2021: a year of space tourism, the rise of China
From the first powered flight of the Mars Ingenuity Helicopter on another world to the launch of the James Webb Telescope that will peer into the early epoch of the Universe, 2021 has been a huge year for humanity’s space endeavors.
Beyond scientific milestones, billionaires battled to reach the final frontier first, an all-civilian crew entered orbit, and Star Trek’s William Shatner gave an in-depth explanation of what it was like to see Earth from the cosmos, as space tourism was finally taking off. .
Here are the selected highlights.
Red Planet Robot Duo
NASA’s Perseverance Rover has survived its “seven minutes of terror”, a period when the craft relies on its automated systems for descent and landing, to land safely on Mars’ Jezero crater in February.
Since then, the car-sized robot has been taking pictures and drilling samples for its mission: to determine if the Red Planet may have harbored ancient microbial lifeforms.
A rock sample return mission is planned for some time in the 2030s.
With its advanced instruments, “Percy”, as the helicopter is affectionately nicknamed, can also zap Martian rock and chemically analyze steam.
Percy has a partner for the ride: Ingenuity, a four-pound (two-kilogram) rotorcraft that achieved the first powered flight on another celestial body in April, just over a century after the Wright brothers achieved the same feat here on Earth. , and has played many more since.
“Perseverance is kind of the flagship mission, it’s doing a detailed, long-term investigation of this fascinating region of Mars,” Jonathan McDowall, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP.
In contrast, “Ingenuity is one of those cute, small, cheap little tech demos that NASA can do so well,” he added.
Knowledge gained from Ingenuity could help scientists develop Dragonfly, a planned thousand-pound drone helicopter, to search for signs of life on Saturn’s moon Titan in the mid-2030s.
Private space flight takes off
An American millionaire became the world’s first space tourist in 2001, but it took another 20 years for the promise of private spaceflight to finally materialize.
In July, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson competed against Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos to be the first non-professional astronaut to perform suborbital spaceflight.
While the British tycoon won that battle within days, it was Blue Origin that took the lead, launching three more flights with paying customers and celebrities.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX entered the fray in September with a three-day orbital mission around Earth with an all-civilian crew on Inspiration 4.
“It’s really exciting that finally, after so long, this stuff is finally happening,” said space industry analyst Laura Seward Forczyk, author of the forthcoming book “Becoming Off-Worldly,” intended to prepare future space travelers.
But it was William Shatner, who played the swordsman Captain Kirk in the 1960s TV series “Star Trek,” who stole the show with a moving account of his experience.
“What you despise is Mother Earth, and she needs to be protected,” he told reporters.
A Russian crew shot the first feature film in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021, and Japanese tourists took their own tour there aboard a Russian rocket.
For a few minutes on December 11, there were a record 19 humans in space when Blue Origin flew its third crewed mission, the Japanese team was on the ISS with their normal crew, and the Chinese taikonauts were in position on their station.
However, the sight of wealthy elites galloping through the cosmos did not please everyone, and the nascent space tourism industry sparked a backlash from some who said there were more problems. pressing issues to face, such as climate change, here on Earth.
Globalization of space
During the Cold War, space was dominated by the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Now, in addition to the explosion of the commercial sector, which is sending out satellites at a dizzying rate, China, India and others are increasingly flexing their spaceflight muscles.
China’s Tiangong (Palace in the Sky) space station – its first long-term outpost – launched in April, while its first Mars rover, Zhurong, landed in May, making it the only second country to achieve such a feat.
“For the past 20 years, since China finally decided to go into space, it’s been in catch-up mode,” McDowall said. “And now they’re kind of over there, and they’re starting to do things that the United States hasn’t done.”
The United Arab Emirates placed a probe in Mars orbit in February, becoming the first Arab nation and the fifth overall to reach the planet.
Meanwhile, Russia launched a missile at one of its own satellites, becoming the fourth country to strike a spacecraft from the ground, reigniting concerns about the growing space arms race.
Washington criticized Moscow for its “reckless” test, which generated more than 1,500 large pieces of orbital debris, dangerous for low Earth orbit missions such as the ISS.
The year ended with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a US$10 billion marvel that will use infrared technology to travel back 13 billion years in time.
“It’s arguably the most expensive single science platform ever created,” said Casey Drier, lead attorney for the Planetary Society.
“To push the limits of our knowledge of the cosmos, we had to build something capable of accessing this ancient past,” he added.
It will reach Lagrange Point 2, a space landmark a million miles from Earth, in a few weeks, then start up and gradually calibrate its systems, coming online around June.
Also next year will see the launch of Artemis 1 – when NASA’s Giant Space Launch System (SLS) will carry the Orion capsule to the Moon and back, in preparation for America’s return with humans later this decade.
NASA plans to build lunar habitats and use lessons learned for advanced missions to Mars in the 2030s.
Observers are heartened that the agenda launched by former President Donald Trump has continued under Joe Biden — even if he hasn’t made his support as clear.
Finally, next fall, NASA’s DART probe will hit an asteroid to deflect it from its trajectory.
The proof-of-concept test is a dry run should humanity ever stop a giant space rock from wiping out life on Earth, as seen in Netflix’s new hit movie “Don’t Look Up.”