Get ready for take-off! 2021 is going to be an incredible year for space exploration! Around the world, people have come together to push the boundaries of science and technology. From landing on other celestial bodies to seeing further into the universe than we ever have before, these missions will go down in the history books. Human spaceflight is taking a whole new form, and missions years in the making are finally launching. This is going to be a big year, so buckle up and keep reading to learn more about the space missions you should pay attention to in 2021!
Disclaimer: This post was written in January 2021. Dates for these missions are subject to change.
February 2021: Missions to Mars – Preparing for Astronauts to Land
Let’s kick it off with our personal favorite! Mars is a highly sought after destination. Scientists believe it may have once been able to support life and, with the proper technology, may be able to in the future. The hope is that one day, astronauts will be able to step foot on the Red Planet and survive there for a long time. Our president and co-founder, Abigail Harrison, hopes to be among that team!
But before humans can land on Mars, scientists need to send spacecraft. These orbiters, rovers, and helicopters analyze Mars’ conditions to figure out how astronauts will survive. This year there are three missions headed to do just that, and they are all arriving this February!
Photo credit: UAE Space Agency
1. February 9, 2021: Hope Mars Mission
The Hope Mars Mission consists of an orbiter launched by the United Arab Emirates Space Agency. Hope, as the orbiter has been dubbed, will enter Mars’ orbit on February 9th and circle the planet for two years.
Hope Mars: Mission
The Hope orbiter will study Mars’ weather cycles, specifically dust storms, climate change, and why Mars is losing hydrogen and oxygen to space. Hope will fly higher than any previous Martian satellites, allowing scientists to research large-scale weather patterns and all four Martian seasons.
Hope Mars: Significance
This mission is the first interplanetary mission by an Arab country. It is also the first mission to Mars by any West Asian or Muslim majority country! We love to see this progress!
Photo credit: CNSA
2. February 10, 2021: Tianwen-1
Tianwen-1 is a dynamic mission to Mars consisting of a rover, a camera, a lander, and an orbiter. It is being conducted by the China National Space Administration and will make its orbital insertion on February 10th. Its rover will land a few months later in May or June at Mars’ Utopia Planitia. This location is a plain within the largest recognized impact basin on Mars.
Tianwen-1 has numerous goals. It will seek signs of past and present life on the Red Planet and study soil composition, water ice distribution, and the atmosphere. This mission also aims to demonstrate the technologies needed for a future mission that will return samples from Mars to Earth.
If the rover lands successfully, China will become the second country to have ever landed a rover on Mars! Welcome to the club, China!
Photo Credit: NASA
3. February 10, 2021: Mars 2020
Mars 2020 is the mission name for the duo Perseverance and Ingenuity. These are a rover and helicopter drone, respectively, launched by NASA that will land at Mars’ Jezero crater on February 18th, 2021. Scientists think the Jezero crater was once a lake, making it an important site to explore. Upon landing, this mission is set to last about 1 Mars year, which is approximately 687 Earth days.
Mars 2020: Mission
Perseverance and Ingenuity have different missions. Perseverance will study Mars’ habitability and seek out signs of past and present life. It also will collect Martian samples for a future mission that will bring said samples back to Earth. Perseverance will also work on landing techniques for future missions and study conditions on the Red Planet that affect astronaut survival. Meanwhile, Ingenuity will guide Perseverance from the sky, dodging rocky terrain and scoping out new sites. Name a more iconic duo, we’ll wait!
Mars 2020: Significance
If successful, Ingenuity will be the first powered flight on a planet beyond Earth. This means that a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be controlling Ingenuity’s movements remotely. Also, two audio microphones will be used for the first time during landing.
Photo credit: ISRO
March 2021: Chandrayaan-3 – Making India the 4th Country to Land on the Moon!
Chandrayaan-3 is a mission conducted by the Indian Space Research Organisation consisting of a rover and a lander. It is headed to the Moon’s south pole at the Aitken basin and is expected to arrive in March.
Chandrayaan-3 will collect samples from its landing sites for further study and demonstrate its landing and night survival technologies.
If successful, Chandrayaan-3 will make the Indian Space Research Organisation the fourth country to conduct a soft lunar landing. It will also be a major success following the failed, previous mission Chandrayaan-2.
Update as of April 2021: This mission has been rescheduled to 2022 as COVID-19 has limited spacecraft testing opportunities.
Photo credit: Boeing/NASA
March 29, 2021: Boeing Starliner – Private Spaceflight on the Rise
The Boeing Company is an aerospace manufacturer that has partnered with NASA for the Commercial Crew Program. This program transports crews to and from the International Space Station in the first crewed space flights by private companies. Boeing’s Starliner is one of the crew capsules that will do this.
Boeing Starliner: Mission
Before Boeing can send crews into space, they need to conduct plenty of test flights. On March 29th, Boeing will conduct the second orbital test flight in Earth’s orbit, uncrewed. If successful, Boeing will move on to the first crewed test flight, currently scheduled to launch in the middle of this year. Then, by the end of the year, the first operational flight of Boeing Starliner will launch.
Boeing Starliner: Significance
The launches of Boeing Starliner are significant because spaceflight by privately-owned companies is so new! In the past, we have only seen SpaceX accomplish such a feat. Using privately-owned companies to launch spacecraft is exciting because it’s more affordable. We can expect various benefits to be opened as spaceflight becomes more easily accessible.
Update as of April 2021: Boeing’s second orbital test flight has been delayed to August or September 2021. Due to this, the first crewed test flight and first operational flight have been pushed back as well.
First Half of 2021: Chinese Space Station, Tianhe – Back to Space!
In the first half of this year, the first module of the new Chinese space station, Tianhe, will launch! The entire space station will be about 20% as massive as the International Space Station. China is not included in the 15-nation partnership of the International Space Station but had a prototype space station, Tiangong-1, from September 2011 to April 2018.
The Tianhe module will launch from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan, China, onboard a Long March 5th B rocket. It will be a living space for astronauts and provide needed life support. The entire construction of the space station is set to be completed by 2022.
This is a demonstration of the China National Space Administration’s technologies and their ability to house astronauts in space! With their space station, CNSA astronauts will conduct scientific tests and experiments in ways they were unable to before.
Photo credit: NASA
July 22, 2021: DART Mission – Asteroid Defense
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is being conducted by NASA and will launch July 22nd. The DART spacecraft aims to test technologies needed for planetary defense. But don’t worry about a giant asteroid coming our way just yet! It is important to note that there is no immediate threat coming to Earth … at this time.
The DART spacecraft is headed to the Didymos binary asteroid and is set to arrive in September 2022. There are two bodies of this asteroid: the primary and the moonlet. The primary is larger, roughly 780 meters across, and the moonlet is approximately 160 meters across. DART will crash into the moonlet, changing the moonlet’s speed in its orbit around the primary body. We like this solution a little more than the one in Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998), to say the least.
This mission is the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique. This is a technique that aims to change the motion of an asteroid in space. If successful, this will be a useful tool in planetary defense! You only need to go to the dinosaur exhibit of any natural history museum to see why this is important!
Update as of April 2021: The DART mission launch window has been delayed to later this year. The window will open on November 24, 2021.
Photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth
Fall 2021: Commercial Lunar Payload Services – Resources to the Moon
Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) is a program operated by NASA that allows American companies to send lunar payload deliveries to the Moon. (Payload is another word for cargo and is what the spacecraft will be carrying.) These payloads will bring resources, technologies, and equipment needed to future NASA Artemis missions. Beginning in 2021, NASA aims to launch two CLPS missions each year.
The two companies that will send payloads in 2021 are Astrobotic Technology and Intuitive Machines, both launching in the fall. Astrobotic Technology has 11 payloads that it will send to a large crater on the near side of the Moon called Lacus Mortis. Intuitive Machines has five payloads it will send to Oceanus Procellarum, a dark spot on the lunar surface. Fun fact: each payload is about the size of a shoebox!
These missions’ success will mark the first time an American robotic mission has landed on the Moon in nearly 50 years! The payloads brought to the lunar surface will help ensure the success of the future Artemis missions, which plan to send the first woman to the Moon!
Photo credit: Roscosmos
October 1, 2021: Luna 25 – Russia is Going Back to the Moon!
Russia is headed back to the Moon with Luna 25! The previous mission, Luna 24, launched in 1976 and successfully returned moon samples to Earth. Luna 25 is picking back up on the Luna program and is set to launch on October 1st, through their space agency Roscosmos.
Luna 25: Mission
Luna 25 consists of a lander with a robotic arm and drilling hardware. Its mission is to test landing technology and study the composition and structure of the lunar soil and exosphere. It will land at the Moon’s south pole, a prospective site for moon bases.
Luna 25: Significance
This robotic mission will be the first time Russia has gone to the Moon since 1976 and the first time a spacecraft has landed at the lunar south pole!
Photo credit: NASA
October 31, 2021: James Webb Space Telescope – Replacing Hubble!
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope – nicknamed Webb – has been long-awaited. The development has been a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). It was originally supposed to launch in 2007, but after years of testing and delays, it is now set to launch this year on October 31st!
Webb is set to succeed the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990. It has improved infrared sensitivity, which allows it to look closer to the beginning of time and see the formation of the first stars, planetary systems, and galaxies.
Webb will be the largest and most powerful telescope to have ever gone to space! It will be able to peer deeper into space and close at objects we have never been able to see before. Who else is excited for what we’re going to see? We definitely are!
Photo credit: NASA
November 2021: Artemis 1 – Returning the Moon!
The last mission of 2021 is the first un-crewed launch of the Artemis program! This mission consists of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, which are set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center this November.
Artemis 1: Mission
The mission of Artemis 1 is to send the un-crewed Orion spacecraft to orbit the Moon. During this mission’s duration, scientists will demonstrate how crew module entry, descent, splashdown, and recovery will look for future human missions.
Artemis 1: Significance
Artemis 1 is the first step to sending humans back to the Moon! The mission will set the baseline for future Artemis missions that will ultimately place the first woman and next man on the Moon. Artemis 1 will also be launched using NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the most powerful rocket ever constructed.
Mark Your Calendars!
Wow, what an exciting year for space exploration! We are headed to the Moon, Mars, and even asteroids. Human spaceflight as we know it has been revolutionized and scientists are making leaps and bounds towards amazing discoveries!