NASA’s Mars Perseverance will likely be the last of three missions to arrive at Mars, reaching the red planet in mid-February and attempting a landing in Jezero Crater on February 18. This entry, descent, and landing phase—much like with the Curiosity lander in 2012—will be must-see TV.
History suggests at least one of these three missions will not make it, but we’ll hope to defy those odds.
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More Starship flights
SpaceX ended up flying its Starship vehicle three times in 2020. Twice, it sent prototypes with a single engine to 150 meters. Then, in December, it sent a full-size prototype to an altitude of about 12.5km. During this stunning flight, the vehicle—complete with three Raptor engines, a nose cone, and flaps–executed a belly flop maneuver and very nearly landed safely in South Texas.
We can probably expect a lot more flights, to higher altitudes, in 2021. As SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained to Ars in February, SpaceX has been focused on building the machine to build the machine in South Texas. Now, much of that work is complete, and SpaceX is rapidly producing Starship vehicles at its Boca Chica launch site. In late December, as the company rolled its “Serial Number 9” Starship to the pad, components of vehicles 10 through 17 were in various stages of development at the factory-beneath tents.
At the same time, SpaceX is also beginning to fabricate the Super Heavy rocket that will serve as Starship’s first stage. It seems plausible that one of the Starships presently under construction will make an orbital flight attempt atop Super Heavy this year. Or not. One thing is for sure—it will be fun to watch the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of SpaceX as it seeks to build an interplanetary spaceship the likes of which has never been seen before.
James Webb Space Telescope
Snarking about the delays in the launch schedule of the ultra-ambitious James Webb Space Telescope have become commonplace in the space community, and indeed this flagship astrophysics mission is far behind schedule and over budget.
However, it seems like NASA’s current science leadership has addressed a number of the technical and management issues that had been plaguing the telescope program and causing delay after delay. Now, there seems to be quiet confidence that NASA’s space telescope will stick to its Oct. 31, 2021 launch date on a European Ariane V rocket.
After the launch, tension will only increase as the telescope undergoes a two-week process that will see deployment of a sunshield as well as primary and secondary mirror assemblies. All of this could make for an exciting end of 2021 for astronomers—or a heartbreaking one if this complex process goes awry.