It takes a lot of planning to get to space, and millions or billions of dollars investedover years, if not decades. So when the big day finally comes to launcha new mission, it’s some pretty important news. Here are three missions to look forward tothis year, if everything goes according to plan. Every two years, Earth and Mars line up insuch a way that makes it easiest to get to Mars.
So this year, we’re gonna be seeing a bunchof missions beginning a half-year journey to the Red Planet. NASA’s still-unnamed 2020 rover has gottenmost of the spotlight, but it’s not the only Mars mission on theblock. The United Arab Emirates is sending an orbiter, and China is sending three separate spacecraftall at the same time. But for this segment, we’re gonna focuson a joint mission by the European and RussianSpace Agencies.
They’re working on a rover to look for signsof life in Mars’s crust. And they’ve named their robot after the woman who gave us the first images ofDNA: Rosalind Franklin. The Rosalind Franklin rover is part of theESA’s ongoing ExoMars mission, which has been studying Mars’s thin atmosphere for signs of biological or geological activitysince 2016. Rosalind Franklin will be searching for signsof life on the ground, though. It’ll launch this summer and, if all goeswell, will touch down in March of 2021. Its destination is a Martian plain calledOxia Planum, near the planet’s equator.
There, former water channels connect Mars’ssouthern highlands and northern lowlands. Those channels are covered by lava from ancientvolcanoes, which protected the matter under it from solarradiation and erosion. And that’s exciting, because if there wereever organic compounds there, it’s possible they were never broken down. In other words, it’s possible there arestill organic compounds there. That’s a lot of maybes, of course, but wewon’t know unless we look.
To hunt for the remnants of life, the rover has a drill that can probe two wholemeters into Mars’s crust, as well as onboard instruments for analyzingsoil samples. Meanwhile, the Russian-made platform thatwill deliver the rover will stay put, photographing the landing site, and monitoringthe local atmosphere and climate.
Of course, before this duo makes the journey,the humans behind the mission have to work out some problems with the parachutesthat will slow it down for landing. It’ll take two large parachutes to slowdown this heavy load in Mars’s thin atmosphere, but during tests on Earth, those parachuteshave been tearing. Engineers will need to get those chutes rightto keep Rosalind on target for its 2020 launch. So everybody, cross your fingers! Engineers are also racing to complete newtechnology for getting humans into space.
Since 2011, NASA has had to buy seats on theRussian Soyuz spacecraft to send its astronauts to the InternationalSpace Station. But that’s not the most practical arrangement,so back in 2010, the agency paired with private companies inthe U.S. to develop at least one new craft capableof delivering humans to space. Now, it’s down to just three projects: NASA’s Orion, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, andBoeing’s Starliner. It is now a race to see which one will bethe first to test a crewed launch. It probably will not be Orion, whose crewedand uncrewed trips are currently facing delays. But the other teams are doing okay.
The cargo version of SpaceX’s Dragon hasbeen delivering supplies to the ISS since 2012. And this March, a version of Dragon capable of supporting human passengers actuallywent to space. Unfortunately, though, a month after thattest, the Crew Dragon exploded on the launchpadwhile SpaceX was testing its thrusters.
The accident also blew up the company’splans of testing a crewed launch by the end of lastyear. But the company has been hard at work sincethen. And if things continue to go well, plans are back on track to send a crew intospace this year. Meanwhile, Boeing’s a little further behindin the testing phase; their first uncrewed flight just went up lastmonth.
Their capsule, called the CST-100 Starliner,claims to be reusable up to ten times. And unlike Crew Dragon and NASA’s previouscrewed capsules, Starliner is designed to land, like, on theland. Not in the ocean. So in addition to the parachutes that slowits descent, it’s got a bottom full of airbags. As of this past November, neither SpaceX norBoeing had met the safety standards for transporting astronauts, so there arestill some hurdles to get past. But both companies are aiming to get the greenlight by this summer. Finally, our third highlight for this year has already arrived at the launch facilityat Cape Canaveral. It’s the ESA’s Solar Orbiter, and it has to pass just a few final testsbefore it blasts off in February.
Over several years, this satellite will entera highly tilted orbit around our star. It will give us views of our Sun that we’venever seen before, like for the first time, we’ll be able tosee its north and south poles! It might not look that different from therest of the Sun, but there’s a lot of interesting physicshappening up there. For example, scientists are hoping to lookat the magnetic field lines around the poles to figure out how the Sunmakes its magnetic field. The Solar Orbiter will also study the Sun’sheliosphere: a bubble shaped like a windsock that’s filledwith plasma from the Sun and extends beyond all our solar system’splanets.
It won’t get as close to the Sun as NASA’sParker Solar Probe, but it has more instruments, so the two spacecraft will team up to tellus as much about our star as they can. We’ll have to wait a few years before anyresults come in, but once we do start getting data, we’llhave a lot of new science to look forward to. And while there’s a lot of exciting stuffhappening this year, both locally and in interplanetary space,the things we learn from these missions will give us material for years and yearsof research and discoveries.