It’s no secret that 2020 was one of the worst years on Earth. But if you leave Earth behind, it was a year of historic launches, discovery and exploration! Below are the 7 top space moments from this past year.
SpaceX Crew 1 becomes first astronauts sent to space on a fully commercial rocket
Just before we all buckled ourselves into dining room chairs to stuff our faces with turkey this Thanksgiving, four NASA astronauts strapped into the SpaceX Dragon capsule to be the first NASA astronauts to head to the International Space Station in a fully commercial capsule—the Crew Dragon—sitting atop a fully commercial rocket—the Falcon 9.
While 2020 may be proud of the first time you went to a work meeting wearing sweatpants, this mission ticked off a number of firsts of its own. Not only was it the first fully commercial crew delivery, it was also the first time the FAA licensed a commercial launch for human orbital space flight, the first international crew to head to orbit in an American commercial spacecraft and the first time ISS’s long duration crew expanded from six to seven members.
SpaceX Starship caps of a year of entertaining tests with a successful 12.5 km test
For some, Starship tests provided just enough video content to fill the time between videos set to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, for others it showed the future of interplanetary travel. Unsatisfied with developing the first commercial rocket and crew capsule, SpaceX’s Starship took major steps this year to making crewed interplanetary travel a reality.
After many test hops, the 12.5km test on December 9 was the first time we got to see a stainless steel elephant fly...and explode. The highly anticipated test was a wild ride from start to finish, from scrubbing at T-1 seconds in one launch window, then almost scrubbing the next day, to the failed landing test. Although the media loves a fireball as much as any 12-year old at scout camp, the test was a huge success summed up by Elon’s post-test tweet: “Mars here we come.”
Mars 2020 Mission launches Perseverance Rover
If rovers were the sort of bot that tweets, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover may have tweeted the exact same thing earlier this summer. And if Mars life were the sort of aliens that tweet, they may have tweeted “Can’t wait!” Whether Martian life exists, and whether its that type of social media user, is one of the many questions Perseverance’s host of impressive instrumentation will help answer.
This Rover’s mission is all about life—both ancient and future. In addition to impressive cameras and other instruments for sample collection and analysis, the Rover is equipped with a drill that will collect samples from rocks most likely to find signs of ancient life and store them in a cache to be picked up and analyzed by later missions (like those arriving on a SpaceX Starship).
Future human life on Mars could also benefit from Perseverance’s experiments. Data from samples collected and analyzed on the rover itself will provide key information about in situ resource use for future human settlements.
And there are plenty of other “extras” on board, from a 1909 penny and the solar system’s hardest to access geocache, to a tribute to healthcare workers.
JAXA’s Hyabusa 2 successfully returns asteroid sample to earth
[Mandolorian spoiler alert] While we sit waiting to know if the Mandolorian will ever get baby Yoda back (i.e. Grogu), we can rest easy knowing that the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, successfully returned samples from the asteroid Ryugu back to earth.
After a six year mission, multiple touchdowns on the asteroid itself, and other observations, the samples dropped down in Woomera, Australia at the beginning of December. As soon as the samples were dropped off the 0.1 grams of asteroid dust were whisked off to Japan faster than a fresh delivery of toilet paper to the grocery store.
Human spaceflight capacity returns the USA
Not only are asteroid samples back to earth, dolphins back in the Venice canals, but crew launches are also back in the USA!
Since the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2010, all NASA and other ISS astronauts launched from Russia on Russian rockets. Aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, two astronauts sporting SpaceX space suits launched from Cape Canaveral in what was also the first ever socially distanced launch.
Although the launch meant many things, it also meant that SpaceX beat Boeing’s Starliner in the race to develop a crew capsule for NASA.
Christina Koch sets new record for longest female spaceflight
While you were re-binging Breaking Bad to get through quarantine, Christina Koch was busy breaking through the glass ceiling and setting the female record for longest spaceflight at 328 days.
Now back on Earth, Koch may be prepping to achieve another milestone in the coming years—first woman on the moon. Selected for the upcoming Artemis missions, she may have many more milestones to come.
Northrup Grumman MEV-1 extends the life of dying satellites
If you thought you had a tough year, just be thankful you aren’t the geosynchronous orbit graveyard. In February Northrup Grumman’s SpaceLogistics Mission Extention Vehicle 1 (MEV-1) docked with dying satellite Intelsat 901 to extend its life just before its orbit was about to be decommissioned to the graveyard.
Before the year was out, Northrup Grumman had already launched their MEV-2 and was moving forward on plans for smaller and more effective satellite life extension technology.