2020 Was a Great Year for Things Trying to Leave this Planet.
While things were pretty rough here on Earth in 2020, it was an amazing year for space exploration. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights and remind ourselves of some of the truly awesome things humans are capable of:
In July we saw a veritable fleet of spacecraft set off of Mars: NASA’s Perseverance rover, China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter+rover+lander combo, and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter. This is probably the most crowded a martian launch window has been since the days of the Space Race, and certainly the most multi-national. To date only NASA has managed to successfully land a mission on Mars — although nitpickers might argue that the Soviet Mars 3 mission, which operated for a mere 110 seconds and didn’t really send back any data, was technically “successful.” So, if China’s mission goes well, it will make them the second (or third) country ever to operate a rover on the surface of Mars. All three of these missions will arrive at Mars in February 2021, so keep your fingers crossed and stay tuned for updates.
(Image: © SpaceX/Elon Musk via Twitter)
A record 31 rockets were launched from Cape Canaveral this year by SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), shattering the previously-held record from 54 years ago, back during the Apollo era. These included the return to flight of astronauts aboard an American launch vehicle on the Crew Demo-2 and Crew-1 missions, carried into orbit by the Falcon 9 rocket. Astronauts haven’t launched from the U.S. since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 — they’ve been hitching a ride on the Russian Soyuz since then. SpaceX also brought their all-time total number of successful booster landings to 70 with the NROL-108 launch on December 19th. That’s absolutely staggering when you realize that the first-ever booster landing occurred only five years ago, on December 22, 2015. Heck, the first SpaceX Falcon 9 launch ever was only in 2010. In space terms, that’s practically yesterday.
February 2020 also brought the first docking of two commercial spacecraft in space as a test of on-orbit satellite servicing. This technology is all the rage in the NewSpace sector, promising to refuel satellites and even capture them to safely deorbit at the end of their operational lifetimes, cleaning up space junk. Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) docked with the Intelsat 901 telecommunications satellite, but before doing so snapped one of the coolest photos of Earth from geostationary orbit, over 22,000 miles (35,000 km) away. Photographs of spacecraft in space are always amazing to me because it shows what we are capable of — we get to actually see our handiwork in action.
The joint European-Japanese BepiColombo mission flew past both Earth and Venus this year on its way to its final destination of Mercury, arriving in late 2021 after a 7-year journey. It snapped a sequence of images as it flew past Earth, shown in the animation above — because again, photos of spacecraft in space are awesome.
2020 was also a great year for stealing rocks from other worlds. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission snagged a sample from a rubble pile of an asteroid called Bennu in October. It’ll make its way back to Earth in late 2023. Meanwhile, Japan’s Hayabusa2 captured a sample of another near-Earth asteroid called Ryugu in late 2019; its return capsule touched down in the middle of the desert in South Australia this month. Japan pioneered sample collections from asteroids, catching the first-ever sample in 2005 from the asteroid Itokawa. Closer to home, China’s Chang’e 5 mission drilled and clawed samples of the Moon in an area called Oceanus Procellarum — the Ocean of Storms. It then shot those samples back up to a spacecraft waiting in lunar orbit, which brought the samples back to Earth this month. The entire mission lasted less than a month from launch to sample return. This was the first lunar sample return mission since the 1970s, when the Soviets sent back some Moon dirt with their Luna 24 mission. Scientists are really excited to get their hands on these particular samples because they come from a part of the Moon significantly younger than the samples we have from Apollo.
The iconic Hubble Space Telescope turned 30 this year, making me and undoubtedly many other elder millennials feel old at the thought that we pre-date the existence of Hubble. In honour of this anniversary, NASA released images of 30 “celestial gems” taken by Hubble that can also be spotted through a backyard telescope. This is either clever marketing to show you how much better a multi-billion-dollar telescope is than your Celestron, or a very cool outreach idea. Or both. You can view the entire catalog of released images here.
Farther out in the Solar System, in November NASA’s Juno mission completed its 30th “perijove,” or closest approach to Jupiter, and continues to return stunning images of the giant planet. Because of the harsh radiation environment around Jupiter, the JunoCam camera was only anticipated to last 8 perijove, so its longevity is truly amazing. (Disclaimer: I used to work for the company that built this camera.) The most incredible images to come out of the mission however are those being processed by amateurs rather than the mission team themselves — and this was intentional. JunoCam camera onboard was designated an “Education and Public Outreach” instrument for anyone to have a go at the data. You can browse images released by the team, as well as by members of the general public, in the JunoCam Gallery.
Beyond the planets are the Voyagers and New Horizons, cruising out into interstellar space. Early in 2020, Voyager 2 had a small hiccup that caused it to shut down its five remaining operational science instruments as a safety precaution while engineers worked to track down the issue. Thankfully they were able to get things functioning again, and in March the 43-year-old spacecraft resumed transmitting science data. In April, New Horizons performed the first interstellar parallax experiment, over four billion miles (seven billion kilometres) away from Earth. Parallax is one of the oldest techniques scientists have used to calculate the distance to stars that are relatively nearby, in the galactic sense. (New Horizons did this experiment with a star quite familiar to fans of Star Trek: Wolf 359. Yes, it’s an actual star!)
Space exploration has always been good at giving some perspective on our place in this vast, incredible universe. Despite hardships, humans are capable of doing amazing things. So know that we were able to accomplish some stunning feats of science and technology this year, with a lot more in store for 2021.