Not since the 1960s have we witnessed such appetite for space missions. Here’s what to expect in the year ahead, from commercial launches to Chinese ambitions.
Space missions of a startling variety and ambition are scheduled for launch this year. Indeed, space engineers have not planned so much activity – for both manned and robot projects – since the heady days of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. At last, humanity is returning to explore the heavens with renewed vigour.
However, it is not just the US and Russia that are dominating this year’s space agenda. India, Japan and China are all planning complex programmes and are vying to become space powers in their own rights. Their plans for 2020 include missions to the moon, Mars and the asteroids. At the same time, the US will inaugurate its Artemis programme, which will eventually lead to a series of manned deep-space missions and a space station that will orbit the moon later in the next decade. Europe will be closely involved in Artemis and will also send its first robot rover to Mars in 2020. For good measure, the United Arab Emirates plans to become a space power in 2020, with its own robot mission to the red planet.
China aims to become the third nation to bring samples of lunar soil back to Earth in the wake of US and Soviet successes decades ago. Its Chang’e 5 robot mission is scheduled to blast off from the Wenchang satellite launch centre in Hainan in late 2020. The purpose of the project – named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e – is to collect about 2kg of lunar rocks and return them to Earth. A robot lander will scoop samples into an ascent vehicle, which will be blasted into space to dock automatically with a probe circling the moon. The samples will then be transferred to a capsule and fired back to Earth.
It will be a highly complex business involving several dockings and manoeuvres in orbit. By contrast, the last robot lunar sample return – accomplished by the Soviet Union’s 1976 Luna 24 mission – did so using a much simpler direct return. Chang’e 5’s more adventurous route is considered by many to be evidence that the Chinese are using the mission as a dress rehearsal for manned lunar landings in the near future.
US scientists are also planning a moon mission late next year – but on an even grander scale. The first of the country’s Orion capsules is scheduled for launch as part of an unmanned Artemis programme test flight. Orion will spend about three weeks in space, including six days orbiting the moon. The craft will have a complete life-support system and crew seats, but no crew. A European-built service module will play a key role in all Artemis missions. It will power Orion capsules after their launch from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Future missions will be manned, however, with the ultimate aim being to land “the first woman and the next man” on the moon by 2024. A manned space station in lunar orbit, called Lunar Gateway, is also planned.
In addition, India is to send a new lander mission to the moon in November: Chandrayaan-3. It will attempt what its predecessor failed to achieve. Chandrayaan-2 was India’s first attempt at a lunar touchdown, but its main lander craft and robot rover crashed after a communication failure.
The fourth rock from the sun will become a focus of attention for space engineers this year. In July and early August, Earth and Mars will be in their best positions for craft to be sent to the latter. Nasa will take advantage of this launch window with its Mars 2020 rover, which will seek evidence that Mars was a place where water flowed and life could have evolved. It will also search for signs of ancient microbial life.
Mars 2020 will also mark the beginning of a highly ambitious, decade-long Martian exploration programme. The robot rover will drill for samples of the most promising rocks. It will place these in metal tubes, seal them and leave them in caches at designated sites on the planet’s surface. These caches will be collected by future joint European and US missions and brought back to Earth – by around 2030. About 500g of rock will be returned for scrutiny in laboratories across the world, which should transform our knowledge about past conditions on Mars.
The design of the Mars 2020 rover is based on Nasa’s successful Curiosity vehicle but has been upgraded with higher-resolution colour navigation cameras, an extra computer “brain” for processing images and making maps, and more sophisticated auto-navigation software.
In addition, Europe will send its own robot rover to Mars this year. In late July or early August, a Russian Proton rocket will blast a relatively small robot vehicle to Mars as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars project. The rover is British built and has been named Rosalind Franklin after the UK DNA pioneer. Using a drill able to penetrate two metres below the surface, it will retrieve material that has been shielded from the intense radiation that bombards Mars and which may contain evidence of past and possibly even present life on the planet. (Mars 2020 will not be able to drill this deep.)
However, ExoMars has already been delayed by technical problems, and recent failures of its parachute system in trials have caused real concerns for engineers who fear they might have to delay the mission further. Improved chute systems – which will slow the craft down before retro-rockets eventually land the probe, gently, on Mars after its nine-month space journey – are being tested. It is too early to know whether they will be ready for this summer’s launch, however. “It is going to be very tight getting the probe ready,” says ExoMars’s manager, Pietro Baglioni. “I think we have only a 50-50 chance that we will be able to go ahead as scheduled.” ExoMars’s next launch window would then be in 2022.
For good measure, China also plans to send a probe to Mars in 2020. It has tried before to reach the red planet – in partnership with Russia. However, the Russian spaceship that was carrying China’s Yinghuo-1 probe crashed in January 2012. After that, China started its own Mars exploration programme and has completed a crucial landing test in northern Hebei province. Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration, said the lander went through a series of tests at a sprawling site littered with small mounds of rocks to simulate Mars’s terrain.
The Chinese probe, Huoxing-1, will deploy an orbiter that will circle Mars and a rover that will drop on to the planet’s surface. The mission will be launched in July or August with a Long March 5 heavy lift-off rocket. Again, the aim is to find evidence of current and past life on Mars.
Not to be outdone, the United Arab Emirates plans to launch its first deep-space probe, the Hope Mars Mission, which has been built by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in partnership with the University of Colorado and Arizona State University. The robot spacecraft will study the Martian climate and try to understand why the planet has experienced drastic climate changes.
Nasa’s Osiris-Rex, which launched in 2016, is currently orbiting Bennu, a small, spheroidal asteroid with a diameter of about 520 metres, made of carbon-rich rock – a material that scientists believe is representative of the cloud of swirling gas and dust from which the solar system formed 4.6bn years ago. This summer, Osiris-Rex will sweep close to Bennu’s surface, extend a robot arm and release a puff of gas that will send pieces of rock and dust flying up from the surface – and into a collection tube. The spacecraft will then start its journey home, releasing a container with samples of asteroid inside as it nears Earth in September 2023, so that the container drops on to the Utah desert.
However, Osiris-Rex is likely to be pipped at the post in its attempt to return pieces of asteroid to Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission. It met with the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu in June 2018 and began surveying it for a year and a half before taking samples that it is now carrying back to Earth. The probe – and its cargo – are expected to reach Earth in late 2020.
Private firms are playing an increasingly important role in reducing the cost of space travel, and this year the first astronauts are likely to fly on board commercial spacecraft. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch Crew Dragon, its first manned mission, early this year. An unmanned version docked with the International Space Station in March 2019. If successful, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is likely to become one of the main ways that US astronauts travel to and from the space station. At present, they fly with Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft after the US’s main launcher, the space shuttle, was retired in 2011.
SpaceX is not the only private company building spaceships for Nasa’s commercial crew programme. Boeing also has plans to fly astronauts to the space station in its Starliner spaceship. Exactly when this will happen is unclear, however. In December, an uncrewed version was launched into orbit with the aim of docking it with the space station. However, the spaceship failed to reach its correct altitude due to a computer malfunction and the craft had to be returned to Earth. Boeing is now reviewing telemetry data sent back by Starliner to determine if its next launch should be manned or if it should repeat another unmanned flight. If the former, then Nasa astronauts Nicole Mann and Michael Fincke, and Boeing astronaut Christopher Ferguson, will form the first crew for Starliner. When fully operational, the craft will be able to carry up to seven astronauts, the same capacity as Crew Dragon.