The mysteries of our infinite cosmos have garnered extensive interest from the human society. There is more excitement about space than ever before. There has been a lot of progress in our understanding of not just our solar system but also the distant past of the visible universe. And yet, we have just begun exploring our neighbourhood. Space missions help us to understand specific things about our universe. For instance, missions to Mars and the Moon have helped us understand our nearest neighbours. Mars may even have been habitable in the past but we need more data and exploration to verify this. We need more space missions to achieve this.
It was a productive year for space missions in 2019. Going into 2020, more exciting space missions that might eventually culminate in being humanities best await us. With more countries and new organisations joining the space race this year, 2020 is going to be a solid year not only for space exploration but also for demonstration of new technology. We are going to the Sun, the Moon and Mars and we will have a whole set of new communication satellites by the end of this year. Perhaps, for the first time, we may even witness space tourism in 2020.
Here’s a list of the top space missions that will launch in 2020.
ESA and NASA’s Solar Orbiter
Planned launch on 5 February 2020 at 23:27 EST
ESA and NASA’s Solar Orbiter
Artist impression of Solar Orbiter in front of the Sun. Picture credit ESA & NASA.
This real image of the Sun was taken by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, SOHO.
Solar Orbiter. Picture credit ESA/ATG medialab.
ESA's Solar Orbiter mission will face the Sun from within the orbit of Mercury at its closest approach.
Artist impression of Solar Orbiter. Picture credit ESA/ATG medialab.
Artist impression of Solar Orbiter. Picture credit ESA/ATG medialab.
The Solar Orbiter aims to study the Sun up close and taking high resolution images of the Sun’s poles for the first time. The Sun has a massive influence on the whole Solar System. The Solar Orbiter will try to understand more about this influence, which is not just gravity but also the giant bubble of plasma that emerges from the Sun and permeates throughout the Solar System. Solar Orbiter is due to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on an Atlas V 411 rocket supplied by NASA in February 2020. Following the initial commissioning round of its systems and instruments, its first pass by the Sun will take place in June when the spacecraft will be at around half the distance of Earth’s orbit from the Sun.
NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover
Planned launch between 17 July and 5 August 2020
NASA's Mars Rover 2020
Mars Rover 2020
Mars Rover 2020. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA's Mars 2020 rover on Dec. 17, 2019.
Artists conception of NASA's Mars 2020 rover exploring Mars
This artist's concept depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover exploring Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The mission will not only seek out and study an area likely to have been habitable in the distant past, but it will take the next, bold step in robotic exploration of the Red Planet by seeking signs of past microbial life itself.
Mars 2020 will use powerful instruments to investigate rocks on Mars down to the microscopic scale of variations in texture and composition. It will also acquire and store samples of the most promising rocks and soils that it encounters, and set them aside on the surface of Mars. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth.
Mars 2020 is targeted for launch in July/August 2020 aboard an Atlas V-541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Mars 2020 Rover Cameras
There are 23 cameras on NASA's 2020 Mars rover. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image presents a selection of the 23 cameras on NASA's 2020 Mars rover. Many are improved versions of the cameras on the Curiosity rover, with a few new additions as well.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will build and manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.
Curiosity and Mars 2020
NASA's Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. Picture credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustrations of NASA's Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. While the newest rover borrows from Curiosity's design, each has its own role in the ongoing exploration of Mars and the search for ancient life.
Differences Between Mars 2020 and Curiosity
NASA's Mars 2020 rover looks virtually the same as Curiosity, but there are a number of differences. Picture credit NASA/JPL-Caltech.
One giveaway to which rover you're looking at is 2020's aft cross-beam, which looks a bit like a shopping cart handle.
Some differences between NASA's Mars 2020 and Curiosity Rovers:
Sample Caching System (inside): Collects rock cores drilled by robotic arm
Turret: Holds heavier science tools
Cameras: 23 cameras, most in colour
Wheels: New dimensions & tread design
AFT Cross-Beam: Stabilises the rover during launch
Mars 2020 Rover's landing site
Map of NASA's Mars Landing Sites. Picture credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
This map of the Red Planet shows Jezero Crater, where NASA's Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to land in February 2021. Also included are the locations where all of NASA's other successful Mars missions touched down.
With the Mars 2020 rover, NASA aims to intensify the search for signs of life on Mars and further explore the martian atmosphere. The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. A drill on the Mars 2020 rover will probe “promising” rocks and soils and store some samples. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth. That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars. With this mission, NASA also hopes to be going one step closer to sending humans to Mars.
The Mars 2020 mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort to explore Mars. With a range of missions including many exploratory rovers and orbiters, NASA is leading human space endeavours in exploring Mars.
Roscosmos and ESA’s ExoMars 2020
Planned launch between 26 July and 11 Aug 2020
ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) is an astrobiology programme by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The goals of ExoMars are to search for signs of past life on Mars, investigate how the Martian water and geochemical environment varies, investigate atmospheric trace gases and their sources and by doing so demonstrate the technologies for a future Mars sample-return mission.
This is part two of the ExoMars mission by ESA. In the first instalment, a Trace Gas Orbiter was launched in 2016 and it looked for evidences for the presence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases. It could not find methane in the atmosphere of Mars1, but is now helping to find a proper landing site for the ExoMars 2020 mission.
NASA’s Artemis 1
Planned launch in November 2020, could be postponed to early 2021.
Artemis 1 is the first part of NASA’s ambitious plan to establish human presence outside Earth, on the Moon and then on Mars. With the Artemis program, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. The launch of the uncrewed Artemis 1 in 2020 will be the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems. These include the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS, the most powerful rocket ever built yet) and new ground systems on Earth. The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, Artemis I will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond.
NASA created history when Apollo 11 landed on our moon with a crew. Many believe that this was just a show of technology and will. Five decades later, NASA will attempt to do this again but with a much more ambitious goal of establishing extra-terrestrial human bases.
China’s Huoxing-1 Mars Orbiter and Rover
Planned launch between July 23 and August 5, 2020
This new Chinese Mars spacecraft, developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is managed by the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) in Beijing. The lander carrying the rover will use a parachute, retrorockets, and an airbag to achieve landing. The aims of the mission include finding evidences for both current and previous life, and evaluating the planet’s surface and environment. There are also planned solo and joint explorations of the Mars orbiter and rover to produce maps of the Martian surface topography, soil characteristics, material composition, water ice, atmosphere, ionosphere field, and other scientific data.
ISRO’s Gaganyaan Uncrewed Test Flight 1
Planned launch in December 2020
India has declared ambitious plans to put astronauts in space with the Gaganyaan mission. But before they do so, they need to test their technology. The uncrewed Test Flight 1 will achieve exactly this. After the first test flight, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to perform a second test flight in mid 2021. Following these two non-crewed orbital flight demonstrations of the spacecraft, a crewed Gaganyaan is slated to be launched on the GSLV Mk III launcher in late 2021.
- 1.Korablev, O. et al. No detection of methane on Mars from early ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter observations. Nature 517–520 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1096-4.