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Here are the highlights of a busy year in space launches


So many things were launched into space this year: six humans traveled aboard the crew’s commercial vehicles, three spacecraft began their trips to Mars, and several hundred distractingly bright satellites took to the skies.

Commercial crew

On May 30, SpaceX transported a pair of astronauts to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was the first human launch of a spacecraft and the first time astronauts have flown from the U.S. launcher since the spacecraft was withdrawn in 2011 (SN: 20/06/20, p. 16).

SpaceX launched a crew of four people from the ground off the United States on November 15th.Official SpaceX / Flickr photos (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As part of its commercial crew program, NASA funded private space flight companies, including SpaceX and Boeing, to develop ways to transport astronauts to and from the space station so that the agency would no longer have to depend on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

When the astronauts returned safely to Earth on August 2, the Crew Dragon spacecraft test was considered a success. The next flight, which launched on November 15, took four astronauts. "I think it can be said that we no longer really depend on the Soyuz," says astrophysicist and space historian Jonathan McDowell of Harvard & Smithsonian's Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

SpaceX Crew Dragon approaches the ISSThe SpaceX Crew Dragon approaches the International Space Station on November 16.NASA Johnson / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Travel to Mars

Three spacecraft that landed on Mars in July are expected to arrive in February 2021. The Perseverance rover, NASA's fifth Martian rover (SN: 7/4/20 and 7/18/20, p. 30), will search for a dry delta. of the river by signs of ancient life and collects rock samples that a future mission will bring to Earth.

China and the UAE hope this year’s missions mark their first successful trips to the Red Planet (SN Online: 30/07/20). After entering Mars orbit, the Chinese spacecraft Tianwen-1 is expected to drop a lander and a rover on the planet's surface in April. China plans to bring samples from Mars in the next decade and Tianwen-1 is a technological demonstration for that mission. The rover will also look for bags of water hidden beneath the surface and explore the geology and chemistry of Mars.

NASA's Perseverance roverThe United States, China and the United Arab Emirates launched missions to Mars in July. NASA's Perseverance Explorer (illustrated) will look for signs of ancient life.JPL-Caltech / NASA

The UAE space agency was only founded in 2014 and launched its first satellite in 2018, making the Mars mission an ambitious leap. The country’s Hope orbiter will gather evidence to tackle one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of Mars: how does Martian time work (SN: 4/04/20 and 18/07/20, p. 24)? Being the first spacecraft orbiting the planet’s equator, Hope will provide a new insight into how Mars ’atmosphere changes daily, seasonally, and at different altitudes.

Mega-constellations

SpaceX not only sends astronauts into orbit. The company has launched hundreds of satellites as part of its Starlink project to bring high-speed internet around the world. Other companies plan to launch similar “mega-constellations”. If all goes according to the plans of several companies, there will be about 100,000 satellites in low orbits.

“That’s a lot of satellites,” McDowell says. As of August 1, only 2,787 operational satellites performing all kinds of work were orbiting the Earth. Scientists fear that the impending wave of satellites could ruin the night sky by astronomy reflecting extra light in terrestrial telescopes (SN: 28/03/20, p. 24).

By mid-October, SpaceX had already launched more than 900 Starlink satellites. The company tried a dark coating to make the satellites less reflective, but that didn’t help enough. So now SpaceX is launching satellites with small visors to reduce reflectivity, which helps a bit, McDowell says.

internet satellitesSpaceX and other companies want to launch thousands of (illustrated) internet satellites into orbit. Astronomers are concerned that these reflective objects mark observations of the night sky.Nicolle Rager Fuller

The good news is that astronomers and space companies are discussing the problem. At a meeting in the summer, scientists presented simulations of the worst cases. The impact of these mega-constellations will depend on how many satellites are actually launched and what kind of astronomy you are considering, McDowell says. Some of the worst effects will be in observations to detect asteroids close to Earth.

“We might miss the rock that comes to kill us all because satellite streaks have made it difficult to calculate its orbit,” McDowell says.

One thing that would help is government regulations on the characteristics of satellites that can be launched, McDowell says. Companies are “making all the right noises about wanting to help,” he says, but the noises and actions are not the same.

“I think with additional work and mitigation, we’ll get to a point where it’s not fatal to terrestrial astronomy, but it still has a huge impact,” McDowell says. "We may not know the full consequences until we're really into it."



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