The European Space Agency and NASA teamed up to launch the Solar Orbiter in February, kicking off a seven-year, US$1.5 billion mission to capture the first high-resolution images of the sun’s top and bottom. The unprecedented views could better predict solar storms that can disrupt critical infrastructure on Earth, such as power grids, as well as threaten astronauts in space. On 16 July, ESA published the first images—the closest ever taken—revealing a swirling mass of campfire-like flares.
17th Most Influential Project of 2020
In February, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute launched the first of three satellites designed to work together to keep a watchful eye on pollutants in the region’s air and oceans. The Chollian-2B satellite can capture hourly measurements across the East Asia region of fine dust and air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, aerosols and formaldehyde. The resulting data will also help scientists provide advanced forecasts for weather and air quality.
39th Most Influential Project of 2020
In May, Crew Dragon Demo-2 became the first crewed orbital flight operated by a commercial provider. NASA awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX US$3.1 billion to develop the spacecraft—an alternative to the US$80 million-per-seat fee Russia charges for flying U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. The test flight validated the SpaceX system and will likely lead to certification as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
China’s goal of staking its claim as a major space player by 2030 took one giant leap—all the way to Mars. The Tianwen-1 mission, launched in July, became the country’s first exploratory mission to the red planet. If all goes to plan, Tianwen-1 would reach Mars by February 2021 and China would become the second country to successfully operate a rover from the surface. The rover will search for signs of water and ice, and explore the atmosphere and soil.
NASA has forged many technological innovations, but its spacesuits have stayed decidedly retro. Originally tailored to an average man’s specs, the suit design has remained largely untouched since the early 1960s—until now. With the upcoming Artemis expected to land the first woman on the moon by 2024, NASA engineers rolled out the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit. Designers took a modular approach focused on comfort and mobility for a range of body types—with no skimping on the engineering requirements.
The United Arab Emirates Space Agency launched its robotic spacecraft, Hope, to Mars in July. It’s slated to spend about two years in orbit, monitoring a full cycle of Martian seasons. The craft was assembled on U.S. soil as part of the team’s outreach to partners with strong space experience—helping avoid common first-mission woes, while building an ecosystem for future missions.
Virgin Airlines’ space tourism offshoot flew its first test flight with a passenger in 2019. The spacecraft soared 90 kilometers (56 miles) above the Earth, carrying two pilots and a passenger into space who helped provide data about the SpaceShipTwo’s in-cabin experience and the impact flight has on the human body. Virgin Galactic is racing to become the first commercial spaceline to provide trips to outer space.
The International Space Station’s 221st spacewalk, in October 2019, was the first to be conducted entirely by women. NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir replaced a failed power-charging component outside the International Space Station during the 7-hour, 17-minute mission. It was the 43rd spacewalk to include a woman.
Designed by AI SpaceFactory, Marsha offers up a glimpse into what life on Mars might look like for humans. In May 2019, the 3D-printed Mars habitat prototype earned first place in a NASA challenge. The team robotically printed a scale model of Marsha in 30 hours from a biopolymer basalt composite, a biodegradable and recyclable material derived from materials naturally found on Mars.
With a growing list of accomplishments in space exploration, India needed a place to celebrate that storied history. So the Indian Space Research Organisation collaborated with BM Birla Science Centre to open the country’s first private space museum last year in Hyderabad. Spanning 9,000 square feet (836 square meters), it displays scale models of Indian spacecraft, satellites and rockets as well as the International Space Station.