Space Sunday: things to watch for in 2020

An artist’s impression of ESA Solar Orbiter over the Sun. Credit: ESA

2020 is promising to be a busy year for space flight and astronomy, so I’m liable to have an even harder time sifting through all that is going on when trying to cover some of the more interesting / unusual events and missions taking place. So for the first Space Sunday of the year, I thought I’d look at some of the more notable events for the year; I can’t promise to cover all of them as the year progresses, but I’m aiming to get to as many as I can!


Apollo 13

April 1970 marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13, probably the second most famous of the Apollo lunar missions on account of what went wrong and the eventual successful return to Earth of the 3-man crew of James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. Apollo 13 was the only Apollo mission to take place in 1970, and I’ll be covering the mission nearer its anniversary.

ISS: 2020 Years of Continuous Human Presence

November 2020 will mark the 20th anniversary of a continuous human presence aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

While there had been five Space Shuttle flights to the ISS between 1998 and 2000, none constituted a continuous human presence at the station. However, on November 2nd 2019, two days after launching from the historic Gagarin Start launch pad (used to launch the first human in space / to orbit the Earth, Yuri Gagarin) at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the 3-man crew of Expedition 1, transferred from their Soyuz TM-3 vehicle to the ISS to start a 136-day stay at the station.

The crew that marked the start of a permanent human presence in space aboard the ISS: Expedition 1 crew William Shepherd (c), Flight Engineer Sergei K. Krikalev (l, later commander of Expedition 11), and Soyuz Commander Yuri P. Gidzenko (r)

The crew of NASA astronaut (and mission commander) William Shepherd, and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei K. Krikalev were not alone during their stay, being joined by the crews of space shuttles Endeavour (STS-97) and Atlantis (STS-98) during missions to further the assembly of the station. The Expedition 1 crew eventually departed the ISS on March 18th, 2001, aboard the shuttle Discovery, which had arrived on March 10th, both as a part of the assembly operations and to deliver the Expedition 2 crew who replaced Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev.

Since then, there have been 61 Expedition crew rotations, with the total number of crew on the ISS at any one time varying from between three and six people (allowing for overlaps between individual Expeditions), with some individual astronauts and cosmonauts participating in more than one rotation.

Commercial Crew Flights

The year should also mark the resumption of crewed flights between US soil and the ISS for the first time since the space shuttle ceased operations in 2011. Crews are due to start flying to the station around mid-2020 using the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle (which has already completed a successful uncrewed flight to/from the ISS), and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner (which was unable to rendezvous with the ISS during its first orbital flight).

SpaceX Crew Dragon (l) and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner: crewed lights to the International Space Station in 2020. Credit: SpaceX / Boeing

No formal dates have been given on when Crew Dragon and Starliner will start routine to the ISS, both both are expected to complete one crewed “test flight” in “early” 2020 before transitioning into “operational” flights, with the Boeing test flight possibly lasting a full 6-month crew rotation.

For SpaceX, there is one remaining critical flight test that must be completed prior to any crewed flights. This will be a flight test of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system, and is due to take place on or just after January 11th, 2020.

NASA Artemis 1

Formerly known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), NASA’s Artemis-1 mission is being targeted for a late 2020 launch as a part of the US space agency’s goal to return humans to the surface of the Moon, possibly by 2024. This mission will be the first flight of NASA’s new super booster, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be used to send an uncrewed Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle on an extended 3-week trip to cislunar space, including a week actually orbiting the Moon, before making a return to Earth.

Before the mission can take place, there are a number of critical tests the SLS system must undergo before it can be declared ready for launch, including a major engine firing test for its first stage engines. As such, whether or not Artemis-1 takes place depends on the outcome of these tests.

Space Tourism

It is anticipated that both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will commence sub-orbital flights into space for fare-paying tourists before the end of 2020. Neither company have formally committed to dates for their first flights, but Virgin Galactic has already commenced providing training and pre-flight health and diet advice for the first of the estimated 2,500 people who have made at least a significant down payment of their tickets.

An unusual view of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity about to land at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California in February 2019. Credit: Gene Blevins / Reuters

Blue Origin, meanwhile, have been ramping up their New Shephard booster / capsule launches with a series of uncrewed science and test flight in readiness for also flying their own crews and passengers.

Mars Opposition

Mid-2020 will see Mars and Earth make a relatively “close” approach to one another – something that happens every 26 months -, marking it as the most advantageous time to launch missions to the red planet. So the year should see four individual missions launched, involving multiple countries.

NASA Mars 2020: NASA’s latest (and still-to-be-named) Mars rover vehicle is due to be launched on July 17th. Of the same class of large, nuclear-powered rover as Curiosity, Mars 2020 is due to land in Jezero Crater on February 18th, 2021. However, while similar to Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover has a very different mission – to seek out direct evidence of past life on Mars, and has very different capabilities.

An artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 rover. note the revised instrument package on the rover’s arm. Credit: NASA

In particular, the rover has a completely new instrument system on its robot arm, and will be capable of depositing sealed sample containers on the surface of Mars, which will be collected and returned to Earth by a proposed future mission. In addition, it will carry the first vehicle designed to fly on Mars in the form of a small helicopter drone.

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