A year of space tourism, flights on Mars, China’s progress

In this NASA distribution image released on November 23, 2021, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft aboard the November 23, 2021, California.

In this NASA distribution image released on November 23, 2021, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft aboard the November 23, 2021, California.

WASHINGTON: From the first engine flight of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter to another world to the launch of the James Webb telescope, which will look into the earliest epoch of the universe, 2021 was a great year for humanity’s space endeavors.

In addition to the scientific milestones, billionaires struggled to reach the final frontier first, an entire civilian crew went into orbit, and Star Trek’s William Shatner became profound about what it meant to see Earth from the cosmos when space tourism finally came into its own.

Here are selected highlights.

– Red Planet robotduo –

NASA’s Perseverance Rover survived its “seven-minute terror,” a time when the spacecraft relies on its automatic descent and landing systems to land flawlessly on Mars’ Jezero crater in February.

Since then, the car-sized robot has taken pictures and drilled for samples for its mission: to determine if the red planet could have hosted ancient microbial life forms.

A rock sample return mission is scheduled for sometime in the 2030s.

With its advanced instruments, “Percy”, as the helicopter is affectionately known, can also zap Mars rock and chemically analyze the steam.

Percy has a partner on the trip: ingenuity, a four-pound (two kilogram) rotorcraft that succeeded in April in the first motor flight on another celestial body, just over a century after the Wright brothers achieved the same feat here on Earth, and has appeared many more since.

“Endurance is a kind of flagship mission, it does a long-term detailed study of this fascinating area on 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 can do so well,” he added.

The insights gained from Ingenuity could help scientists develop Dragonfly, a planned thousand-pound drone copter, to search for signs of life on Saturn’s moon Titan in the mid-2030s.

– Private spaceflight starts –

An American millionaire became the world’s first space tourist in 2001, but it took another 20 years before the promise of private spaceflight was finally realized.

In July, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson faced Blue Origins Jeff Bezos for being the first non-professional astronaut to complete a suborbital spaceflight.

While the British tycoon won that battle by a few days, it was Blue Origin that drove on and launched three more flights with paying customers and celebrity guests.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX entered combat in September with a three-day orbital mission around the Earth with an entire civilian crew on Inspiration 4.

“It’s really exciting that these things are finally happening after such a long time,” said space industry analyst Laura Seward Forczyk, author of the upcoming book “Becoming Off-Worldly,” which aims to prepare future space travelers.

But it was William Shatner, who played the overwhelming Captain Kirk in the 1960s TV series “Star Trek,” who stole the show with a moving account of his experience.

“What you’re looking down on is Mother Earth, and it needs to be protected,” he told reporters.

A Russian crew recorded the first feature film in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021, and Japanese tourists paid their own visit there on a Russian rocket.

In a few minutes on December 11, there was a record 19 people in space as Blue Origin performed its third manned mission, the Japanese team was on the ISS with its normal crew, and Chinese taikonauts were in position at their station.

However, the sight of wealthy elites galifying in the cosmos has not been to everyone’s liking, and the burgeoning space tourism sector triggered a backlash from some who said there were more pressing issues to face, such as 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 of the commercial sector, which is sending satellites up at a dizzying pace, China, India and others are increasingly tensing their space flight muscles.

China’s Tiangong (Palace in the Sky) space station – its first long-term outpost – was launched in April, while its first Mars rover, Zhurong, landed in May, making it the only other country to achieve such exploitation.

“In the last 20 years, since China finally decided to go big in space, they’ve been in catch-up mode,” McDowall said. “And now they’re kind of there, and they’re starting to do things that the United States has not done.”

The United Arab Emirates placed a probe in orbit around Mars in February, becoming the first Arab nation and the fifth in total to reach the planet.

Russia, meanwhile, fired a missile at one of its own satellites, becoming the fourth country to hit a spacecraft from the ground in a move that revived concerns about the growing space arms race.

Washington criticized Moscow for its “ruthless” test, which generated over 1,500 pieces of large orbital debris, dangerous for low-orbit missions around the Earth, such as the ISS.

– Coming soon … –

The year ended with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a $ 10 billion marvel that will make use of infrared technology to look 13 billion years back in time.

“It’s without a doubt the most expensive, single scientific platform ever created,” said Casey Drier, chief lawyer for the Planetary Society.

“To push the boundaries of our knowledge of the cosmos, we had to build something that was capable of accessing the ancient past,” he added.

It will reach Lagrange Point 2, a space mark one million miles from Earth, in a matter of weeks, then gradually start up and calibrate its systems, coming online around June.

Also next year, the launch of Artemis 1 – when NASA’s giant Space Launch System (SLS) will carry the Orion capsule to the Moon and back, in preparation for America’s return with humans later this decade.

NASA plans to build lunar habitats and use the experience there for future missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Observers are encouraged that the program launched by former President Donald Trump remains under Joe Biden – even though he has not been as vocal in his support.

Finally, sometime next fall, NASA’s DART probe will smash into an asteroid to get it off course.

The proof-of-concept test is a dry run if humanity ever needs to stop a giant space stone from wiping out life on Earth, as seen in Netflix’s new hit movie “Don’t Look Up”.

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