Finally, Orion, the distant space capsule that NASA is building to send humans back to the moon one day (but don’t hold your breath this will happen in 2024), will finally travel to space for the first time since 2014 – and for the first time beyond Earth orbit. For Artemis 1, an unequipped Orion will complete a 25.5-day mission that will take him to the Moon for a few days and return him to Earth safe and sound (hopefully). The mission will test the hardware, software and life support systems of the Orion vehicle. It will even feature two mannequins attached to a pair of seats, fitted with sensors that will measure how much radiation a crew inside the cabin could be exposed to on such a trip.

Artemis 1 will also be the inaugural launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built. The development of SLS has been beset by countless delays, and there is no guarantee that Orion or SLS will be ready by November. But if they are, get ready to watch one hell of a launch.

Probability of success: 1/10. The only NASA project with more delays on its belt than JWST is SLS. This mission will almost certainly not go as planned.

Chinese space station, early 2021

The next phase of China’s Tiangong program is a modular orbital space station about one-fifth the size of the ISS. China plans to launch Part 1 in 2021 – a basic service module called Tinahe. This will be the first of 11 missions launched over two years to fully build the station and prepare it for use by trios of taikonaut crews for at least a decade.

Probability of success: 5/10. China isn’t very good at meeting deadlines either, but its space agency doesn’t have to deal with bureaucratic uncertainty like NASA does.

LauncherOne, early 2021

Virgin Orbit already has customers lined up throughout 2021 for low payload missions, although the company has yet to pass a flight test of its flagship LauncherOne launcher. Virgin Orbit, like its sister company Virgin Galactic, tries to make its missions a reality air launch technology, in which a plane takes a rocket high in the air and releases it, and the rocket flies the rest of the way. The first attempt at such a launch, last May, was halted due to a faulty propellant line.

Virgin Orbit was scheduled to try again in December, but covid restrictions made that impossible. The company should launch its vehicle as soon as a window opens. If the mission fails again, it puts the rest of the company’s schedule at risk.

Probability of success: 8/10. If Virgin Galactic can get people to space, then surely Virgin Orbit can send a satellite into space… right?

new glenn blue origin
Illustration of New Glenn in flight.


Big year for Blue Origin, TBD

The space company headed by Jeff Bezos has two major missions scheduled for 2021. It wants to send people into space on a suborbital flight aboard its New Shepard launcher. New Shepard has been launched 13 times now, and the booster has proven its reusability through vertical landings after flight (similar to what a SpaceX Falcon 9 does). The company hopes to use New Shepard to send people on suborbital flights of a few minutes as a space tourism service.

Meanwhile, another bigger project could finally take off in 2021. It’s called New Glenn – a heavy launcher that’s said to be more powerful than even a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. While we still haven’t seen much of his material, Blue Origin says he hopes to launch New Glenn before the end of 2021.

Probability of success: 2/10. The company still wants to run a few more New Shepard missions before attaching humans to the rocket, so it may not be ready in 2021. And development on New Glenn is moving even slower.


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