It’s time to look ahead to the coming year and all things that will be happening in space exploration. With new missions to Mars, a probe returning to Earth with samples taken from an asteroid, and even more batches of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites going into orbit, it’s going to be another fascinating year.
We’ll learn if NASA is returning to the Moon in 2024
Earlier this year, the Trump Administration accelerated the timeline for returning Americans to the Moon. The space agency was told, in rather blunt terms, that the Artemis lunar mission has to be done by 2024, but Congress raised serious concerns about this rather aggressive deadline.
For NASA to be able to pull this off, it needs the requisite funding. The U.S. government will be passing its fiscal 2021 budget in March of 2020, at which time we’ll learn how much money NASA will be receiving and how feasible it will be for the space agency land astronauts on the Moon by 2024.
In terms of specifics, NASA has suggested it’ll need an additional $US25 ($36) billion over the next 5 years to speed things along. That said, NASA hasn’t provided the House Appropriations Committee will full cost estimate. Should Congress fail to provide sufficient funds—whatever the real total may be—it’ll likely spell doom for the admittedly ambitious 2024 timeline but not necessarily for the Artemis mission as a whole. Both the President and the House see a mission to the Moon as an important stepping stone to a manned Mars mission.
In 2020, we should also find out which private company will get to design and build a lunar lander for the Artemis mission. Contenders include Boeing and Blue Origin, with rumours that SpaceX might also be interested.
As for the inaugural test of NASA’s Space Launch System—the rocket that’s supposed to get astronauts and their equipment to the Moon—that’s not supposed to happen until 2021. That’s cutting it close for a 2024 deadline.
New missions to Mars
Due to the unfortunate death of NASA’s Opportunity rover, there remains just one mobile probe on the Red Planet: the Curiosity rover (with all due respect to the stationary InSight lander). That’s set to change as three new rover missions will be launched to Mars in 2020: NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (still not named), the European Space Agency/Roscosmos ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover, and China’s Mars Small Rover.
All three rovers will be launched in late July and early August to take advantage of a three-week launch window known as the Hohmann transfer orbit, in which Mars and Earth are optimally aligned in their respective orbits. All rovers are expected to arrive at Mars in 2021.
NASA’s 2020 Mars rover will land in Jezero crater, where it will scour a former lake in search of signs of ancient microbial life. The probe will be capable of extracting surface samples and leaving them in caches for future missions to retrieve and deliver to Earth. Excitingly, the Mars 2020 rover is equipped with a drone, called the Mars Helicopter Scout, so we’ll finally have a bird’s eye view of the Red Planet.
The Rosalind Franklin will also search for signs of ancient life, but a landing site has yet to be chosen for this mission. The rover will be deployed by Russia’s Kazachok lander. The mission could be delayed due to ongoing problems with the parachute, which must safely transport the probe through the achingly thin Martian atmosphere and onto the Martian ground. Missing the Hohmann transfer window would result in a 26-month delay.
We know less about the Chinese mission, which will reportedly involve an orbiter, a 240-kilogram (530-pound) rover, and 13 science payloads, according to SpaceNews. The orbiter will be equipped with a high-resolution camera, and the rover will be capable of performing spectroscopy, among other sciencey tasks. The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) has selected two preliminary sites near Utopia Planitia, and a final decision is pending, according to IEEE Spectrum.
Not to be outdone, the United Arab Emirates will launch its Hope Mars Mission to the Red Planet next year. It will be the first interplanetary mission headed by an Arab-Islamic country, reports Space.com, and the orbiter will be launched atop a Japanese rocket. Once in orbit around Mars, the satellite will study Martian weather, the reasons why Mars has leaked so much oxygen and hydrogen, and possible connections between the upper and lower atmosphere, according to Space.com. Like the other missions, it won’t arrive until 2021.
So many SpaceX Starlink satellites
To date, SpaceX has launched 120 of its Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The broadband megaconstellation is expected to consist of 42,000 individual satellites, a tally SpaceX is hoping to achieve by the mid 2020s. That’s obviously going to require plenty of Falcon 9 rocket launches—many of which will happen next year.
The private space company is hoping to launch 24 Starlink missions next year, according to SpaceNews. That’s a breakneck pace of two launches per month, which would result in approximately 1,440 new Starlink satellites in Earth orbit by the end of the year. For context, there were approximately 4,987 satellites in Earth orbit at the start of 2019, many of which are no longer functional, according to United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
These SpaceX launches and their associated light shows in the night sky will most assuredly ruffle the feathers of some astronomers, who prefer an unhindered view into space. SpaceX is aware of the problem, and is reportedly working on a special coating that will darken the satellites to reduce their reflectivity.
In other SpaceX news to expect next year, the company will begin orbital testing of its next-gen Starship. Once ready, Starship “will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed,” according to SpaceX, capable of transporting crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars.
Launching Americans from American soil
If NASA wants to send astronauts to the Moon, it’ll need the capacity to launch astronauts to space—something the country hasn’t been able to do independently since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Happily, 2020 could finally be the year in which this ability is restored, with “could” being a key caveat here. Currently, both private participants in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program, SpaceX and Boeing, are behind schedule.
But there’s good reason for optimism. On December 20, Boeing finally launched an uncrewed CST-100 Starliner, though the spacecraft was unable to dock with the space station owing to an apparent automation software malfunction. NASA chief Jim Bridenstine downplayed the incident, hinting that a crewed test could be imminent.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is planning to perform an in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon early next year, possibly in January. The Elon Musk-led company would then have to conduct an uncrewed test followed by a crewed test, assuming no more setbacks, such as the testing anomaly that happened earlier this year.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Will Sample an Asteroid
Since its arrival at Bennu on December 3, 2018, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has mapped the oddly shaped asteroid and studied its strange surface emissions. The primary goal of the mission, however, is still yet to come. The probe is getting ready to briefly touch down and extract sample materials from the asteroid’s surface. Should all go well, OSIRIS-REx will be the first American mission to collect samples from an asteroid and bring them back to Earth for analysis.
After choosing four candidate locations on the surface, NASA has selected a boulder-free zone dubbed Nightingale. The asteroid is basically a rock pile, so finding an area with easily extractable dust proved to be a difficult exercise. In early 2020, OSIRIS-Rex will fly over the site at lower altitudes to take higher resolution photos, and touchdown is expected in July 2020. The probe should return to Earth with its 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of Bennu in 2023.
Speaking of probes visiting asteroids and then returning their samples back to Earth, JAXA’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft is expected to arrive back at Earth in December 2020 with materials scooped up from asteroid Ryugu. These samples will land somewhere in Australia’s protected outback.
China’s first lunar sample-return mission
With the successful Chang’e 4 mission all but wrapped up, China is now preparing for its next mission to the Moon, which will feature an important new element.
With the Chang’e 5 mission, China is hoping to land a probe in Oceanus Procellarum and scoop up 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of dusty lunar regolith, possibly from a depth of around 2 meters (6.5 feet). This sample will then be returned to Earth for analysis, a feat the CNSA has never tried before (it’ll be the first sample-return mission from the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1974).
NASA says the mission will consist of four modules:
Two of the modules will land on the Moon, one designed to collect samples and transfer them to the second module, designed to ascend from the lunar surface into orbit, where it will dock with a third module. Finally the samples will be transferred to the fourth module, also in lunar orbit, which will return them to Earth.
The Chang’e 5 mission will launch in late 2020, according to NASA.
China is also expected to begin the construction of its own space station, called Tianhe, but this could be delayed until 2021 as the CNSA still needs to test its Long March 5B rocket, which will make this project possible.
More stellar encounters
Launched in 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is getting progressively closer to the Sun with each passing orbit. The spacecraft is taking unprecedented measurements of the Sun’s corona, and the closer it gets, the more exotic the data.
The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for four perihelions in 2020, when the spacecraft comes closest to the Sun during its elliptical orbit: January 29, June 7, July 11, and September 27. During the September perihelion, the Parker Solar Probe will come to within 14.2 million kilometers (8.8 million miles) of the Sun, when it will be moving at 129 kilometers per second (80 miles per second). The spacecraft will continue with this pattern until 2025, when it’s expected to come to within 6.9 million kilometers (4.3 million miles) of the Sun, at which time the spacecraft is likely to burn up.
In related news, the NASA/ESA Solar Orbiter will be launched from Kennedy Space Centre on February 5, 2020. The Solar Orbiter will “study the Sun, its outer atmosphere and what drives the constant outflow of solar wind which affects Earth,” according to NASA.
A refined look at distant exoplanets
With the ESA’s new CHEOPS satellite now in space, we can expect to see tantalising new details emerge about planets outside our solar system.
Importantly, CHEOPS won’t be on the hunt for new exoplanets. Rather, it’ll take a closer look at previously discovered exoplanets to study them in greater detail, particularly planets between the size of Earth and Neptune. CHEOPS will also observe exoplanetary atmospheres and take better recordings of their transits across their host stars.
Celestial happenings near you
And finally for you amateur stargazers out there, a full list of astronomical events for next year can be found at Sea and Sky. Nothing too spectacular is scheduled for 2020 (well, as far as we know—we could be visited by another interstellar object or a surprise comet, for example), but there are some neat things to be aware of.
A number of partial solar eclipses will happen in 2020, but whether you’ll be able to enjoy them depends on where you live. A total solar eclipse visible in parts of South America will happen on December 14. A rare full moon will appear on Halloween, and that should be pretty cool for trick-or-treaters—it won’t happen again until 2035. A conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter will occur on December 21, causing the gas giants to appear as a bright double planet.
So, lots of neat space-related happenings to watch in 2020. As always, it’ll be our pleasure at Gizmodo to report on these events as they unfold.