2020 in Spaceflight

By Byron Perry


2020 was a categorically terrible year. A year in which there seemed to be no good news, with every headline bringing more death and disruption to everyday life. However, if there is one thing that unites all of humankind in excitement and optimism, it is spaceflight: the exploration of the final frontier. In this article we round up the most important events in spaceflight that happened in 2020.


Crew Dragon Roars


Left - Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley sit in the futuristic Dragon 2 Capsule (Museum of Arts and Science). Right - Dragon 2 capsule docks with the International Space Station on DM-1 (NASA).

This year saw the launch of the Dragon 2 Capsule, a brand new ride for humans into space. It is the first space capsule developed by a private company and the first American spacecraft capable of transporting humans since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 (from 2011-2020 all American astronauts had to fly on the Russian Soyuz capsule). The capsule is built by the American company SpaceX and is launched on top of their Falcon 9 rocket, known for being able to land and be reused. It can carry a maximum of 7 astronauts and is a modern high tech vehicle controlled by touchscreens. It was first launched to carry astronauts on 30 May 2020 from Kennedy Space Center Florida with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard. It docked to the ISS (International Space Station) a day later and spent 62 days there. It then landed in the Gulf of Mexico on the 2 August 2020, after having a perfect mission (NASA). The Crew Dragon launched again on 16 November 2020 with 4 astronauts, (3 American and 1 Japanese) again to the ISS.


Mars Armada


Left - The Al Amal (Hope) Mars Mission (Emirates Mars Mission). Center - Tianwen 1 lander and rover (Global Times). Right - Perseverance Mars Rover (NASA).

This year saw three missions, from all over the globe launch to the red planet. This is because 2020 was a year with a Mars launch window. Every 2 years and 2 months Earth and Mars line up, making it by far the easiest time to launch a spacecraft to Mars. The last window was in 2018. The missions were as follows:

  • The Al Amal (Hope) Mars mission.- This is a probe from the United Arab Emirates and is their first space mission. It is a spacecraft that will orbit Mars, investigating primarily its weather. It was launched from Tangeshima Space Center in Japan, on the 19 of July on top of a Japanese HII rocket (UAE Space Agency).

  • The Tianwen (Heavenly Question) 1 Mars Mission - A somewhat ‘jack of all trades’ mission from China, It consists of three parts: an orbiter (stays in space orbiting Mars), lander (lands on the surface but cannot move) and rover (lands on the surface and moves). It will study the Martian atmosphere, its soil, and investigate whether Mars ever had life. It was launched on 23 July 2020 on a Chinese Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang Space Center, and would land on 21 April 2021 on Utopia Planitia (Plain of Paradise) (Amos).

  • Perseverance Mars Rover- An American rover around the size of a car, it is a successor to the Curiosity Rover that has been roaming the red planet since 2012. It will search for signs of past Martian life in the Jezero Crater. It will also collect Martian soil and rock to potentially be picked up and taken back to earth by a future mission. Most excitingly (in my opinion) is that it carries a small 1.8 kg robotic helicopter called ‘Ingenuity’. This will fly on Mars, taking aerial pictures of the surface. This will be the first powered flight on another planet. It was launched on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 30 July 2020, and will land in the Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021.


Sample Return Bonanza


Left - OSIRIS-REX (NASA). Center - Scientists examining the sample return capsule of Chang’e 5 after it landed in the Mongolian steppe (BBC). Right - Hayabusa 2 returning to Earth (NASA).

Sample return missions are ones that return samples of other celestial bodies to Earth, so they can be studied. 2020 saw a buzz of sample return activity, with three different missions hitting milestones or being completed. OSIRIS-REX, a NASA probe to the asteroid Bennu sampled the asteroid on 20 October and began its journey back home to Earth, where it will arrive in 2023. The spacecraft in fact performed too well, it collected so much regolith (the scientific term for loose material on the surface of a celestial body) that the craft could not close its lid! (NASA) Somewhat akin to not being able to close a suitcase after coming back from a holiday.

Hayabusa 2, a Japanese probe returned samples from asteroid Ryugu in 2020. Launched in 2014 it arrived at the asteroid in June 2018, leaving in November 2019 it returned to Earth on 5 December 2020, dropping off its capsule containing 5.4 grams of precious asteroid material in the Australian Outback. This means that the mission was a massive success, the target was 0.1 grams of material so the scientists obtained 54x the target! (Japan Times) However the mission is not even over, as the spacecraft still has fuel left it will visit two more asteroids, one in 2026 and another in 2031!


The final sample return mission was the Chinese Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission. Launched on the 23rd of November 2020, and returning 1.7kg of lunar regolith on 16 December 2020 the complex mission was completed in a very short time frame and completed a large number of firsts. The mission had four components: a spacecraft, an orbiter, lander, ascent stage and reentry capsule. They launched together and traveled to lunar orbit. The lander and ascent stage separated and landed near Mons Rümker (Rümker Mountain) in the Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms) on the Moon. Over 2 days, 1-3 December, they scooped and drilled 1.7kg of material. The ascent stage then lifted off and docked to the orbiter, making it the first autonomous (without human control) docking in lunar orbit. The sample was then transferred to the reentry vehicle and the ascent stage undocked from the orbiter. The orbiter returned to Earth, leaving the ascent stage to crash onto the Moon. The re-entry capsule then landed via parachute in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia (Amos).


Conclusion

In conclusion 2020 was a great year in space flight. Unfortunately I couldn’t possibly cover everything in this article. For example the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, or SpaceX’s rapid development of the Starship vehicle set to revolutionise space flight, a topic that requires its own article to do it justice. However I hope that this article provides a good summary of events and shines light on some of the positive events that happened in 2020.


References

Amos, Jonatham. “Chinese spacecraft sets off on Moon sample quest.” bbc.co.uk, 23

November 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55049547.

Accessed 3 January 2021.

Amos, Jonathan. “China's Tianwen-1 Mars rover rockets away from Earth.” bbc.co.uk, 23 July

2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-53504797. Accessed 3 January

2021.

Japan Times. “Hayabusa2 returned with 5 grams of asteroid soil, far more than target.”

japantimes.co.jp, Japan Times, 19 December 2020,

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/12/19/national/science-health/hayabusa2

asteroid-soil/. Accessed 3 January 2020.

NASA. “Hayabusa 2.” https://solarsystem.nasa.gov, 26 March 2019,

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/hayabusa-2/in-depth/. Accessed 3 January 2021.

NASA. “Launch America.” nasa.gov, 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/specials/dm2/. Accessed 3

January 2021.

NASA. “Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission.” mars.nasa.gov, 2020,

https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/. Accessed 3 January 2021.

NASA. “OSIRIS-REX.” nasa.gov, 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/osiris-rex. Accessed 3 January

2021.

UAE Space Agency. “Emirates Mars Mission Overview.” https://www.emiratesmarsmission.ae,

2020, https://www.emiratesmarsmission.ae/mission/about-emm. Accessed 3 January

2021.