The five: space missions for 2021

After 2020, anyone would be forgiven for wanting to escape Earth, and Mars, the moon and the asteroid belt beckon

James Webb space telescope

This Nasa telescope, which is to replace the Hubble, has been subject to many delays – its first planned launch was in 2007. A March 2020 takeoff was delayed due to Covid, while its initial $500m budget has spiralled to more than $10bn (£7.4bn). It is a more sensitive telescope than the Hubble and once operational it will be able to observe the formation of some of the first galaxies. It will be launched on a European Ariane 5 rocket on 31 October.

Mars missions

The launch of the UAE’s Hope probe last July.
The launch of the UAE’s Hope probe last July. Photograph: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries/AFP/Getty Images

Three missions that have already launched will have a Martian encounter in 2021. On 9 February, the UAE’s Hope probe should arrive and begin orbiting the planet in order to study its atmosphere and weather. A few days later, China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter will arrive to look for a potential landing site before depositing a lander on the surface a couple of months later. Also in February, Nasa’s Mars 2020 is due to join the party and release its Perseverance rover on 18 February, to search for signs of microbial life and drill for rocks that could be returned to Earth by a future mission.

Artemis 1

An artist’s image of the Artemis lunar mission.
An artist’s image of the Artemis lunar mission. Photograph: AP

Last year, Nasa announced plans to take astronauts back to the moon in 2024. The first stage in this programme – to send an unmanned craft to orbit the moon – is due to launch in November. However, further delays are likely and the cost of the programme will be scrutinised by the incoming Biden administration.

Chinese space station

An artist’s image of China’s planned modular space station.
An artist’s image of China’s planned modular space station. Photograph: Chinese News Service

The first module of this long-planned project is due to be launched in the first half of the year. The construction should take around two years and 18 taikonauts have been selected to crew the craft once it is in orbit about 240 miles (380km) above Earth.

Dart mission

A graphic rendering of the Dart mission’s collision with the Didymos binary asteroid system.
The Dart mission’s future collision with the Didymos binary asteroid system, as rendered by an artist. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In July, Nasa will kick off its Double Asteroid Redirection Test. A probe will be fired into space with the aim of visiting the asteroid Didymos in 2022; it will then strike the asteroid’s moonlet, Dimorphos. Two European craft will monitor the impact and its effect on the rock’s orbit.


Ian Tucker

The GuardianTramp

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