TThis is shaping up to be a big year for space exploration, with several major programs hitting the launch pad over the next 12 months. The United States is due to return to the moon, undertaking a series of missions intended to establish a lunar colony there in a few years. China is expected to complete its Tiangong space station while Europe and Russia attempt to land on Mars, having failed every previous attempt. India, South Korea and Japan are also expected to send a number of space missions.
Special interest will focus on the new powerful NASA space launch system (SLS). It is the most powerful rocket he has ever designed and was designed to transport astronauts to the moon and beyond as part of the agency’s program. Artemis deep space exploration program. With these missions, NASA intends to reopen the solar system to human investigation – rather than robotic probes – and to regularly transport astronauts to the lunar surface.
The program’s first launch is slated for February when an SLS rocket – over 300 feet high – will transport an unmanned Orion capsule on a path that will enter a highly elliptical orbit around the moon. At close range, the spacecraft will sweep within 62 miles of the lunar surface before rising 40,000 miles above it, a distance that will move it further from Earth than any spacecraft. built for humans never flew.
Importantly, Orion – designed to carry between four and six astronauts when fully operational – will be equipped with a European service module that will provide the power and propulsion of the capsule for in-orbit maneuvers. This will give its manufacturer – the European Space Agency – the opportunity to become a key partner in future Artemis missions. If the February mission is successful, a crewed trip around the moon will take place in 2024 and will be followed by a moon landing in 2025 – a 53-year gap since Apollo 17, the last crewed lunar mission, landed on the Taurus-Littrow valley in December 1972.
This time the crew will include at least one woman, and the mission will mark the start of a program to establish a lunar colony where astronauts would work on multi-month missions and develop technologies that could be used by future colonies on March. A prime target for the first lunar outpost is Shackleton Crater, near the moon’s south pole, which is said to contain reservoirs of ice. Water will not only provide valuable food for astronauts, it can be harnessed as a source of hydrogen and oxygen – through electrolysis – which can be combined as rocket fuel.
As part of its preparations to establish a lunar colony, NASA will also launch a massive robot mission program as part of the $ 2.6 billion Lunar Payload Commercial Services (CLPS) initiative. agency. This will involve sending a flotilla of space robots to the moon, with the first missions starting this year. Built by private companies with the support of NASA, these probes will attempt to map deposits of groundwater, study the deep interior of the moon and release robots to investigate the lunar surface. The young space company Astrobotic will send its new lander Peregrine to Lacus Mortis – “the lake of death” – a plain of basalt rock in the northeastern part of the moon. It will carry 11 different instrument payloads and will be followed by another US company, Intuitive Machines, which sends a spacecraft carrying six payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean of Storms.
12 more CLPS missions are planned over the next three years, although NASA chief science officer Thomas Zurbuchen has warned that these privately funded efforts each face a high risk of failure. Up to half could go wrong, he said recently.
For good measure, Russia and India both plan to launch their own lunar landers next year, while South Korea is expected to place a satellite in lunar orbit to study its mineral makeup.
The hunt for extraterrestrial life will take another step forward this year with the launch of the joint Euro-Russian project ExoMars Mission, which will land a robot rover on the Oxia Planum, a 125-mile-wide clay plain in the northern hemisphere of the planet. The rover – named after Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist and DNA pioneer – will be equipped with a drill capable of probing several meters below the Martian surface, where it is hoped that primitive life forms can survive or at least the remains of extinct organisms. The 660-pound rover was built by Airbus Defense and Space, at the company’s UK facilities in Stevenage. Launch is scheduled for September 22, and landing is scheduled for June 10, 2023.
Hopes for the success of the mission are however kept, because neither Russia nor Europe had a chance to land on Mars. Nineteen Russian and Soviet missions and two European offers to land on the Red Planet all failed, including the European lander Schiaparelli, which was supposed to be a test for the current ExoMars mission but which crashed on the planet in 2016.
Without doubt, the most spectacular asteroid mission will be NASA’s attempt to test an asteroid defense system for Earth. Launched last year, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart) spacecraft will crash into the moon Dimorphos in September. Dashing toward its target at 15,000 mph, the 1340-pound probe – the size of a small car – will attempt to change the orbit of Dimorphos, a boulder the size of a football stadium, around its parent asteroid, Didymos.
If successful, NASA and other space agencies will be encouraged to follow the mission by developing craft that could deflect a larger asteroid on its way to Earth – and thus avoid a Armageddon-style impact, say astronomers. If an asteroid the size of Dimorphos crashed into Earth, it would trigger an explosion equivalent to 400-600 megatons of TNT. “A city like Manhattan would be completely wiped out,” Elena Adams, Dart’s systems engineer, told the newspaper. Science. “It’s to demonstrate a technique to save the world.”
NASA has plans for several more asteroid missions next year, including the launch of the Psyche probe. Scheduled for takeoff in August, the spacecraft will visit an asteroid called 16 Psyche which is said to be the remaining core of a planet. This vast piece of nickel and iron is the vestige of a violent collision with another astronomical object that tore the outer layers of the planet off and left its metallic innards exposed. The study of 16 Psyche will give scientists an unprecedented opportunity to examine a planetary core. It will also give them the opportunity to explore a new kind of world, a world made of metal.
Manned space flight
Boeing will attempt to put its Starliner crew capsule into orbit so that it can begin transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). A 2019 flight failed to reach the station, and another attempt last year was called off at the last minute when the fuel valves failed to open. Boeing now plans to launch an unmanned Starliner in early 2022, followed by a test flight with astronauts later in the year. The capsule will then be used – along with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – in rotation to transport the astronauts to the ISS.
For its part, China is expected to complete its Tiangong space station – Heavenly Palace – after the launch of the first of its three main modules, Tianhe, in April. Mengtian and Wentian modules will be added this year. China has said it hopes to keep its space station – which is considerably smaller than the ISS – permanently inhabited by three astronauts for at least a decade. A key task for crew members will be maintaining the Xuntian Space Telescope, which will launch in 2024 and orbit in formation with the Tiangong Station. Equipped with a mirror roughly the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope, Xuntian’s tasks will include studies of dark matter and dark energy as well as the formation and evolution of galaxies.
Blue Origin (founded by Jeff Bezos) and Virgin Galactic (created by Richard Branson) both successfully launched their first suborbital flights last year and both say they expect to start regular missions in 2022, offering groups of tourists a few minutes of weightlessness. before returning to Earth.