A look at astronomy and space exploration in 2021, including two lunar eclipses, a trio of spacecraft arrive at Mars, and Russia returns to the Moon.
As we put 2020 behind us, we look forward to 2021, examining how the new year could change our understanding of the Cosmos. The coming year offers hope for new insights into our Sun and Mars, while space agencies around the globe plan to forge forward with the robotic and human exploration of space.
Of course, as we all learned from 2020, one should never count on a year going according to plan.
At times, astronomy often offers us a chance at absolute certainty — for example, we can predict eclipses and planetary movements centuries in advance. But, the exploration of space is hard, and there are no guarantees of success while pushing forward into the final frontier.
In our most recent article, we took a look at the top 12 stories in astronomy and space exploration of 2020 — one from each month of the year.
Now, we look upward, beholding the marvels of nature, as well as our nascent steps into space, presenting a look at what 2021 could hold for astronomy and space exploration:
February — New Data from The Parker Solar Probe
The Parker Solar Probe, the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the Sun, could reveal new secrets of our parent star at the start of 2021.
The robotic explorer, launched to the Sun in August 2018, completed its sixth close encounter with the Sun on September 27, 2020. This data is currently being processed, and the results will be released in February.
Over the course of 2021, The Parker Solar Probe will undertake four close approaches of the Sun, and two of Venus. These close encounters will offer astronomers unprecedented looks at activity on the surface of our parent star.
“Parker Solar Probe’s next solar encounter — on Jan. 12–23, 2021 — will carry the spacecraft around the Earth-facing side of the Sun, providing an opportunity for joint observations with multiple ground-based observatories and several space missions,” NASA describes.
Early analysis of the data being released in February shows a sungrazer comet for the first time, just before SOHO-4063 was destroyed by heat from the Sun.
On September 27, 2020, the Parker spacecraft reached a speed of 466,592 KPH (289,927 MPH), a record that will be shattered several times during 2021.
February 2021 — China and the UAE Arrive at Mars
On February 9, 2021, the Emirates Mars Mission, designed and built in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will reach Mars. This mission, launched on July 20, 2020, marks the first interplanetary mission for any nation of the Middle East.
Central to this mission is the Hope orbiter, which will study the Red Planet as it races above our planetary neighbor.
“The Emirates Mars Mission Hope Probe is tasked to provide the first ever complete picture of the Martian atmosphere. Three stat-of-the-art science instruments have been designed to study the different aspects of the Martian Atmosphere,” The UAE Space Agency reports.
Soon after, the Tianwen-1 mission — China’s first mission to Mars — arrives at the Red Planet.
Tianwen-1 includes an orbiter, lander, and rover. Together, they will examine Mars for signs of present or past life. The bevy of instruments will also study the chemistry and geology of Mars, as well as looks for signs of water on the Red Planet.
February 18, 2021 — Perseverance Lands on Mars
Mars 2020 reaches its next major milestone when the spacecraft touches down on the Red Planet. The Perseverance rover is due to touch down on Mars just six weeks or so into the new year.
Mars 2020 will bring a special payload along — the first helicopter ever to fly on another planet. If all goes according to plan, Ingenuity could open up a new means to explore planets and moons with significant atmospheres.
“The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars. The rover has a drill to collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, then store them in sealed tubes for pickup by a future mission that would ferry them back to Earth for detailed analysis. Perseverance will also test technologies to help pave the way for future human exploration of Mars,” NASA officials describe.
March 19 — A Stellar Meetup — The Moon, Mars, and The Pleiades!
Following the historic Great Conjunction of 2020 between Jupiter and Saturn, 2021 offers a meetup of the Moon, Mars, and the Pleiades.
This event will be visible all night, from most of the Northern Hemisphere. Observers wishing to view this celestial meetup should go outside anytime after sunset. Looking up to the west, the Moon will be an easy find, high in the sky. Roughly three degrees below and about four degrees to the right of the Moon, Mars will shine brightly.
Traveling along the same diagonal, down and to the right two to three times that same distance, skygazers will come across one of the most beautiful sights in the night sky, The Pleiades.
This fuzzy patch of sky, also known as The Seven Sisters, is a cluster of hot, massive, short-lived stars.
Spring 2021 — SpaceX Crew 2 Launches with NASA
Sometime in the Spring of 2021, SpaceX and NASA will launch four astronauts to the International Space Station. The SpaceX Crew 2 mission will mark the third crewed flight for the private space agency.
Following the SpaceX Crew 2 reaching orbit, the astronauts will join a team of three astronauts already on the ISS, bringing the crew total to seven.
This flight was originally scheduled for March 30, but the launch will likely be pushed back due to a scheduled test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on March 29.
The four astronauts scheduled to head to the ISS on this flight include R. Spacecraft Commander Shane Kimbrough, Pilot K. Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide of JAXA, and mission specialist Thomas Pesquet from the European Space Agency (ESA). McArthur is married to astronaut Robert Behnken, who flew on the first crewed SpaceX flight in May 2020.
The SpaceX Crew 2 will spend around six months aboard the International Space Station before being relieved.
May 26 — A Total Lunar Eclipse
Skygazers across North and South America will be treated to a total lunar eclipse on May 26.
Total lunar eclipses are often called blood moons, due to their deep red color. This particular event is also a supermoon — when our planetary companion and home world are at their closest.
However, this eclipse will take place in the wee hours of the night, making it challenging to see. Lunar eclipses take several hours to complete, so this is an easy sight to see for anyone willing to wake up (or stay up) through the wee hours of the night.
Anyone missing this event (I hope you had a good excuse!) will want to mark their calendars for the night of November 18, when a partial lunar eclipse will gaze down upon skygazers in North and South America.
October 2021 — Russia Returns to the Moon with Luna-25
The Russian space agency Roscosmos, together with the European Space Agency, plans to return to the Moon with the Luna-25 mission.
“The Luna-25 space project opens a long-term Russian lunar program, which includes missions to study the moon from orbit and surface, the collection and return of lunar soil to Earth, as well as, in the future, the construction of a visited lunar base and full-scale development of our satellite,” Roscosmos officials explain.
Originally planned as the Luna-Glob lander mission, the spacecraft will touch down near the south pole of the Moon. Ice deposits found in craters near the polar region could be a valuable resource for humans living inside lunar colonies.
The Soviet Union (including Russia) was a pioneer in spaceflight during the opening decades of the space age. They launched the first satellite, animal, man, and woman into space. They sent the first spacecraft to the Moon, were the first to see the far side of our planetary companion, they made the first soft landing (and placed the first robotic rover) on the lunar surface, and they were the first to return samples of the Moon to Earth for study.
“The Luna-25 spacecraft is currently in the assembly and first trial stages. Yes, there are some cooperation problems but we are working on them. I hope that the 2021 goal of launching Luna-25 will be achieved,” Vladimir Kolmykov, Director General of the Lavochkin Scientific and Production Association, reported to Vladimir Putin in April 2020.
Roscosmos plans two more flights in the 61-year-old Luna program to study the Moon — Luna 26, due to launch in 2024 and Luna 27 scheduled to head to space the following year.
China, Japan, Israel, and India all have their sights set on sending robotic explorers the to Moon, while NASA aims to send the next man — and the first woman — to the lunar surface in 2024.
October 31 — Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope
Currently scheduled to launch on Halloween 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been heralded as the successor to Hubble — and with good reason. This instrument will allow astronomers to search further back in space and time as they train their sights on distant targets.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) which orbits the Earth, the JWST will orbit the Sun, together with the Earth. To accomplish this, the telescope will be placed far from our planet, beyond the reach of human repair crews. For this reason, NASA engineers as well as their contractors, need to get everything right the first time.
This long-awaited spacecraft will revolutionize our understanding of the Cosmos, and could find the first definitive signs of life on other worlds. The James Webb Space Telescope will also further our understanding of our own Solar System.
“Webb will observe Mars and the giant planets, minor planets like Pluto and Eris — and even the small bodies in our solar system: asteroids, comets, and Kuiper Belt Objects,” NASA describes.
However, the spacecraft has been delayed several times in the past. Hopefully, the JWST team will successfully launch in 2021, bringing our sights further out in space, and further back in time, than ever before.
November — Artemis 1 Returns Astronauts to Deep(er) Space
As part of their goal of placing humans on the Moon by 2024, NASA plans to launch the Artemis 1 mission sometime in November 2021.
This uncrewed mission will test systems designed to safely launch, support, and return humans to the Earth, starting with Artemis 2.
“In addition to sending Orion on its journey around the Moon, SLS will carry 13 small satellites that will perform their own science and technology investigations,” NASA officials describe.
The spacecraft will liftoff on top of a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the most powerful booster yet designed by NASA. Astronauts will ride aboard the Orion capsule, capable of bringing astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time in 50 years.
This mission will represent a vital step in our quest to colonize the Moon and Mars, increasing chances our species would survive a planet-wide catastrophe.
November 18 — a Partial Lunar Eclipse
Partial lunar eclipses may not be quite as impressive as blood-red total lunar eclipses like the event on May 26, but they are still quite a sight.
On the night of Thursday, November 18, a fraction of the Moon will slide into the shadow of Earth.
Skygazers wishing to view this event should head outside when the Moon is visible. Lunar eclipses, like the one in May, take place over several hours, making observations easy for amateur astronomers. This particular eclipse will last just over six hours.
The next lunar eclipse visible from the Americas (and this time, Europe) will take place on May 16, 2022.
James Maynard is the founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat.
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