From the Ingenuity helicopter’s first powered flight on another world to the launch of the James Webb Telescope, 2021 has been a banner year for space enthusiasts. We take a look back at the main events that have marked the past few months.
The Perseverance Landing
On July 30, 2020, NASA launched its Mars 2020 mission. Its objective: to deliver Perseverance to the surface of the red planet. On February 18, after nearly seven months of travel and over 470 million kilometers in space, the rover finally landed successfully in Jezero Crater.
Since then, Perseverance has successfully generated oxygen on the Red Planet, which has never been done. The rover also took three rock samples. These will be brought back as part of an upcoming mission for analysis on Earth. Inside may be hiding remnants of microbial life.
Ingenuity takes off and makes history
NASA did it: fly its little Ingenuity helicopter to Mars. On April 29, the engineers of the Jet Propulsion laboratory (JPL) indeed programmed the very first motorized flight ever attempted and succeeded on another planet. Since then, Ingenuity has made nearly 15 additional flights, each time making increasingly complex attempts.
This resounding success will pave the way for other flying vehicles that may be included in future missions. These devices could support future astronauts by identifying crossing routes inaccessible by rovers. They could also allow exploration of lava tunnels and the transport of small payloads.
China launches new space station
The International Space Station (ISS) is no longer the only space laboratory in orbit. Last May, China indeed launched the main module of its new station called Tiangong (heavenly palace). A few weeks later, the country also sent its first manned capsule.
When fully assembled, this new station will be smaller than the ISS (about one-fifth of its mass) and still be able to accommodate up to three astronauts for stays of up to six months. On board, they will conduct various science experiments and prepare for long-duration space flights.
China lands on Mars
On May 14, China became the second country to deploy a rover on the Red Planet. Since then, the vehicle named Zhurong has traveled the Utopia Planitia region to study the geology of an environment that may have been the shore of an ocean billions of years ago.
This mission, which was initially supposed to last 90 Martian soil, was officially extended on August 15.
The Starship successfully lands
After a series of explosive setbacks, SpaceX finally made history on May 15 with the successful landing of its prototype Starship SN15.
The spacecraft took off, rose to an altitude of ten kilometers, then began its descent by recovering to the vertical. It finally landed about six minutes after launch. SpaceX is now preparing for the next step in its ambitious solar system colonization project with a first orbital flight. The latter could take place next spring.
Sir Richard Branson (almost) flies into space
On July 11, Richard Branson and his team successfully flew into space aboard VSS Unity, marking Virgin Galactic’s first official (non-test) manned flight.
During this flight, the VSS Unity, a suborbital aircraft, was first transported to high altitude by its carrier aircraft before being dropped from approximately thirteen kilometers above sea level. The spaceship then kicked in its engine to finally reach an altitude of 88 kilometers. On board, the passengers then took advantage of four minutes in zero gravity before descending to Earth.
Virgin Galactic expects regular commercial operations from 2022.
New Shepard sends first passengers into space
Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard launcher also made its first manned flight on July 20, transporting company founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk and Oliver Daemen to over 107 km altitude. . Seated in a capsule, all the passengers enjoyed ten minutes in zero gravity during which they could appreciate the view of our planet through giant portholes.
Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin plans to increase these flights as of next year.
A first completely private mission in space
On September 15, four aspiring astronauts boarded SpaceX’s Resilience spacecraft as part of the Inspiration4 mission, the company’s first fully civilian mission.
Once in space, at an altitude of over 500 km, crew members Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux and Chris Sembroski were able to appreciate an incredible view of Earth from the capsule dome.
Parker “touches the Sun”
On April 28, NASA’s Solar Parker Probe literally “rubbed” against the Sun. During this unprecedented maneuver, the spacecraft indeed passed under the critical surface of Alfvén for about five hours at about thirteen million kilometers above the photosphere, thus integrating the magnetized atmosphere of the Sun. It was a great first then.
However, this record will soon be broken. It is in fact predicted that the probe will approach within six million kilometers of the surface of the Sun in 2025.
The James Webb Telescope finally takes off
Developed by US, European and Canadian space agencies, the James Webb Telescope, the most complex and powerful space observatory ever built, finally launched into space on December 25. Thanks to its infrared capabilities, this telescope promises to revolutionize our approach to the universe. The start of scientific operations is scheduled for mid-2022.