¶2020 hindsight. Even with the chaos and loss of the pandemic, including a pause or delay to many missions, 2020 was quite the year for space. Here are some highlights with links to our coverage during the year.
- OSIRIS-REx gathered and Hayabusa2 delivered asteroid samples, Solar Orbiter captured the closest images of the Sun (and just flew past Venus), InSight detected Marsquakes, and three Mars missions launched (with one delayed to 2022).
- Hubble had its 30-year, and the ISS had its 20-year, anniversary, NASA’s Spitzer mission came to an end, and Arecibo collapsed.
- The new Moon race intensified, with NASA funding crewed landers (despite the hasty resignation of their human exploration program's lead) and releasing the Artemis Accords. However, while Artemis and its related missions made progress, NASA failed to reach any significant milestones for the program (although completion of SLS ‘Green Run’ testing is right around the corner) and Congress declined approval of required funding, making a 2024 crewed landing impossible. Meanwhile, China’s Chang’e 5 delivered the first lunar samples in decades.
- China tied its 2018 launch record, including launching an unexpected space plane, the return to flight of the Long March 5 (carrying China’s next-generation crew capsule), and the first flight of the (intended for reuse) Long March 8.
- Betelgeuse didn’t explode (yet), but Venus might have phosphine, Mars might have substantial subsurface water, and we learned about so many new exoplanets (Earth-like in a habitable zone, orbiting dead stars, orbiting our closest neighbor, and wandering the galaxy alone).
- SpaceX continued to steal the launch show with the launches of Demo-2 and Crew 1, explosive progress on Starship (the new SN8 recap video is well worth a watch), and their 100th Falcon 9 flight, all while also starting to offer limited Starlink service (coverage visualization). Their year was only marred by Musk’s COVID-related complaining/disinformation and continued questions around the impact of Starlink on astronomy.
- OneWeb survived bankruptcy, two commercial satellites docked for the first time, Rocket Lab established a rapid launch cadence and started down the road to booster recovery, and SpaceX launched 833 Starlink satellites, more than the total number of satellites (736) launched in all of 2019. (2020 totaled at least 1,387 satellites launched, a 343% increase over 2010.)
- We were treated to NEOWISE and a Great Conjunction. But, the proliferation of satellite constellations and orbital debris may threaten our night skies and safety in space.
- Some of our favorite issues: a special issue about Climate Change, a feature about the effects of extraterrestrial impacts on life on Earth, and our resource page for space entrepreneurship funding.
¶And in 2021? Next year is looking to be at least as big a space year as 2020. To name just a few highlights: three missions (and a helicopter!) arrive at Mars (Tianwen-1, Hope Probe, Perseverance), the James Webb Space Telescope launches in October (it just completed final sunshield testing), NASA’s DART, Lucy, and CLPS landers start launching, the Vera Rubin Observatory should see first light, Starliner OPT-2 will hopefully go smoothly, and China’s space station starts assembly. We also expect to see a number of firsts throughout the industry: first orbital flights for Astra, Virgin Orbit, Firefly, and maaaaybe Starship, New Glenn, and Artemis I; first orbital booster reuse from a non-SpaceX commercial space company (Rocket Lab); the first fully private crewed mission to the ISS, launched by SpaceX and Axiom; and, the first two movies filmed in space, both to begin shooting on the ISS in the fall.
| JWST at the Sun-Earth L2 point.|
¶Gateway’s appendages. Continuing on Canada’s robotic tradition of contributions to the Space Shuttle and ISS, NASA signed a partnership with the Canadian Space Agency to provide the next version of their Canadarm2 for Gateway: Canadarm3. Canadarm3 will consist of two robotic arms, the larger of which is 8.5m long, and the two arms will work together and be able to crawl end-over-end like a slinky around Gateway 📺. This is similar to how Canadarm2 crawls around the ISS by flipping end-over-end between anchor points— it was surprisingly hard to find a good animation of this, let us know if you’ve seen one. The planned launch for Canadarm3 is 2026.
| Canadarm3’s larger arm, as visualized on Gateway.|
¶News in brief. NanoRacks was acquired by Voyager Space, the same week that their Bishop airlock was installed on the ISS; the Boeing-built SLS Exploration Upper Stage passed its Critical Design Review; NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget was passed by Congress—it grew by 3%, but didn’t fund close to the amount NASA says they need for a 2024 Artemis landing; and, Victor Glover (who was recently named to the “Artemis Team”) broke the record for the longest time in space by an African American astronaut.