New year, new space adventures. The previous decade saw interest in outer space skyrocket to levels unseen since the 1960s as private companies formed and jostled for a slice of the growing space economy. As in yesteryear, 2020 is sure to see some exciting and consequential space-related stories, so here’s our list of the top nine we're most looking forward to over the next 12 months.
Capella Space is ready to make things official. The San Francisco-based startup deployed a test synthetic aperture radar satellite in 2018 and now the radar imagery provider is to launch seven satellites and begin commercial operations this year. The first hardware will takeoff in March aboard a SpaceX rocket. The following three satellites have tickets for an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle flight scheduled for June. Capella Space provides customers like the US Air Force with higher resolution satellite imagery in under 30 minutes, far faster than the industry average of eight to 12 hours.
SpaceX and Boeing are, or at least were, in a race to be the first commercial company to send human astronauts to the ISS. But after Boeing’s spectacular failure in getting its Starliner spacecraft to the space station last December, it looks like SpaceX has a clear path to victory. Elon Musk’s aerospace company has pulled off several successful safety tests of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, and after a few more this year, NASA will give it the green light to start ferrying actual astronauts.
In 2019, India’s fledgling space program attempted to land a rover on the moon. The eyes of an expectant nation were fixed on the sky, or TV screens, in anticipation of the landing. Unfortunately, India’s space agency lost contact with the spacecraft and later discovered that the vessel had crashed onto the lunar surface. While deeply disappointing, the country’s leader expressed pride in the strides the program had made, and vowed to try again. 2020 could see another attempt, and, fingers crossed, mission success.
In 2014, Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft launched en route to a half-mile large asteroid, Ryugu, orbiting between our planet and Mars. Its mission – collect samples of the space rock and return home so that Earthbound scientists might decode the origins of the solar system. Last April, Hayabusa2 successfully blasted a crater within Ryugu in order to collect desired materials located beneath the asteroid’s surface. Now, with cargo firmly secured, the spacecraft is expected to make the journey home and touchdown in December.
We’ve been hearing about space tourism for what feels like an eternity now, but after Virgin Galactic’s public listing on the New York Stock Exchange and Blue Origin’s repeated success in suborbital flights, it looks like 2020 will be the year that civilian astronauts finally slip the surly bonds of Earth. It’s rumored that both companies have already sold out all available flights, and those lucky ticket-holders are probably antsy with anticipation of blasting off this year.
There is certainly no shortage of satellite launching aerospace companies looking to make a quick million bucks sending the hardware into space, and it looks like Virgin Orbit is entering the fray. Sir Richard Branson’s other aerospace venture uses a customized 747 airplane and two-stage launch craft to insert satellites into orbit. Flush with nearly $10 million in funding from the UK space agency, Branson is opening Virgin Spaceport in Cornwall and plans to start launching this year.
It seems like every other tech company has some sort of internet-beaming satellite project in development, but SpaceX’s Starlink is supposed to actually go online this year. The company has said it needs 24 launches in order to complete its global satellite constellation, and has submitted paperwork to assemble some 42,000 satellites in total. A global broadband satellite constellation would provide internet to customers all over the world and add considerable revenue to SpaceX’s coffers.
Musk described SpaceX’s newly engineered rapidly reusable rocket Starship the “Holy Grail of Space.” The spacecraft is designed to launch into space, descend back to Earth, and make a return spaceflight just hours later – no expensive refurbishing needed. Its rapid reusability would lower launch price to just $2 million, making it far more affordable than all present offerings. However, Starship is not yet flight-proven, but with its first orbital flight scheduled for this year, all eyes will be on whether the spacecraft can live up to its lofty claims.
NASA’s official website has a countdown to an event years in the making – the launch of the Mars Rover 2020 mission. Sometime this July or August, an Atlas V rocket will take off from Cape Canaveral en route to the Red Planet with the car sized, 2,000+ pound rover onboard. The vehicle is jam packed with state-of-the-art science instruments for acquiring information about the Martian geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions, and potential biosignatures. Touchdown on the extraterrestrial planet is scheduled for Feb. 18, 2021.
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