Space Sunday: previewing missions in 2021

The uncrewed NASA Artemis-1 mission, featuring the first flight of the Block 1 Space Launch System (SLS) carrying an Orion MPCV at the start of a 26-day mission to and around the Moon, should occur towards the end of 2021. Credit: NASA

Despite the pandemic, 2020 proved to be a busy year for space activities, with a range of significant launches of both government-led / overseen missions and private sector launches. However, as busy and as challenging as it was, 2020 potential pales somewhat in comparison to what we should / will hopefully see in 2021. So, as with last year, I thought I’d kick-off Space Sunday in 2021 with a look ahead to some of the year’s  space missions.


2021 will see three new arrivals orbiting and landing on Mars.

The first to arrive will be the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft. Launched on July 20th, 2020 from Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan atop a H-IIA rocket, the mission comprises an orbiter vehicle designed to study the Martian atmosphere and climate.

Built entirely in the UAE, the mission marks the first attempt to operate an interplanetary mission by any West Asian, Arab or Muslim-majority country. It carries a range of science systems provided by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and the University of Colorado Boulder with support from Arizona State University (ASU), and the University of California, Berkeley. Hope is due to arrive in an initial orbit around Mars on February 9th, 2021.

The UAE Hope orbiter Credit: Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre via the New York Times

China’s Tianwan-1 (“Questions to  Heaven”) mission will be the next to arrive in Mars orbit. The precise date has yet to be confirmed, but orbital insertion should happen between the 11th and 24th February, 2021. It is an incredibly ambitious mission,  comprising a total of 13 science instruments and experiments, split between two distinct mission elements.

The first of these is the orbiter vehicle, which will commence operations almost immediately. It is tasked with producing Martian surface maps, characterising the Martian atmosphere – notably its ionosphere, measuring the Martian magnetic field, examining the composition of the Martian subsurface via radar, and imaging the surface of Mars in high-resolution. As a part of the latter work, the orbiter will carry out extensive surveys of the proposed landing zones for the second part of the mission: a lander / rover.

These will deploy some time around April  23rd. The rover’s mission is to examine the Martian sub-surface to a depth of around 100 metres using ground-penetrating radar and study of Martian weather systems. In particular, both elements of Tianwen-1 will aim to find evidence of current or past life on Mars.

The third mission that will arrive at the Red Planet will be the NASA Mars 2020 mission, comprising the rover Perseverance and the robot helicopter Ingenuity. Unlike the other two missions, Mars 2020 won’t spend any time in orbit: instead, it will proceed directly to atmospheric entry and delivering its payload to the surface on February 18th, 2021.

The primary goal of Perseverance will be to seek signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, and will also search for evidence — or biosignatures — of past microbial life and water. As with Curiosity, the rover is powered by a nuclear “battery”, capable of keeping the rover operating for some 14 years. Based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover, it will be delivered to the surface of Mars in the same manner – using a “skycrane” system.

NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter. Credit: NASA via the New York Times

Ingenuity, the helicopter will arrive on Mars attached to the underside of the rover. Some time in the first few months after arrival, the rover will deposit it on the surface, and it will then complete around 5 flights over a 30-day period. Fully automated, and lasting up to 3 minutes apiece, these flights will each carry Ingenuity up to 10 metres altitude and a distance of up to 600 metres. The primary aim of the mission is to test the ability of an automated aerial vehicle to support ground operations on Mars, in this case, helping to map the best driving route for the rover as it explores Jezero Crater.

The Moon

While America’s Project Artemis is unlikely to achieve its original goal of returning humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024, the coming years should see a number of significant lunar missions take place in the run-up to an eventual human return to our natural satellite.

In April, NASA will launch  CAPSTONE, the Cis-lunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Experiment via a commercial electron rocket. A cubesat mission, CAPSTONE is intended to test and verify the calculated orbital stability planned for the Lunar Gateway space station.

In July a privately-funded mission in support of Artemis will deliver 14 NASA- funded science missions and 14 private-sector missions to the surface of the Moon, including a trio of rovers – one from the USA, one from Japan, and a novel mini walking robot from the UK called Asagumo. Originally a contender for the lunar X-Prize, the Peregrine mission has been expanded by NASA to test technologies that may be used in support of Artemis. It will be the first operational flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

On October 11th (or thereabouts) the Intuitive Machines 1 (IM-1) mission will  similarly deliver a NASA science payload to the surface of the Moon on the company’s NOVA-C lander.

An artist’s impression of the 3m tall NOVA-C lander on the surface of the Moon. Credit: Intuitive Machines

Launched via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the mission will target a relatively flat area near Vallis Schröteri in the Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms), where it will operate the package of 5 science systems on behalf of NASA. Overall, NOVA-C is designed to be a highly flexible lander system standing up to 3 metres tall and capable of delivering a wide range of small payloads to the Moon.

The end of the year should also see the first launch of NASA’s massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, intended to be the core workhorse for the Artemis programme, as well as offering a potential heavy launch vehicle NASA’s deep space aspirations.

The Artemis-1 mission, currently slated for November 2021, will be the first launch of a the Block 1 variant of the launcher. It will send an uncrewed Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to the Moon in a 26-day mission that will include 6 days in which the Orion capsule and its service vehicle will be in a retrograde orbit around the Moon, followed by a return to Earth and splashdown. If successful, the mission will pave the wave for a crewed mission around the Moon in 2023.

October will see Russia make a return to with the launch of the Luna 25 (formerly Luna-Glob) lander combination on October 1st, 2021. Directly to land in the Boguslavsky Crater near the lunar south pole, the mission will characterise the nature of the crater floor, including the presences of any sub-surface water ice, and will attempt to obtain samples for on-board analysis.  The mission was renamed “Luna 25” to mark it as a direct continuance of the old Soviet Luna missions, the last of which – Luna 24 – took place in 1976.

India also intends to expand on its lunar presence in 2021 with the launch of its Chandrayaan 3 mission. A proof-of-concept mission, it is designed to deliver a lander and rover directly to the surface of the Moon (no orbiter vehicle will be used), and is a follow-on to India’s Chandrayaan 2, which successfully placed an orbiter of that name about the Moon (which is still operating), but saw a failure with its Vikram lander and Pragyan rover, lost when a software error resulted in them crashing into the Moon, rather than landing on it.

Asteroid Missions

NASA’s Double-Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on July 21st, 2021. DART is intended to test whether a whether a spacecraft impact could successfully deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. The target is the double asteroid 65803 Didymos, which DART will reach in October 2022, impacting the tiny “moon” orbiting the asteroid and dubbed “Didymoon”. Before it does so, DART will release LICIACube, an Italian-developed cubesat, which will observe impact.

The latter part of the year should see the launch of two further NASA asteroid missions. The Lucy mission is set to launch in October at the start of what is intended to be a 12-year mission. In 2025, it will fly by the inner main-belt asteroid 52246 Donaldjohanson, which was named for the discoverer of the Lucy hominin fossil (hence the name of the mission).

In 2027 the vehicle will arrive at the L4 Jovian Trojan asteroids, a group of asteroids gravitationally trapped to follow Jupiter in its orbits around the Sun, but some 60º ahead of it. After studying four of the asteroids, Lucy will loop back to Earth and use a gravity-assist to slingshot itself to the L5 Jovian Trojans travelling some 60º behind Jupiter in its orbit around the Sun. Arriving in 2033, Lucy will study the binary asteroid system of 617 Patroclus and Menoetius. The spacecraft will then be able to travel back and forth between the Jovian L4 and L5 asteroid clouds, studying them both in an attempt to reveal clues about their origins and those of the solar system as a whole.

The Lucy mission. Credit: Southwest Research Institute

The second mission will be the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, a rather unique mission that will utilise a cubesat powered by a solar sail to complete a science mission to increase our knowledge of the number of sub-100 metre asteroids that routinely cross Earth’s orbit. As a cubesat mission, it will be one of 13 such missions to be launched by the Artemis-1 mission  whilst en route to the Moon.

Other Major Science Missions

The second of Italy’s Laser Relativity Satellite (LARES-2) is due to launch on an ESA Vega-C rocket in June 2021. A follow-up to the first LARES mission in 2012, it is intended to further refine the measurement of the relativistic effect known as frame-dragging.

September should see SpaceX launch NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), a trio of identical X-ray telescopes that will work in tandem to study the polarisation of cosmic X-ray sources.

Barring any further delays, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is due to be launched at the end of October 2021. Built by NASA and to be launched by the European Ariane 5 rocke, JWST ins intended to operate in a halo orbit around the Sun – Earth Lagrange 2 (L2) position, where the gravitational attraction of both planet and star are mutually cancelled. Deployment will take some 16 days, after which what is potentially the greatest space telescope deployment of the 2020s, will set out to revolutionise our understanding of the cosmos – and of many exoplanet systems.

JWST: launch and deployment should hopefully occur in late 2021 Credit: NASA

Crewed Missions

SpaceX will send three Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021, including the first fully private mission for Axiom Space aboard the Crew Dragon capsule Resilience in October. Axiom plans to launch several modules in the mid-2020s that will be attached to the ISS. Then, when the latter come to the end of its operational life in the late 2020s, the company plans to detach the modules and use them to form the first commercial orbital space station. These crew launches via SpaceX are a part of them programme / goal.

Boeing should also launch two crewed missions to the ISS in 2021 – a crewed flight test in July, and an operational flight with four crew later in the year. However, both are contingent on a further uncrewed flight test set for the end of March.

China will commence its aim to establish a space station with the launch of the Tianhe (“unification of Heaven”) core module unit. Massing 22 tonnes, the module will provide life support and living quarters for three crew members, as well as guidance, navigation, and orientation control for the station.  Additional modules will be added over the next couple of years to establish a facility around 1/4 the size of the ISS.

Whilst it will not be crewed, India will undettake the first orbital flight and recovery of its Gaganyaan (Sanskrit for “sky-craft”)  capsule system. Scheduled for the end of the year, it will be followed by a second uncrewed flight in early 2022, and then fly with a crew of three later that year, marking India as only the 4th country to have its own human-rated launch system.

An artist’s impression of India’s Gaganyaan vehicle in orbit. The conical element is the crew capsule, the circular / square section the service and propulsion module. Credit: Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

Russia will re-enter the space tourism market, as two of its three planned Soyuz flights for the year will include fare-paying passengers who will fly to the ISS.

Commercial Activities

There will be a lot of commercial activities throughout the year, the following is just a short list of highlights.

SpaceX will continue its Starship development programme, with the potential of an orbital flight of a Starship vehicle before the end of the year. There is also the likelihood of a Super Heavy booster test flight. The company will also continue to deploy its Starlink constellation of Internet satellites.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin should complete their first flights carrying fare-paying passengers on sub-orbital flights. Virgin Galactic is on course to commence flights aboard VSS Unity, the second of their SpaceShipTwo vehicles possibly as early as Q2 2021, while Blue Origin are looking to conduct their first passenger launch of their New Shepard vehicle in the latter part of 2021.

Blue Origin also hope to complete the first launch(es) of their 2-stage New Glenn rocket. Capable of lifting some 45 tonnes to low Earth orbit, New Glenn is designed to have a reusable first stage, akin to the SpaceX Falcon 9 and compete in the medium / heavy launch market.

Aevum CEO Jay Skylus poses in front of Ravn X at an undisclosed location. Credit: Aevum

A new reusable launch vehicle is also set to take to the air in the form of the RAVN-X drone platform. Developed by Aevum, RAVN-X is billed as the “world largest Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV). Fully autonomous, the 24-metre long vehicle has an 18.5 m wingspan, and is designed to operate entirely autonomously, taking off from any suitable runway to climb to an altitude of between 18 and 20 km, where it will release a 2-stage rocket that can deliver small satellite payloads to orbit. The drone is fully reusable, while Aevum plan to make the first stage of the booster rocket reusable in the future.

Initially operating from Jacksonville, Florida, RAVN-X could in theory operate from any airport in the world, running as a does on standard aviation fuel and with flight systems fully capable of responding to air traffic requirements. As such, Aevum claim the system could eventually make one launch every 180 minutes, with vehicles operating from multiple locations around the world to meet customer needs.

The RAVN-X system: reusable autonomous aerial carrier vehicle, and two-stage rocket that carries payloads to orbit. Credit: Aveum

And There’s More

All of the above barely scratches the surface of new and ongoing missions in 2021 – I’ve not mentioned, for example, Europe’s BepiColombo or Solar Orbiter missions, both of which will be performing gravity-assists. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will join Japan’s Hayabusa-2 in returning asteroid samples to Earth for study, while NASA’s Juno mission around Jupiter will come to an end. I’ll hopefully have news on these and more – as well as on astronomical subjects – through the year, alongside coverage of all the the missions mentioned above.