2020 in space: cosmic grit to earth, SpaceX begins manned missions

If there was one place where we didnt suffer much from corona this year, its in space. Almost all planned space missions continued in 2020. We asked astronaut Andrรฉ Kuipers, planetary scientist Inge Loes ten Kate and astronomer Lucas Ellerbroek the same question: what were the cosmic highlights for them this year? And what are they looking forward to?

Andrรฉ Kuipers needs to think about it, because there is a lot to choose. In the end, he will go for the SpaceX flight of the first Crew Dragon with astronauts onboard โ€” and with it the USs return to space with its own spacecraft (2011 the US Space Shuttle program ended). โ€œIt was fascinating to witness a new style of manned space travel during the launch and pairing of that first Crew Dragon,โ€ says Kuipers, who himself helped link the very first cargo version of the Dragon to the ISS in 2012.

These were the space moments of 2020 in the picture:

For next year, the astronaut is most looking forward to the first manned flight of another new space capsule, the Boeing Starliner. โ€œColleague and good friend Mike Fincke, with whom I made my first space flight, is on board and invited me to launch, so if traveling to the USA is allowed again, Ill be there in the summer.โ€

Other moments Kuipers is looking forward to include the launch of the first Orion spaceship around the moon – without any lunar travelers on board – and the launch of Nauka, one of the latest planned expansion modules for the international space station ISS. The launch of Nauka has been waiting since 2007. โ€œBoth have important European and Dutch contributions.โ€

For astrobiologist Inge Loes ten Kate (Utrecht University), the highlights of 2020 took place a little further away in the solar system: she was particularly pleased with the successes in picking up cosmic grit of two different asteroids and the departure of a new batch of Marssondes.

On one of those Martian missions, Covid-19 actually threw soot in the food, says Ten Kate. The European/Russian Mars rover Rosalind Franklin is parked on earth for a while. Experts could hardly fly back and forth between the space companies because of the pandemic. Thats why the launch has been postponed until 2022, but, in perspective, Ten Kate, the launch was already hanging by a thread. โ€œCorona was the straw.โ€ It has its advantages: due to the delay, among other things, the parachutes used for landing can be further tested.

Seven Minutes of Terrorist

Three other Martian missions were on their way this year. Ten Kate is especially looking forward to the landing of NASA rover Perseverance in February. Then NASAs flight management has to endure the notorious seven minutes of terror once again, just like in 2012 when the landing of predecessor Curiosity. In those seven minutes, the lunar cart, the size of a small car, has to slow down in the atmosphere and hit the ground at a flying crane.

Is that all right now? โ€œWhy not, I say optimistic. If youre assuming its going wrong, its better not to do the mission. Now we know what we have to do to do it right, but its still Mars. We have seen how things can go wrong with the European Schiaparelli lander. And that was in 2016, not so long ago.โ€

In this animation from earlier this year youll see what Perseverance should do on Mars:

The extraterrestrial culmination of 2020 was for Ten Kate to pick up grit from asteroid Bennu by NASA probe Osiris-rex. That didnt go well, stones were stuck between a valve which could have escaped some of the precious material, but eventually managed to secure the remaining grit in a capsule. By 2023, when the spacecraft returns to Earth, it will be clear how much is left in it.

For Ten Kate, every cosmic grain is welcome. The Japanese hayabusa-2 probe brought back gravel this year, from Ryugu, another asteroid. Because researchers on Earth know exactly where the monsters come from, they can tell a lot about the history and origin of the solar system. โ€œTheyre small pieces in a very big puzzle.โ€

Phosphorus on Venus

What surprised astronomer Lucas Ellerbroek (UvA) this year was the possible discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus – which some believe could indicate microscopic life in the clouds. The results were quickly disputed by other astronomers, but that only makes it more interesting, says Ellerbroek. โ€œIt was a nice surprise. The discovery is already under doubt, but there is now a lot of attention for Venus.โ€

For the coming year, the astronomy sees the launch of the James Webb space telescope as a highlight for astronomy. The successor to theHubble who went into the sky in 1990 will focus his lenses on planets near other stars. โ€œWhat we want to know is whether the Earth-like planets that have now been found with other stars are really Earth-like. We can only figure that out if we have a larger telescope to zoom in further.โ€