3 Space Missions to Look for in 2021
Let’s be honest: 2020 hasn’t exactly beenwhat any of us expected,and that goes for space science, too. Lots of missions have faced setbacks,including the infamously delayed James WebbSpace Telescope. But there’s no stopping progress, and spaceagencies have big plans for 2021. So, if everything goes according to plan,here are three of the most exciting missionswe can look forward to in the coming year. Now, one thing that did happen last yearwas the launch of the Mars 2020 mission, backin July. It’s carrying a rover named Perseverance,and,after a seven-month cruise to the Red Planet,it’s set to land in February. First, it’ll touch down via a jet-poweredsky crane;a platform that will hover over the groundand lower it to the surface by cables. Then, it’ll get to work exploring the JezeroCrater on the edge of Mars’s Northern Lowlands. This 45-kilometer-wide crater once containeda lake,and scientists think it could have been anideal cradle for life on Mars. So Perseverance will spend some of its timelooking for signs of ancient microbial lifein the dry lake bed, things like key molecules. But it’ll also start to set the stage forthe first missions to return to Earth from Mars. So far, every mission to Mars has been stuckthere,largely because they haven’t been able totransport enough fuel for the return journey. So we’ve never been able to bring a samplefrom Mars back to Earth. But it may be possible in the future, andPerseverance is expected to help with that. Its onboard experiment called MOXIE will testa new technologyfor turning carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphereinto oxygen. And someday, that oxygen could be used asrocket fuel for a return mission. Scientists are actually so optimistic aboutthe idea of a sample return mission thatthe rover will start to collect and stashsamples to return to Earth on some future spacecraft. In the meantime, once it settles in,Perseverance will also deploy the two-kilogramMars Helicopter Ingenuity,which is set to make the first-ever poweredflight on the Red Planet. And that’s no small feat in Mars’s thinatmosphere, which is about 1% as dense as Earth’s. There’s just really not a lot of air topush against. But scientists hope that with Ingenuity’sblades rotating up to 40 times a second it’ll be possible. The tiny craft is designed to hover aboutthree to five meters above the ground,and could travel up to 300 meters in a singleflight. And if it works, it could pave the way forlarger, more complex Mars helicoptersthat could explore farther than ever before. But Mars isn’t the only world we’ll bevisiting in 2021. Back in 2019, NASA set out to send peopleto the Moon by 2024. And granted, there are a lot of engineeringchallenges to overcome before that happens,but 2021 will see the first major step towardthat goal. That’s because, in November,the Artemis 1 mission will do a test run ofa trip to the Moon and back. The mission has two main parts:a spacecraft called Orion and a Space LaunchSystem, or SLS rocket. Orion won’t carry a crew this time, butother than that, the mission will be a full testof all of the technology that will ultimatelytake two astronauts to the Moon. For now, the plan is for Orion to shoot pastthe Moon,orbit it for a few days, and then head home. But this mission isn’t just about the capsule:It’s also about the rocket. The SLS rocket is NASA’s modern-day counterpartto the Apollo program’s Saturn V,and it’s 15% more powerful. It’ll be capable of launching at least 95metric tons into low-Earth orbit. And from there, a second stage will fire tosend Orion to the Moon. This rocket will be absolutely crucial forthe Artemis program,which will be delivering heavy loads of cargoand eventually crew to the Moon. So while it’ll still be some time beforeNASA is ready to put people in that capsule,this is a good start toward that 2024 goal. Finally, our last highlight isn’t aboutother planets or moons:It’s a mission that’s aimed at protectingour planet from asteroids. We don’t know of any asteroids that arecurrently threatening to hit us,but we want to be prepared in casewe ever need to protect ourselves from animpact in the future. So, NASA has designed the Double AsteroidRedirection Test, or DART,to try a technique that could potentiallydeflect asteroids headed our way. The principle is pretty simple: Basically,they’re going tothrow something really hard at an asteroidto try and change its course. The target for this test is a tiny asteroidbetween Earth and Mars nicknamed Didymoon. It orbits a larger asteroid, called Didymos,about every 12 hours. According to NASA’s plan, an experimentalspacecraft will launchin mid-to-late 2021 and travel 11 millionkilometers toward the asteroid pair,before smashing into Didymoon at nearly 24,000kilometers per hour. After this head-on impact, scientists predictthat Didymoon will get knocked inward. That should shorten its orbit, so researcherswill be able to gauge their successby seeing how much the asteroid’s orbitalperiod changes after the test. And that will help us figure out how successfula strategy like this can be,and how asteroids behave when they’re hitreally hard. Like, will they really move as much as weexpect them to?Or will they break up under the impact? Andwhat does that mean for us?The better we can answer these questions,the better we can defend our planet from anyasteroids in the future. And these are just three of the missions scheduledfor 2021!We’ve got a lot to look forward to in spacescience,and it’s shaping up to be a really excitingyear. We’ll both explore new worlds and learnhow to protect the one we call home,and I’m sure there will be some surprisediscoveries along the way. Before we go, we wanted to give a specialshoutoutto this week’s President of Space: MatthewBrant!Matthew is one of our patrons on Patreon,and they’re the reason we’re able to keepmaking this show. So, to Matthew and all of our patrons, thanksfor your support!If you want to learn more about supportingepisodes like this,you can head over to Patreon. com/SciShow.