A year of space tourism, flights to Mars, the rise of China

From the Mars Ingenuity helicopter’s first powered flight over another world to the launch of the James Webb Telescope that will scan the first epoch of the Universe, 2021 has been a huge year for mankind’s space efforts.

Beyond scientific milestones, billionaires fought to reach the Last Frontier first, an all-civilian crew entered orbit, and Star Trek’s William Shatner explained in depth what it meant to see Earth from the cosmos, while space tourism was finally making sense. .

Here are the selected highlights.

– Red Planet robot duo –

NASA’s Perseverance Rover survived its “seven minutes of terror,” a time when the craft relied on its automated systems for descent and landing, to land perfectly on Mars’ Jezero Crater in February.

Since then, the car-sized robot has taken photos and drilled samples for its mission: to determine whether the red planet could have harbored ancient microbial life forms.

A rock sample return mission is planned for the 2030s.

With his advanced instruments, “Percy,” as the helicopter is affectionately known, can also zap Martian rock and chemically analyze steam.

Percy has a travel partner: Ingenuity, a four-pound (two-kilogram) rotorcraft that succeeded in April on the first flight powered by another celestial body, a little over a century after the Wright brothers performed the same. feat here on Earth. , and has played many more since.

“Perseverance is sort of the flagship mission, it is a long-term, detailed investigation of this fascinating region of Mars,” Jonathan McDowall, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP.

In contrast, “Ingenuity, is one of those cute, small, and inexpensive little tech demonstrations that NASA can do so well,” he added.

The knowledge gained from Ingenuity could help scientists develop Dragonfly, a planned 1,000-pound drone-helicopter, to search for signs of life on Saturn’s Titan moon in the mid-1930s.

– Private space flight takes off –

An American millionaire became the world’s first space tourist in 2001, but it took another 20 years for the promise of a private space flight to finally materialize.

In July, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson faced off against Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos to become the first non-professional astronaut to perform a suborbital space flight.

While the British mogul won this battle of a few days, it was Blue Origin that took the lead, launching three more flights with paying customers and celebrity guests.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX entered the fray in September with a three-day orbital mission around Earth with a fully civilian crew on Inspiration 4.

“It’s really exciting that at last, after so long, this stuff is finally happening,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, space industry analyst, author of the forthcoming book “Becoming Off-Worldly,” for prepare future space travelers.

But it was William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk’s cloak and sword in the 1960s TV series “Star Trek”, who stole the show with a moving account of his experience.

“What you look down on is Mother Earth, and she needs to be protected,” he told reporters.

A Russian crew shot the first feature film in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021, and Japanese tourists made their own visit aboard a Russian rocket.

For a few minutes on December 11, there was a record 19 humans in space when Blue Origin flew its third crewed mission, the Japanese team was aboard the ISS with its normal crew, and Chinese taikonauts were in position on their station.

However, the sight of wealthy elites galloping through the cosmos was not to everyone’s liking, and the nascent space tourism industry sparked a backlash from some who said there were more pressing issues at hand. face, such as climate change, here on Earth.

– Globalization of space –

During the Cold War, space was dominated by the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Today, in addition to the explosion of the commercial sector, which sends satellites at a breakneck pace, China, India and others are increasingly flexing their space muscles.

China’s Tiangong (Palace in the Sky) space station – its first long-term outpost – was launched in April, while its first Martian rover, Zhurong, landed in May, making it the only second country to achieve such a feat.

“For the past 20 years since China finally decided to go into space, it has been in catch-up mode,” McDowall said. “And now they’re sort of there, and they’re starting to do things that the United States hasn’t done.”

The United Arab Emirates placed a probe in Mars orbit in February, becoming the first Arab country and the fifth in total to reach the planet.

Russia, meanwhile, launched a missile at one of its own satellites, becoming the fourth country to strike a spacecraft from the ground, which has rekindled concerns over the growing space arms race.

Washington criticized Moscow for its “reckless” test, which generated more than 1,500 pieces of large orbital debris, dangerous for low earth orbit missions such as the ISS.

– Coming soon… –

The year ended with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a $ 10 billion marvel that will use infrared technology to look 13 billion years back.

“It is arguably the most expensive single science platform ever,” said Casey Drier, senior advocate for the Planetary Society.

“To push the boundaries of our knowledge of the cosmos, we had to build something capable of accessing this ancient past,” he added.

It will reach Lagrange Point 2, a spatial landmark a million kilometers from Earth, in a few weeks, then start up and gradually calibrate its systems, coming online around June.

Also next year, the launch of Artemis 1 – when NASA’s Giant Space Launch System (SLS) will transport the Orion capsule to the Moon and back, in preparation for America’s return with humans later this year. decade.

NASA plans to build lunar habitats and use lessons learned for forward missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Observers are encouraged that the program launched by former President Donald Trump has continued under Joe Biden – although he has not expressed his support as strongly.

Finally, next fall, NASA’s DART probe will crash into an asteroid to cause it to deviate from its path.

The proof-of-concept test is a vacuum test if humanity needs to stop a giant space rock from wiping out life on Earth, as seen in Netflix’s new hit movie “Don’t Look Up “.

I / caw

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About Jonathan J. Kramer

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