When the SpaceX Falcon Rocket propelled the company’s Crew Dragon capsule into orbit in November 2020, it marked the first mission that used a NASA-certified private spacecraft to send a full crew of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). For the first time, the U.S. space agency assigned much of the design, development and testing of human-rated spacecraft to the private sector. The SpaceX mission paves the way for more commercial flights carrying researchers, professional astronauts and eventually paying passengers into orbit—pointing to a future where human spaceflight is not only more affordable but also routine.
10th Most Influential Project of 2021
Seeking to definitively answer the question of whether there was ever life on Mars, NASA launched the US$2.4 billion Perseverance robotic rover. After blasting off 30 July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, it finally landed on the red planet in February—and now even has its own Twitter feed. Its aim is to look for signs of ancient microbial life, collecting rock and soil samples that can be collected by a future mission that will return them to Earth for analysis. On its belly is Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which since April has been busy making the first-ever powered, controlled flights outside of Earth, testing out how an aerial reconnaissance vehicle might be able to help future missions and the Perseverance rover team.
23rd Most Influential Project of 2021
The next dimension of space tourism is on the way: a high-end hotel that could make low orbit more than a day trip. Once complete, the Voyager Station would be the first commercial space station operating with artificial gravity and the largest human-made structure in space. Orbital Assembly Corp. unveiled plans in February to construct a smaller, ground-based assembly system on Earth. But the real deal—a three-ring station—will be built in orbit using automation and telerobotics. The station will accommodate up to 440 guests in 24 pressurized modules and will be equipped with 44 emergency return vehicles with automated flight controls. The company aims to welcome guests as early as 2027.
30th Most Influential Project of 2021
China is setting up a new base for astronauts. Slated to be complete by the end of 2022, the 60-metric-ton Tiangong will be the only crewed orbital station apart from the International Space Station (ISS), which is likely to be retired in the next decade. China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched the station’s first core module in April 2021 and sent astronauts for a visit two months later. To complete the project, CNSA plans 11 launches that will include crewed missions and the delivery of two additional modules to the low Earth orbit station. Once complete, Tiangong will be capable of hosting three astronauts for extended stays and will include a lab with 14 experiment racks and 50 external ports to study the environment in space.
19th Most Influential Project of 2021
After a flurry of exploration action on Mars, Venus is finally getting some (much-deserved) attention. In June, NASA announced plans to deploy a two-pronged mission to the second planet from the sun—the U.S. space agency’s first trip there in more than three decades. Venus is often called Earth’s twin because of its similar size, density and gravity. And the VERITAS mission aims to map the planet’s surface to help researchers better understand how the inferno-like planet diverged so radically from Earth. NASA isn’t stopping there: The DAVINCI+ will focus on the atmosphere of Venus and investigate whether the planet once had an ocean. Expected to launch between 2028 and 2030, each mission has a roughly US$500 million budget.
In May, China became only the second nation in the world to land a rover on Mars. When the Tianwen-1 spacecraft launched in July 2020, the Zhurong rover was aboard; it had entered Mars’ orbit in February. But touchdown was only the start. In July, the rover began methodically traversing the Red Planet’s terrain to explore and document its unique topography. Daily images taken during that journey will also inform the rover’s visual positioning and route planning for its return home.
Call it one small step for man, one giant leap for Virgin Orbit. In June, the company’s LauncherOne rocket took off from its carrier aircraft and completed a series of engine fires and stage separations to make the trip to low-Earth orbit. On board: seven payloads, including the first-ever defense satellite for the Netherlands—giving the U.S. company some instant cred in the commercial travel space. And the rocket’s ability to take off horizontally from less-conventional runways could promise increased flexibility for future trips.
Marking an ambitious lunar partnership, the China National Space Administration and the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced plans to jointly deploy a space station in lunar orbit, a moon base, and a set of mobile rovers and smart robots. Though the location of the lunar base is yet to be decided, it’s intended to help researchers study the external and internal structure of the moon, while enabling space and Earth observation from the moon’s surface. A roadmap for the International Lunar Research Station was unveiled in June, with the two countries collaborating on the planning, design, development and operation of the research, and completion scheduled by 2036.
Designed to detect asteroids that come within 30 million miles (48 million kilometers) of Earth, the NEO Surveyor infrared space telescope could be a gamechanger in the NASA quest to spot—and address—potentially hazardous asteroids before they collide with our planet. Working with the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the U.S. space agency announced in July that it’s continuing its surveying project to discover and measure the sizes of asteroids and comets in preparation for the telescope launch in 2026. The goal: find at least two-thirds of the near-Earth objects capable of causing major regional damage—that is, anything larger than 460 feet (140 meters).
Looking to tackle Earth’s space junk problem, Japanese logging firm Sumitomo Forestry and a team of Kyoto University astrophysics students are attempting to create the world’s first wooden satellite. The idea: Instead of using metal—which can leave behind tiny alumina particles upon re-entry— the team designed LignoSat with a wooden shell designed to burn up as it hurtles back to Earth. And sustainability isn’t the only advantage. Because it’s easier for radio waves to penetrate dried timber than metal, the team can place communication antennas and sensor technology directly into the body of the satellite. Once Sumitomo develops the right material mix, the Kyoto University team will test the woods in extreme environments on Earth that mimic those found in orbit. Look for a prototype in 2023.