- In 2020, SpaceX became the first private company to launch humans into orbit, Japan brought asteroid samples to Earth, and China’s landed a spacecraft on the moon.
- But 2021 is set to be an even more ambitious year in space, with rovers set to land on Mars, new commercial astronaut missions, and much more.
- Here’s what to watch for in 2021.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Human spaceflight changed forever in May, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted off carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley toward the International Space Station.
It was the first time a company, rather than a government agency, had launched people into space.
“This is the next era in human spaceflight, where NASA gets to be the customer,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said in August, before the astronauts’ splash landing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Space agencies, too, achieved new heights in 2020: NASA scooped its first sample of soil from an asteroid. Japan retrieved rock samples that a spacecraft had gathered from below a different asteroid’s surface. China landed a dust-harvesting spacecraft on the moon.
In 2021, space exploration is expected to ramp up even further. SpaceX and Boeing plan to fly new astronaut crews, rovers and orbiters are on their way to Mars, and NASA is setting out to punch an asteroid. Hardly a few weeks will go by without a launch, meteor shower, or new findings from a probe somewhere in the solar system.
Month by month, here’s what to watch in space in 2021. (Click an event in the table below to jump to a detailed description.)
Table of Contents: Static
January 3: Quadrantids meteor shower
The Quadrantids can be one of the most remarkable shooting-star displays of the year, since it produces bright fireball meteors. Unlike most meteor showers, which come from comets, the Quadrantids originate from an asteroid called 2003 EH1.
January 17: Virgin Orbit’s first orbital launch
Virgin Orbit, founded by Richard Branson, aims to fly small satellites and payloads to space with the help of a modified Boeing 747 jet called “Cosmic Girl.”
One of its rockets successfully reached space for the first time on January 17. Cosmic Girl released the LauncherOne rocket over the Pacific Ocean. The 70-foot, two-stage rocket ignited its engine and pushed itself into Earth’s orbit. It carried 10 tiny satellites for NASA, universities, and other institutions â€” a rideshare mission called Educational Launch of NanoSatellites-20, or ELaNa-20.
Virgin Orbit has spent about $US1 billion trying to get to orbit, Branson has said.
Now the company is ready to “officially transition” into commercial missions, carrying payloads for satellite companies and military agencies, according to its press release after January’s launch.
Early 2021: India launches its Chandrayaan-3 rover to the moon
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to re-attempt a moon landing in 2021. During its first mission of this kind, in September 2019, the Chandrayaan-2 lander lost communications on descent and crashed into the lunar surface.
But that mission’s orbiter is still circling the moon and seems to be in good health. If all goes according to plan, the Chandrayaan-3 lander will reach the lunar south pole, communicate with the orbiter, and pick up where Chandrayaan-2 left off.
Early 2021: Rocket Lab launches its first mission from the US
Rocket Lab, founded by CEO Peter Beck in 2006, has flown more than a dozen missions from New Zealand using 60-foot-tall Electron rockets. The company even took a page from SpaceX and is learning how to recover boosters â€” the most cumbersome and expensive part of a rocket to build.
To gain a share of lucrative US space missions, Rocket Lab is preparing to open its first US-based launch site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The company has built infrastructure to support a dozen launches per year, plus the ability to recover boosters for reuse, Beck said.
February 9: The UAE’s Hope orbiter arrives at Mars
The Arab world’s first mission to Mars is set to chart a global map of the planet’s climate across one Martian year. It would be humanity’s first such picture of Mars’ atmosphere. The SUV-sized spacecraft is set to insert itself into an oval-shaped orbit around the red planet on February 9.
“We’ll be able to cover all of Mars, through all times of day, through an entire Martian year,” Sarah Al Amiri, the mission’s science lead, told Nature.
The orbiter launched in July, positioning it for a relatively short trip to Mars as the planet passes close to Earth. Hope is one of three Mars missions to take advantage of this window, and they all arrive during the same 10-day period in February.
February 10: China’s Tianwen-1 mission reaches Mars orbit
If successful, Tianwen-1 will be the first Mars mission to drop a landing platform, deploy a rover, and send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit all in one expedition.
Chinese state media reports that the spacecraft is set to fall into Martian orbit on February 10, according to Space.com. After the orbiter spends a couple months surveying the landing site, it should drop the lander â€” with the rover inside â€” to a vast field of volcanic rock called Utopia Planitia.
The rover is equipped with a radar system that can detect underground pockets of water. It aims to sniff out ancient reservoirs that could harbour life. It will also help China prepare for a mission to bring a sample from Mars to Earth.
February 13: Virgin Galactic launches from Spaceport America
Another of Richard Branson’s companies, Virgin Galactic, expects to launch a human mission from Spaceport America â€” its New Mexico headquarters â€” in February. Two pilots will fly the SpaceShipTwo model, carrying some research payloads for NASA, to suborbital altitudes.
The company has twice launched employees on up-and-down suborbital flights from its test facility in California’s Mojave Desert. The company first attempted a flight from Spaceport America in December, but a bad connection on an onboard computer stopped the rocket motor from igniting. February’s flight will test the company’s attempt to fix the issue.
Should the new flight succeed, Virgin Galactic will be one step closer to its goal of using Spaceport America as a base for ferrying wealthy passengers to and from the edge of space on its finished SpaceShipTwo, a luxurious vehicle with reclining seats, a lit cabin, and circular passenger windows on the sides and ceiling.
February 18: NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars
NASA’s newest nuclear-powered robot is en route to Mars, where it’s set to scan and drill Martian soil for signs of alien life. The rover, called Perseverance, is programmed to stash samples away so a future mission can bring them back to Earth.
“This is the first time in history when NASA has dedicated a mission to what we call astrobiology: the search for life â€” either maybe now, or ancient life â€” on another world,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said ahead of the rover’s launch.
February 20: Parker Solar Probe flies past Venus
NASA launched its first mission to the sun, the Parker Solar Probe, in August 2018. The probe has approached our star six times, coming closer than any spacecraft before it and travelling faster than any previous human-made object. It has traced the source of the solar wind of charged particles and discovered previously unseen bursts of that solar wind that bend the sun’s magnetic field.
The spacecraft is on track to rocket around Venus for the fourth time in February, then swing back to circle the sun twice. Parker is scheduled to pass Venus again on October 16.
March 25: Boeing tries to fly its Starliner spaceship to the ISS again
Boeing designed its CST-100 Starliner spaceship to fly astronauts to the ISS, but it hasn’t yet launched with a crew.
In the company’s first test flight of the space capsule in December 2019, a software error caused the Starliner to initiate a phase of the mission it had not yet reached. The spaceship burned through 25% of its fuel before Boeing corrected the error. So it had to skip docking with the space station â€” the primary goal of the mission.
The Starliner is set to try again in March, since NASA still wants to see the capsule make the trip on its own before carrying people.
Alongside SpaceX, Boeing is the benefactor of a decade-long NASA effort to restore the US’s capacity for human spaceflight. NASA has poured $US8 billion into the initiative.
April 18: NASA launches a mini-satellite to follow the moon
The mission is a precursor to the permanent moon space station, the lunar Gateway, that NASA hopes to build. Called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), the foot-long spacecraft will attempt to follow the moon as it orbits Earth.
The tiny satellite is set to launch on a Rocket Lab rocket, travel for three months, then match the moon’s orbit for at least six months.
April 20: SpaceX launches its Crew-2 astronaut mission for NASA
SpaceX’s ongoing Crew-1 mission delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station in November â€” the company’s first operational crewed flight, and the longest crewed mission ever launched from US soil.
This spring comes Crew-2, which will swap in four fresh crew members at the ISS. NASA and SpaceX are targeting April 20 as the earliest possible launch date, though it could be pushed later.
The team on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ship includes Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough of NASA, Akihiko Hoshide of JAXA, and Thomas Pesquet of ESA. They’re set to live and work on the ISS into the fall. Their time in orbit is expected to overlap a few days or weeks with the Crew-1 astronauts.
April 22: Lyrid meteor shower
The Lyrids arrive when Earth passes through the tail of the comet Thatcher. They peak at about 20 meteors per hour and are seen best from the Northern Hemisphere.
Late April or early May: SpaceX’s Crew-1 astronauts return to Earth
SpaceX’s first operational mission for NASA isn’t done yet. Its Crew Dragon spaceship still has to bring back the four astronauts it took to the ISS: Soichi Noguchi of JAXA and Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker of NASA.
Soon after the Crew-2 astronauts arrive, these four will climb back on board their Crew Dragon capsule, named Resilience. The spaceship should undock from the ISS, plunge through Earth’s atmosphere, release its parachutes, and safely splash down off the Florida coast.
May 10: OSIRIS-REx starts its 2-year journey home
The $US1 billion Osiris-Rex spacecraft landed successfully on the asteroid Bennu in October, where it scooped up over 2 pounds of alien rock and dust. Its trip home will take over two years. Its sample-storage capsule is expected to land in Utah in September 2023.
“Leaving Bennu’s vicinity in May puts us in the ‘sweet spot,’ when the departure manoeuvre will consume the least amount of the spacecraft’s onboard fuel,” Michael Moreau, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, said in a press release.
May 26: Total lunar eclipse
Total lunar eclipses occur when Earth passes between the sun and the moon, casting an orange-red shadow on our lunar satellite. On May 26, the full supermoon will fall into the sun’s shadow for about 14 minutes, starting at 4:47 a.m. ET.
The full eclipse will only be visible in eastern Australia and the westernmost parts of Alaska. Parts of it will be visible throughout North America.
May: China’s Tianwen-1 rover lands on Mars
Once the Tianwen-1 orbiter has scoped out a landing site in the fields of Utopia Planitia, it’s set to drop its lander and rover to plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere.
Once safely on the surface, the lander should deploy a ramp for the rover to roll off its platform and onto the Martian ground. There, it will scan for signs of underground pools of liquid water. It might find spots beneath Mars’ surface that could support microbial alien life.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) says the landing will happen in May.
June 10: Annular solar eclipse
Annular eclipses occur when the moon is at the farthest point from Earth in its orbit and passes between our planet and the sun. The moon partially covers the sun, but its small size in the sky means the sun’s outer rim remains visible as a bright ring.
July 22: NASA launches an asteroid-bashing spacecraft
Hazardous asteroids pose a risk to life on Earth, but it’s difficult to track dangerous asteroids, and harder yet to divert catastrophe if one is found to be careening toward Earth.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will test one method for deflecting killer space rocks. The spacecraft should travel to a pair of asteroids called Didymos (which pose no threat to Earth) to demonstrate what NASA calls the “kinetic impactor” technique.
That simply means that DART will crash head-on into the smaller asteroid, which is about 525 feet wide, in order to push it into a closer orbit around the larger asteroid. Impact is scheduled for September 30, 2022.
August 8: The Solar Orbiter zips around Venus
NASA launched the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter in February. Five months later, the probe beamed back the closest photos ever taken of the sun.
Over its seven-year mission, the orbiter is expected to take the first photos of the sun’s poles and capture images of the largest holes in its atmosphere. The spacecraft is also designed to pinpoint the origins of space weather and track eruptions on the sun in near-real time.
In order to see the sun’s poles, the orbiter must fly past Venus and use the planet’s gravity to swing itself into an orbit that takes it above the plane of our solar system. It will do so three more times over the course of its mission.
August 12: Perseids meteor shower
NASA calls the Perseids meteor shower the best of the year, thanks to its many bright meteors that streak across the sky in late summer. This year, the shower reaches its peak on August 12, before dawn.
September or later: Boeing launches its first NASA astronauts
If the re-do of Boeing’s uncrewed test flight goes well in March, it will then launch a demo mission with a human crew: NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Mike Fincke, and Nicole Mann. The Starliner should fly them to the ISS then safely parachute them back to Earth a couple months later.
October 16: Lucy the Trojan asteroid-hunter launches
Ahead of and behind Jupiter exist two mysterious traffic jams of Trojan asteroids â€” space rocks that flank planets in their solar orbits. Humanity knows little about Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, other than their colour (a dark, wine-like burgundy) and the fact they’re nearly as old as the sun.
The Lucy spacecraft is slated to spend 11 years flying out to, visiting, and investigating six of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids to study the solar system’s early history.
“Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionise the understanding of our origins,” Harold Levison, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a NASA press release.
October 21: Orionids meteor shower
The Orionids come from dust left behind by Halley’s Comet. They get their name because the shooting stars appear to originate in the area of the sky around the Orion constellation.
October 31: NASA launches the James Webb Space Telescope
It has been 30 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s prized cosmos-investigating satellite. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is intended to complement and supersede it. JWST packs new infrared technology to detect light beyond what the human eye can see. That will help it scan the universe for life-hosting planets and possibly discover clues about the origins of the black hole at our galaxy’s centre.
A 21-foot-wide folding beryllium mirror will help the telescope observe faraway objects in detail. A five-layer, tennis court-sized shield protects it from the sun’s heat and blocks sunlight that could interfere with the images.
The farther JWST looks out into space, the more it will look back in time. Its goal is to study every phase of the universe’s history. It could even detect the first glows of the Big Bang.
November 5 and 12: Southern Taurids and Northern Taurids meteor showers
The Taurids meteor shower comes in two different streams. The Southern Taurids are debris from Comet Encke. Because of their appearance in late October or early November, they’re also called Halloween Fireballs.
The Northern Taurids’ origin remains disputed. Some scientists think they come from Comet Encke, but were separated from the Southern Taurids by the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Others think they’re a stream of dust left by a different asteroid.
November 17: Leonids meteor shower
The Leonids appear when Earth hurtles through the field of rock and metal debris left behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. Because the metals are rich in iron and magnesium, the Leonids often leave bright green tails.
November 19: Partial lunar eclipse
A partial lunar eclipse occurs when part of the moon moves through the Earth’s outer shadow, or penumbra. This makes a chunk of the moon appear dimmer. The eclipse will be visible from North and South America, parts of Europe and Asia, and Australia.
November: NASA launches the first Orion test flight
This will be the first major test run for the spacecraft, which NASA hopes will ferry the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024. On this mission, called Artemis I, an uncrewed Orion ship should orbit the moon for three days, then return to Earth.
December 14: Geminids meteor shower
Unlike most meteor showers, which come from the dust of a comet (a ball of ice and rock), the Geminids come from a trail of dust that the asteroid Phaethon left behind several thousand years ago. The trail contains about 1 million tons of material.
December 22: Ursids meteor shower
The Ursids get their name because they appear to come from the constellation of Ursa Minor. They usually peak around the winter solstice, but in 2021, a waning gibbous moon may make the meteors harder to see.
December or later: Boeing launches its first operational astronaut mission for NASA
If Boeing’s crewed demo mission goes well, NASA is likely to officially certify its human-spaceflight system, paving the way for the company’s first crew-rotation mission for the agency: Starliner-1.
Three NASA astronauts have been assigned to fly to the ISS on that mission: Commander Sunita Williams, pilot Josh Cassada, and mission specialist Jeanette Epps. In total, NASA has contracted six round-trip astronaut flights from Boeing.
Late 2021: Japan launches a mini moon lander
The tiny lander, weighing just over 30 pounds, is expected to launch on NASA’s Artemis 1 mission â€” one of two mini-satellites, or CubeSats, made by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and University of Tokyo. Its landing is meant to test moon-landing manoeuvres and technology. If it touches down without breaking, the lander, called OMOTENASHI, will collect data on lunar radioactivity.
The second CubeSat, EQUULEUS, will measure how plasma is distributed around Earth to help scientists better understand radiation in the region of space surrounding our planet.
Late 2021: SpaceX launches the first all-civilian crew to orbit
Billionaire Jared Isaacman bought seats on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship to launch himself, a healthcare worker, and two others â€” to be selected via sweepstakes â€” into orbit in late 2021.
The mission is called Inspiration4 (a reference to Isaacman’s company, Shift4). If successful, it will be the first mission in history to fly an entirely private commercial crew, with no professional astronauts.
Late 2021: SpaceX flies its first Starship to orbit
SpaceX’s Starship-Super Heavy rocket system is a 400-foot-tall, two-stage, steel-bodied vehicle that’s fully reusable. It may launch into orbit in 2021. Elon Musk’s rocket company is already flying Starship spaceship prototypes on high-altitude suborbital flights in Boca Chica, Texas (though the first two exploded upon landing).
“I’m 80-90% confident we’ll reach orbit with Starship next year,” Musk told Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, in October. But Musk added that he’s only “50% confident” that SpaceX will land the Starship spaceship and Super Heavy rocket booster in one piece.
“That’s more of a dicey situation. We’ll probably lose a few ships before we really get the atmospheric return and landing right,” he said.
Before a launch, SpaceX needs a licence from the Federal Aviation Administration â€” and the FAA, in turn, wants the company to first re-study its environmental impact. A leaked draft document shared with Insider indicates the company is planning to drill natural gas wells and build power plants at its Boca Chica facilities. That could make for a longer environmental-review process.
Late 2021: The world’s heftiest drone launches a rocket to orbit
Aevum, a rocket launch startup based in Alabama, is building an autonomous, space rocket-carrying drone called Ravn X to fly small payloads to space. The vehicle is 80 feet long with a wingspan of 60 feet, and weighs about 55,000 pounds â€” making it the largest unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by mass.
The US Air Force and Space Force have assigned Aevum a launch contract worth $US4.9 million. The startup has until the end of 2021 to fly the mission, called Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer 45. Jay Skylus, the founder and CEO of Aevum, previously told Business Insider that “2021 is very reasonable for us to be able to deliver our payloads to orbit on this mission.”
Sometime in 2021: China begins constructing its own space station
China plans to launch its station’s first and primary module, Tianhe, in the first half of 2021. The country aims to complete its space station by 2023.
This story has been updated. It was originally published at 7:51 a.m. ET on January 1, 2021.
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