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Watch out for these space missions in 2020

From solar missions to Martian rovers, Lounge looks at some of the exciting space missions taking off this year

An artist’s conception depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars
An artist’s conception depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars (Photo: NASA)

When Apollo 11’s lunar module, Eagle, landed on the Moon in July 1969, the world media scrambled to cover the momentous occasion. A leading Indian newspaper carried an article, courtesy The New York Times, by the then administrator of US space agency Nasa, Thomas Paine, describing how the lunar surface would accommodate domed cities in the future. It was headlined: “Earth-Moon Flights May Become Common Soon".

Paine also wrote that these bases would evolve into self-sustaining communities thanks to the use of modern technology powered by solar and nuclear energy that would find a way to “process lunar resources".

While humans haven’t visited the Moon since 1972, a return mission is now just four years away, with the Artemis programme aiming to land the first woman astronaut there in 2024. It all begins in 2020 though, with space agencies in China and Europe also working on lunar missions. This year is also big on launches for Mars, owing to the favourable alignment of the two planets (the distance between Earth and Mars reduces). Here’s a closer look at some of the most exciting space missions slated to launch in 2020.

An artist’s rendition of Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outcrop
An artist’s rendition of Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outcrop (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Nasa Mars 2020 rover

Launch date: July

Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover mission will take off on the Atlas V rocket, hoping to land in the planet’s Jezero crater, which was once thought to be a lake. The aim is to take the scientific goals of Nasa’s Mars Exploration Program to a whole new level. According to Nasa, the new rover comes with a drill that can collect rock, soil samples and store them in a cache on the planet’s surface. The plan is to get these samples to Earth through a future mission. Apart from studying the planet’s geology, the Mars 2020 rover will also try to understand if earlier environments on Mars were enough to support microbial life, seeking biosignatures in rocks that are known to preserve signs of life. In addition, the aim is to test oxygen production in the Martian atmosphere—imperative to plans for establishing human colonies on the planet. The current rover’s design is inspired by the Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012 and is still operational on Mars. The proposed mission has a duration of one Mars year, or around 687 Earth days.

ESA solar orbiter

Launch date: February

The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Solar Orbiterwill take off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in February and aim to perform close, high-resolution studies of the Sun and inner heliosphere. The orbiter will carry its telescopes and other scientific instruments to just one-fifth of Earth’s distance from the Sun. It will also provide the first images of the Sun’s polar regions and become only the second spacecraft to study the Sun from close proximity after the ongoing mission of the Parker Solar Probe, which was launched in 2018. The data and imagery collected from the Solar Orbiter could tell scientists more about solar winds and eruptions, and how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere. The Solar Orbiter is expected to go closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft before—it will be exposed to sunlight 13 times more intense than what we experience on Earth. In order to protect it from the searing heat, the Orbiter’s Sun-facing side is protected by a sunshield. According to the ESA, the spacecraft will also be kept cool with the help of special radiators that will dissipate excess heat into space.

India’s maiden solar mission

Launch dates: To be decided

The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) successfully launched its GSAT-30 communications satellite aboard the Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana on 17 January—India’s first launch of 2020. But it won’t be its last this year. After recently announcing another lunar mission, Chandrayaan-3, and sharing big developments on the country’s first manned mission, Gaganyaan, Isro will also launch its first solar mission, Aditya-L1, to study the Sun’s corona. According to Isro, the Aditya-L1 mission will be inserted into a halo orbit around the L1, or the Lagrangian point of the Sun-Earth system, roughly 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. The mission’s primary payload is a coronagraph (a visible emission line coronagraph designed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics), which is like a telescope that can see and capture things close to the Sun. Isro also aims to conduct an orbital test flight of its small satellite launch vehicle, or SSLV, this year. The SSLV is designed to carry small satellites into low Earth orbit and can be assembled within days for quick launches. It is smaller and cheaper than bigger launch vehicles like the PSLV and GSLV.

Virgin Galactic

Launch dates: To be decided

Space tourism is all set to take flight with Virgin Galactic, the commercial spaceline launched by British investor and philanthropist Richard Branson, which hopes to start commercial operations this year. Earlier this month, the company achieved a major construction milestone after assembling all the major structural elements of its second rocket spaceship, which now stands on its own landing gear at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California. According to an official statement, the spaceship’s assembly team will now work on connecting the vehicle’s integrated systems, including the flight control systems and fuselage. Virgin Galactic wants to open space travel to private astronauts and researchers. Last year, Nasa also announced that the International Space Station was open to commercial opportunities and hosting tourists.

The idea of space tourism is expected to reel in some big numbers. In 2019, Swiss investment bank UBS estimated that space tourism would become a $3 billion (around 21,000 crore now) market by 2030. The entire space sector, it added in a report, could grow to a staggering $926 billion by 2040. With private space enthusiasts willing to shell out as much as $250,000 per ticket for a seat on the Virgin Galactic spaceships, these numbers don’t look far-fetched.

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