On the very welcome final day of 2020, we look back at a year of spaceflight that, despite a global pandemic, was packed with exciting missions and development milestones. The year saw the launch of no fewer than three Mars missions, the introduction of the first operational US crewed spacecraft since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, and the return of two sample return missions, one from the Moon and one from a distant asteroid.
China test crewed spacecraft
China successfully completed the maiden uncrewed test flight of the country’s next-generation crew spacecraft in May. The spacecraft was launched aboard a Long March 5B on May 5 and just less than three days later, it returned to Earth touching down under three main red and white parachutes. Once operational, the spacecraft will initially be utilized to transport taikonauts to and from China’s as yet unnamed space station. The core module of the new station is expected to be launched in 2021.
The first crewed flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon was launched aboard a Falcon 9 carrying NASA astronauts Dough Hurley and Bob Behnken on May 30. The Crew Dragon Endeavour became the first commercial spacecraft to launch a crew into orbit, and successfully rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station on May 31. Endeavour remained docked to the station for just over 62 days before undocking and returning the crew back to Earth safely.
Mars 2020 launch
A historic NASA mission to Mars was launched on July 20 aboard an Atlas V rocket. In addition to the Perseverance rover, the Mars 2020 mission includes the Ingenuity helicopter drone. The shoebox-sized multi-rotor drone will be the first to ever explore the skies of another planet. Currently, in transit to the Red Planet, the Mars 2020 mission is expected to touch down near the Jezero crater in the Syrtis Major quadrangle on February 18, 2021.
The second of three Mars missions launched in 2020, Tianwen-1 lifted off on July 23 aboard a Long March 5. The Tianwen-1 carries an orbiter, lander and a rover that will explore the Utopia Planitia region, a large plain within the Red Planet’s largest impact basin. It is expected to enter orbit around Mars in February 2021 with a proposed touchdown of the lander and rover two months later.
SpaceX Crew-1 launch
Following a successful maiden crewed test flight, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft was certified safe. The first operational Crew Dragon mission, Crew-1, was launched aboard a Falcon 9 on November 16 carrying NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The launch was the first aboard a US spacecraft from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. The Crew Dragon Resilience successfully docked to the International Space Station’s Harmony module on November 17. Resilience and her crew are expected to remain aboard the orbiting laboratory until May 2021.
OSIRIS-REx sample collection
After being launched in 2016 aboard an Atlas V, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample-return mission touched down on the surface of asteroid Bennu 321 million kilometers from Earth. During the brief touchdown on October 20, the OSIRIS-REx probe collected approximately 60 grams of dust and stones. Researchers hope that the samples could provide hints about the origin of all life on Earth. The probe is scheduled to depart Bennu in March 2021 and return its precious sample back to Earth in the second half of 2023.
Chang’e 5 Moon mission
The Chinese Chang’e 5 mission was an ambitious 23-day mission to return the first samples from the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Chang’e 5 was launched aboard a Long March 5 on November 23 and returned back to Earth safely on November 16 with two kilograms of soil and rocks. With the successful return of the lunar soil and rocks, China became only the third country to ever retrieve samples from our nearest celestial neighbour.
The Japanese Hayabusa2 asteroid sample-return mission was successfully recovered after touching down in the Woomera Test Range in South Australia on December 5. The mission was launched aboard an H-IIA on December 3, 2014. The spacecraft successfully rendezvoused with the Asteroid Ryugu on 27 June 2018 and after an extensive study and a daring dart to the surface to retrieve 5.4 grams of samples, the spacecraft departed the asteroid on its way back to Earth.
Starship SN8 flight
SpaceX completed the first high-altitude flight test of its next-generation Starship launch vehicle on December 9. The Starship SN8 prototype climbed to an altitude of approximately 12.5 kilometers before the vehicle’s three Raptor engines shut down and the launch vehicle drifted back down to Earth. Following a complex “belly flop” maneuver designed to bleed off speed during the descent phase of the flight, the Raptors sprung back to life to slow the vehicle down before touchdown. However, low pressure in a header fuel tank resulted in an unpowered landing burn leaving SN8 to slam into the ground exploding on impact.
Angara A5 test flight
Six years after the launch of the first Angara A5 test flight, Russia launched the vehicle’s second test from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on December 14. The configurable next-generation Russia launch vehicle is expected to replace the Proton, a launch vehicle that has been in operation in one form or another since 1965. Following the success of the second Angara A5 test flight, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin said he expected the country to launch two operational Angara missions in 2021.