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.

ESA Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover: after decades of development, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars rover is due to be launched in July / August. The UK-built rover will arrive on Mars in early 2021 to seek organic material and other signs of life, drilling up to 6 feet below the Martian surface in the process. Unlike NASA’s rover, Rosalind Franklin is solar powered, so its primary mission period is set to seven months, but will be subject to extension.

Rosalind Franklin will be launched using a Russian Proton-M booster and use a Russian landing vehicle named Kazachok, which will operate as a independent science base when the rover has departed it. A precise landing site for the lander / rover has yet to be confirmed, but the likely target will be Oxia Planum.

An artist’s impression of the Rosalind Franklin rover. Credit: ESA

UAE Hope Orbiter: the United Arab Emirates Hope orbiter is an ambitious mission to study the Martian climate, observe weather events and seasonal cycles in an attempt to answer some of the fundamental questions about the planet’s atmosphere and climate change. The mission is led by the UAE and involves US and Japanese expertise, with the latter providing the launch vehicle – a HA-IIA booster, due to lift-off in July 2020.

China HX-1: China’s Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover (currently referenced as HX-1, although this name will change) is intended to be China’s first Mars mission, again launching in July or August. Little is formally known about the mission, other than the orbiter will mass around 3-tonnes, while the rover will be of a similar class to the lunar Yutu rovers. The landing site has also yet to be confirmed, but China has indicated that it will likely be in a “safe” region of Mars such as Chryse Planitia and on the Elysium Mons.

A mock-up of China’s 2020 Mars rover was displayed at the 69th International Astronautical Congress. Credit: Pablo de León‎

Notable New and Current Missions

ESA’s Solar Orbiter: due for launch in February 2020 atop a United launch Alliance (UAE) Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the European Solar Orbiter will commence a 3-year journey that will use fly-bys of Earth and Venus to reach a polar orbit around the Sun, where it will remain at an average distance of some 41.6 million km. Once there, and travelling at the same speed at which the Sun’s atmosphere rotates, the orbiter will be able to study specific regions of the solar atmosphere beyond the reach of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe for long periods of time.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx:  NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, launched in September 2016, will make its closest approach to asteroid Bennu in July of 2020. Descending to the surface, the spacecraft will extend its TAGSAM robotic arm and gather samples of regolith from the asteroid, which it will return to Earth for analysis in 2023.

Japan’s Hayabusa2: between June 2018 through November 2019, Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission studied asteroid Ryugu and gathered samples of surface material. In late 2020, it will return those samples to Earth for analysis in the hopes of they will reveal more about the early history of the Solar System and its formation and evolution.

China’s Chang’e 5: due for launch in December 2020, Chang’e 5 will be China’s third lander / rover mission to the surface of the Moon. It will attempt return up to at least 2 kilograms of lunar soil and rock samples to Earth for analysis.

SpaceX Starliner: it is anticipated that at least one of the SpaceX Starliner prototype vehicles will make a series of test flights in 2020, including a possible orbital flight and recovery.

Orbital Internet launches:

  • SpaceX will expand its Starlink programme, launching around 60 of the Internet relay satellites every two weeks starting on January 6th or shortly thereafter, until the initial network of some 1,600 satellites is in a 550 km altitude orbit ready to commence operations. Currently, SpaceX has global approval to launch 12,000 of the satellites in a series of 3 “shells” at 340 km, 550 km 1,150 km altitudes. However, the number could rise to 42,000 over the next few years, if additional approval is granted.
  • OneWeb is due to commence a similar launches on January 30th when it will place 34 Internet communications satellites in orbit. Overall, the company plans to launch 650 such satellites in batches of around 30, with a minimum of two further launches to take place in 2020.

The volume of these satellites has given rise to concerns on their impact of a range of astronomical activities (notably deep sky surveys and searches for near-Earth objects that might pose an impact threat) due to their high reflectivity and motion interfering with such observations. As a result, SpaceX has stated it will work to reduce the reflectivity of “future” Starlink satellites in the hope that they won’t be so much of an obvious interference with such observations.


Note: there will be several “supermoon” full moons, as well a oppositions with various planets throughout 2020. Most of these aren’t listed below in the interests of brevity.

January 5th-12th: the Quadrantids meteor shower (December-January annually) can be one of the most remarkable shooting-star displays of the year as the Earth passes through orbit of 2003 EH1. During the peak period (just passed on the 3rd/4th January), it can result in 100 “shooting stars” per hour. Following peak, they should still be visible in clear skies throughout the night until January 12th, appearing in the north-east sky for those in the northern hemisphere, and for those above 51º south in the southern hemisphere.

January 10th-11th: a prenumbral lunar eclipse will be visible from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and parts of North and South America.

The four lunar eclipses for 2020. Top left: January 10th/11th; top right: June 5th/6th. Bottom left: July 4th/5th; bottom right: November 29th/30th. The pink portions of the maps show area where the eclipses will be visible while the grey areas of the disks indicate the portion of the Moon that will be in shadow

April 7th: the Moon will arrive at its closest point to the Earth for 2020, with an extreme perigee distance of 356,907 km. Coinciding with a full Moon, it will give rise to the “biggest Moon of 2020” (aka a “supermoon”), whilst also giving rise to a dramatically large range of high and low ocean tides.

April 21st-22nd: the Lyrid meteor shower reaches its peak as the Earth passes through debris from the tail of comet Thatcher. A northern hemisphere shower, with their radiant (apparent point of origin) to the right and slightly above Vega in the constellation of Lyra (hence their name), they should be visible though most of the night during their peak. As there is a new Moon of April 23rd, there should be little in the way of light reflected by the Moon to interfere with seeing them if the sky is clear.

June 5th-6th: a prenumbral lunar eclipse will be visible from the Antarctic, Australia, Africa, the Pacific Ocean, much of Asia and Europe and eastern parts of South America.

June 21st: an annular solar eclipse (when the disk of the Moon doesn’t fully cover the disk of the Sun) will be visible across central south-east Europe, Africa into the Middle East, much of Asia and parts of northern Australia.

Path of the June 21st annular solar eclipse. The blue line show the regions directly under the path of the eclipse that will have the best view, although areas north (as far as Japan) and south (as far as northern Australia) of the track will also be able to witness it to varying degrees

July 4th-5th: a prenumbral lunar eclipse will be visible from much of Europe, Africa, much of North America and from South America.

August 11th-12th: the Perseids meteor shower (generally mid-July though late August) reach their peak. With its radiant in Perseus, this shower is best seen from the northern hemisphere and is caused by the Earth passing through the orbit of comet Swift-Tuttle. The peak period can result in 60-80 “shooting stars” being seen per hour.

October 9th-10th: the Southern Taurids meteor shower reaches its peak as Earth crosses the orbit of comet Encke. They can peak at different times in October, and when closer to the end of the month, are sometimes called the Halloween Fireballs. They occur at a much lower rate than other showers – perhaps 5-8 per hour during peak often making them harder to witness.

October 21st-22nd: the Orionids meteor shower reaches its peak is the most prolific meteor shower associated with Halley’s Comet. Whilst their radiant is well within the constellation of Orion, they can be seen over a large area of the sky. Orionids are a relative short-lived event each year (lasting approximately a week to 10 days), and can produce up to 50–70 “shooting stars” per hour.

November 11-12th: the Northern Taurids meteor shower. These are nothing to do with the debris of comet Encke, but are believed to be the result of material ejected from asteroid 2004 TG10.

November 16th-17th: the Leonids meteor shower reaches its peak. Associated with the Earth passing through tail of comet Tempel–Tuttle, the Leonids are known for their spectacular meteor storms that occur about every 33 years, when up to 1,000 “shooting stars” can be seen per hour. Unfortunately, 2020 isn’t one of those years, and the predicted maximum liable to be between 10-15 per hour.

November 29th-30th: a prenumbral lunar eclipse will be visible from eastern Europe, Asia, Australia, North America and South America.

December 13th-14th: the Geminids meteor shower reaches its peak. The best of the annual showers, they can produce 60-120 meteors per hour at peak, and are best seen between 22:00-04:00 local time each night / morning. They are caused by the Earth passing through the debris of 3200 Phaethon, a so-called “rock comet”, marking them (together with the Quadrantids) as the only major meteor shower not to originate from a comet. A new Moon coinciding with this year’s peak should make the Geminids spectacular, clear skies free from other light pollution permitting.

December 14th: total eclipse of the Sun. Only visible from the lower two-thirds of South America and a narrow slice of south-western Africa, 2020’s total eclipse will be difficult for most people to witness in person, but will likely be broadcast on-line.