CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Astronauts blasted into orbit from the U.S. for the first time in nearly a decade, three countries sent spacecraft hurtling toward Mars, and robotic explorers grabbed rocks from the moon and gravel from an asteroid for return to Earth.
Space provided moments of hope and glory in an otherwise difficult, stressful year.
It promises to do the same in 2021, with February’s landings at Mars and next fall’s planned launch of the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor — the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope.
Boeing hopes to catch up with SpaceX in the astronaut-launching department, while space tourism may finally get off the ground.
“2021 promises to be as much of a space exploration bright spot, perhaps even more," said Scott Hubbard, NASA’s former “Mars Czar” now teaching at Stanford University.
Although the coronavirus pandemic complicated space operations around the globe in 2020, most high-priority missions remained on track, led by the U.S., China and the United Arab Emirates in a stampede to Mars in July.
The UAE's first interplanetary spacecraft, an orbiter, will scrutinize the Martian atmosphere. NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to land Feb. 18 at an ancient river delta and lakebed where microscopic life may have once flourished. The rover will drill into the dry crust, collecting samples for eventual return to Earth.
China’s orbiter-rover duo Tianwen-1 — quest for heavenly truth — also will hunt for signs of bygone life.