From the first powered flight of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter on another world to the launch of the James Webb Telescope, which will look into the earliest epoch of the universe, 2021 was a big year for human space efforts.
Beyond the scientific milestones, billionaires fought to reach the final frontier first, an all-civilian crew went into orbit, and Star Trek’s William Shatner did a deeper study of what it means to see Earth from the cosmos than space tourism finally got its own skills.
Here are selected highlights.
Red Planet robot duo
NASA’s Perseverance rover survived its “seven minutes of terror,” a time when the spacecraft relies on its automated descent and landing systems to touch down on Mars’ Jezero crater in February without errors.
Since then, the robot has been taking photos the size of a car and drilling for samples for its mission: to determine whether the red planet may have harbored ancient microbial life forms.
A rock sample return mission is planned for the 2030s.
“Percy”, as the helicopter is affectionately known, can also zap Martian rocks with its ultra-modern instruments and chemically analyze the steam.
Percy has a partner for the ride: Ingenuity, a two-kilogram rotary wing aircraft that made its first powered flight on another celestial body in April, a little over a century after the Wright brothers accomplished the same feat here on Earth, and has played many more since then.
“Persistence is like a flagship mission, it carries out a long-term detailed study of this fascinating area of Mars,” Jonathan McDowall, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP.
In contrast, “Ingenuity is one of those cute, little, cheap little technology demos that NASA is so good at,” he added.
Ingenuity’s findings could help scientists develop Dragonfly, a proposed thousand-pound drone copter that will search for signs of life on Saturn’s moon Titan in the mid-2030s.
Private space travel takes off
An American millionaire became the world’s first space tourist in 2001, but it was another 20 years before the promise of private space travel was finally fulfilled.
In July, Virgin Galactic’s founder Richard Branson competed against Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos to undertake a suborbital space flight. While the British tycoon won this race by a few days, it was Blue Origin which was ahead and started three more flights with paying customers and celebrity guests.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX entered combat on Inspiration 4 in September with a three-day orbital mission around Earth with an all-civilian crew.
“It’s really exciting that something like this is finally happening after such a long time,” said space analyst Laura Seward Forczyk, author of the upcoming book Becoming Off-Worldly, designed to prepare future space travelers.
But it was William Shatner, who played the daring Captain Kirk in the 1960s television series “Star Trek”, who stole the show with a moving account of his experience.
“What you are looking at is Mother Earth and she needs to be protected,” he told reporters.
In 2021, a Russian crew shot the first feature film in space on board the International Space Station (ISS), and Japanese tourists made their own visit there with a Russian rocket.
On December 11th, there was a record of 19 people in space for a few minutes when Blue Origin carried out its third manned mission, the Japanese team was on the ISS with its normal crew, and Chinese taikonauts were in position on their station.
The sight of wealthy elites in the cosmos wasn’t for everyone, however, and the nascent space tourism sparked a backlash from some who said there were more pressing issues like climate change here on earth.
Globalization of space
During the Cold War, space was dominated by the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Now, in addition to the explosion in the commercial sector sending satellites into the air at dizzying speeds, China, India and others are increasingly flexing their space muscles.
China’s Tiangong (Palace in Heaven) space station – its first long-term outpost – was launched in April, while its first Mars rover, Zhurong, landed in May, making it only the second country to have achieved such an exploit.
“For the past 20 years since China finally decided to grow up in space, they have been in catching up mode,” said McDowall. “And now they are there, so to speak, starting to do things that the US hasn’t done.”
The UAE placed a probe in orbit around Mars in February, making it the first Arab nation and fifth nation to reach the planet.
Russia, meanwhile, has launched a missile at one of its own satellites, making it the fourth country to be hit by a spaceship from the ground, rekindling concerns about the growing arms race in space.
Washington criticized Moscow for its “ruthless” test that produced over 1,500 large orbital debris that is dangerous for near-earth orbit missions such as the ISS.
The year ended with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a $ 10 billion marvel that will use infrared technology to look back 13 billion years in time.
“It is arguably the most expensive single scientific platform ever created,” said Casey Drier, Chief Representative of the Planetary Society.
“To push the boundaries of what we know about the cosmos, we had to build something that had access to this ancient past,” he added.
It will reach Lagrange Point 2, a space landmark a million miles from Earth, in a few weeks, then gradually launch and calibrate its systems and go online around June.
Also next year, the launch of Artemis 1 – when NASA’s giant Space Launch System (SLS) will transport the Orion capsule to the moon and back in preparation for the return of America with humans later this decade.
NASA plans to build lunar habitats and use the knowledge gained there for forward missions to Mars in the 2030s.
Observers are encouraged that the program initiated by former President Donald Trump continued under Joe Biden – even if he did not support his support as loudly.
Eventually, sometime next fall, NASA’s DART probe will hit an asteroid to deflect it off course.
The proof-of-concept test is a test run should mankind ever have to prevent a giant space rock from wiping out life on earth, as seen in Netflix’s new hit film “Don’t Look Up”.