In the year ahead, over a dozen national and private space agencies have scheduled crewed and robotic missions to explore the solar system.
The moon will see visits by NASA’s CAPSTONE technology mission to demonstrate the feasibility of maintaining polar orbit around the moon for the future Lunar Gateway station; Artemis 1, an uncrewed circumlunar test flight of the Orion deep-space crew capsule atop the fledgling Space Launch System; and Chang’e 5, China’s first lunar sample return mission (and the first of any nation since 1976), all currently slated for December.
With Mars coming relatively close this fall, four missions will depart for the Red Planet during launch windows in July and August, including the European Space Agency/Russia’s Rosalind Franklin rover; NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; China’s Huoxing-1 orbiter, lander, and rover; and the United Arab Emirates’ first interplanetary probe, the Mars Hope orbiter.
SpaceX and Boeing are racing for the honor of restoring America’s ability to launch astronauts to space, with their Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner capsules, respectively, both scheduled for March missions.
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It’s a big year for asteroid exploration with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx grabbing a piece of (101955) Bennu in August for return to Earth in 2023, and Japan’s Hayabusa 2 returning home in December with its payload of material collected from (162173) Ryugu last February.
The sun will be visited by the European Space Agency’s SolO mission (launching in February), and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Aditya-L1 (launch date TBA), as well as close passes in January, June, and September by the ongoing Parker Solar Probe mission.
All these are in addition to the ongoing missions of three lunar orbiters, one Venus orbiter, six Mars orbiters, one Mars lander, one Mars rover, and one Jupiter orbiter.
Next column: Keeping a close eye on stellar variations.