Countdown to a New Year in Space

Mars 2020 during EDL

Header image: Artist’s impression of the Perseverance rover entering the Martian atmosphere (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

“There are many troubles in the world, of course – these are important and we need to solve them. But we also need things that make us excited to be alive, that make us glad to wake up in the morning.”

– Elon musk

2020 has been, to say the least, a difficult year for humanity. However, it has also been marked by great achievements in space exploration; a testament to what we can achieve despite adversity. As we approach the arrival of 2021, let’s take a look at the year’s highlights in space exploration.

The Mars Probes

This year, we celebrated the successful launches of three Mars probes that will continue to expand our knowledge of the Red Planet.

The al-Amal probe, whose name means ‘hope’ in Arabic, is the United Arab Emirates’ first mission to Mars, leaving Earth on July 19th aboard an H-IIA booster. On arrival, it will study Mars’s climate and weather. This is the first step in the Gulf nation’s ambitious hundred-year plan to build a city on the Red Planet.

Al-Amal probe
al-Amal probe in construction (image credit: Emirates Mars Mission/Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.)

Tianwen-1 left Earth on July 23rd aboard a Long March 5 booster. It is named after an ancient Chinese poem with a title that translates to ‘Heavenly Questions’. Aptly, this namesake composition poses questions to the gods about how the universe was made. Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter and lander, which will search for signs of past life and study the geology of Mars. China plans to continue exploring deeper into the cosmos with future planned missions to the Red Planet, the asteroid belt, and the outer Solar System.

Tianwen-1
Tianwen-1 during testing (image credit: China Aerospace Technology Corporation.)

As for NASA, the Perseverance and Ingenuity missions left Earth on July 30th riding an Atlas V booster, and are en-route to Jezero Crater. Perseverance will try to make oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, look for signs of past life, and collect regolith samples for a future Mars sample return mission. Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to fly powered in another planet’s atmosphere and will act as a robotic scout. Together, the duo will pave the way for both subsequent robotic Mars exploration as well as the first crewed missions.

Perseverance rover
Perseverance and Ingenuity, artist’s impression (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

The trials and tribulations of 2020 imbue the names of these robotic emissaries with special meaning. They are the best traits of humanity: Perseverance, through adversity; Ingenuity, to solve problems; Hope, against all odds; Heavenly Questions, that drive us to explore and learn.

Each of these three missions are scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet in February, offering the promise of an exciting and inspiring kick-off to the new year.

The Mars Society Tele-convention

2020 was also a significant year for the growth of the shared dream of sending humans to Mars.

Though pandemic measures prevented the 23rd Annual Mars Society Convention from happening in person it was nevertheless an inspiring, influential event. Using a creative online format helped make the event more accessible, with 150 speakers from across the globe and a record-breaking 1 million total views.

The Mars Society Conference
The official poster of the 23rd Annual Mars Society Convention (image credit: the Mars Society.)

Highlights included presentations by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine on Project Artemis, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk about his plans for Mars, and Virgin Galactic Chief Space Officer George Whitesides. A special highlight for the Mars Society of Canada was a presentation by Aastha Kacha and Jin Sing Sia on the design of Mars habitats using origami.

In fact, 2020 has been a great year for The Mars Society of Canada over all. Despite pandemic restrictions, we continue to received growing support, and to welcome an ever-increasing membership. With many plans in the works for next year, momentum is growing for our mission to educate, inspire and mobilize the public towards Mars exploration.

The SpaceX Starship

An accounting of this year’s exciting Mars exploration developments would – of course – be remiss without revisiting the historic SpaceX SN8 test flight.

In a true aerospace spectacle, SpaceX demonstrated the launch, ‘belly-flop’ descent, engine relight, and near-successful landing of a 12-story tall Starship prototype, advancing the development of their Mars transportation architecture by several milestones. CEO Elon Musk plans to send an uncrewed Starship to Mars in 2024, with humans soon to follow. If you haven’t seen the test, watch this mini-documentary from Cosmic Perspective:

Musk’s tweet afterwards says it all:

Elsewhere in Space

Mars was not the only celestial body that received attention this year.

With the signing of the Artemis Accords by the space agencies of Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, the foundations have been laid for sustainable international exploration of the Moon. Canada will contribute Canadarm3 to the Lunar Gateway, a robotic arm which will leverage artificial intelligence to perform tasks autonomously. In return, in an exciting and unexpected move, a Canadian astronaut will join NASA on a flyby of the Moon on Artemis II, currently scheduled for 2023. If successful, Canada would be the second nation in history to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.

The Canadian Space Agency Zoom Meeting
The Canadian Space Agency officially announced that a Canadian astronaut would be on Artemis II earlier this month (image credit: Global News)

This year also saw critical milestones for two notable asteroid sample collection missions.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) probe successfully collected samples from the asteroid Bennu, coming away with a sample container literally overflowing with asteroid material. It is expected to return to Earth in 2023.

JAXA’s Hayabusa2 probe (Japanese for ‘Peregrine Falcon 2’) returned its own samples from the asteroid Ryugu earlier this month after an arduous six years in space. These samples are material left over from the ancient formation of the Solar System billions of years ago, which will further our understanding of our origins.

Take a look at OSIRIS-REx collecting its sample here:

And last but not least, the successful demonstration of crewed flight on the SpaceX Dragon DEMO-2 mission by beloved ‘space dads’ Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

Bob Behnken and Dough Hurley
Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) pictured in the SpaceX Dragon capsule (image credit: SpaceX.)

This was the first time that a crew had ever been launched into space by a commercial provider. Bob and Doug launched from Cape Canaveral on May 30th, in a Dragon capsule christened Endeavor atop a Falcon 9. They then proceeded to dock with the International Space Station for sixty-two days, before splashing down safely in the Gulf of Mexico.

This success led to the first operational crewed flight of the Dragon, CREW-1, with the capsule aptly christened Resilience. It carried NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and a Baby Yoda plushie to the International Space Station. All five plan to return to Earth in May 2021.

Victor Glover
The Child (left) stole the show on CREW-1. Pictured is NASA astronaut and spacecraft pilot Victor Glover (right) (image source: NASA TV.)

Looking Forward

As we look towards 2021 with hope for a better year, we can at least feel secure in the guarantee of some exhilarating and inspiring space exploration events to come:

February: Amal, Tianwen-1, Perseverance, and Ingenuity will arrive at Mars, kicking off in earnest the missions of three nations at the Red Planet.

May: Resilience will return to Earth from the International Space Station, ending the first ever operational flight of the SpaceX Dragon.

October: The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch, promising to throw more light onto the birth of our universe.

November: The launch of Artemis I is planned late in the year, testing the SLS and Orion stack for lunar operations and also deploying an array of science CubeSats.

With the advancements made in commercial space operations, the barriers to space access are falling, making it more accessible to the public. Beyond low Earth orbit, the old dream of walking on Mars is starting to tangibly move from fiction to reality. We are witnessing the first instants of a new boom in space exploration, with beneficial implications for science, for the space economy, and for life on Earth.

With all this to look forward to and considering all that we have already accomplished, it is hard not to get excited.

Happy holidays from the Mars Society of Canada and on to Mars!

“Whereon are the nine spheres rolled?
What divisions do they hold?
Who the planets’ course defines?
Or who chose the zodiac signs?”

– Excerpt from Heavenly Questions, by Qu Yuan (translated by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang)

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