US Space Missions To Watch In 2020

This year will see missions to Mars, the Moon, space exploration with cubesats, hundreds upon hundreds of communication satellites, space tourism and more.
  • The new decade starts with a number of important space missions, from sending robots to Mars and humans into orbit to hundreds of satellite launches, an abundance of cubesat innovations and maybe the return of NASA astronauts to the Moon.

    Last year witnessed the rise of communication satellites luanched into space to build what some have called the Internet of Space. At the same time, new concerns arose about the quickly increase quantity of space junk orbiting our planet and potentially endangering future missions.

    This year will add to past missions and challenges with new trips into Earth orbit, to the Moon, to Mars, and elsewhere. Some of this year’s adventures will involve humans but others will not. Here are the most notable U.S. missions coming up in 2020.

  • Mars Missions

    There are four different missions to Mars schedule for 2020. The most adventuresome one is NASA’s Mars rover, which will use a variety for instruments to seek for past or present extraterrestrial life on the Red Planet. Apparently, this mission will even utilize a helicopter drone. Next on the list of space travelers will be China’s Huoxing-1, which will study the Martian terrain and atmosphere for 90 days. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, Russia's national space corporation, have been working together for the last decade on another mission called ExoMars. Together, the team will launch a rover named Rosalind Franklin, after the chemist who helped discover the structure of DNA. This mission will also seek for signs of life on Mars. Lastly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will launch an orbiter, the Hope Mars Mission, to study the atmosphere of Mars.

  • Back into Space – or not

    The plan was for a United Launch Alliance's (ULA)  Atlas V rocket to lift Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) this year. It would have been the first time that American astronauts were launched into space from US soil since 2011.

    All that changed when Starliner ran into problems shortly after launch in December. 2019. It suffered an "off-nominal insertion" while getting into orbit and used too much fuel, according to Boeing. The uncrewed demonstration mission was scrubbed since the Starliner couldn’t reach the ISS. Despite not docking with the International Space Station, the spacecraft did meet several test objectives.

    NASA and Boeing are in the process of establishing a joint, independent investigation team to examine the primary issues associated with the Starliner failure to reach the ISS.

    Meanwhile, SpaceX's Crew Dragon successfully made it to the space station in a historic mission in March 2019.

  • Artemis

    Artemis I, formerly Exploration Mission-1, will be the first test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the updated ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, Artemis I will be an uncrewed flight test that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, notes the Nasa website.

    NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will launch with Orion atop it from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. During the three-week mission, Orion will orbit the Moon several times, venture thousands of miles beyond the Moon and then return to Earth.

    According to NASA, as the spacecraft makes its first orbit around the Earth, it will deploy its solar arrays. When ready, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will give Orion the big push needed to leave Earth’s orbit and travel toward the Moon. From there, Orion will separate from the ICPS and then deploy a number of small satellites, known as cubesats to perform several experiments and technology demonstrations.

  • Cubesats

    Cubesats are miniaturized satellites used for space-based science, exploration, Earth observation, relay communication and more. Cubesat efficiency, low cost, and compatibility with larger payloads offer opportunities for increased science projects. Cubesats often catch rides into space via launch vehicles (LVs). For example, the SLS mentioned earlier has the capacity to accommodate 11 6U-sized cubesats, which will deploy once the Orion spacecraft separates from the launch rocket and on a specified timeline based on their mission objectives.

    NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division has selected three secondary payloads (cubesats) to launch on SLS. The three mission cubesat projects are named the BioSentinel, Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout and Lunar Flashlight.

    The BioSentinel mission will be the first-time living organisms have traveled to deep space in more than 40 years, according to the NASA website. The cubesat spacecraft will operate in the deep space radiation environment throughout its 18-month mission. BioSentinel will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep-space radiation on living organisms over long durations beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

    Before sending astronauts to any new space environments, robotic scouts should survey the destination and learn about the risks and challenges posed to future human explorers, explains the NASA website. Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout, will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid using a CubeSat and solar sail propulsion, which offers navigation agility during cruise for approaching the target. Propelled by sunlight, NEA Scout will flyby and observe a small asteroid (<300 feet in diameter), taking pictures and observing its position in space among other things.

    Pioneering space will only be possible if humans can learn to live off the land, notes the NASA website. Resources at destinations in space, such as atmospheres and water ice, can be broken down into their component molecules and used as building materials, propellant, oxygen for humans to breath and even drinking water. Finding the best location for these resources is the mission of the Lunar Flashlight cubesat. This tiny spacecraft will demonstrate this scouting capability from lunar orbit by performing multiple passes of the surface to look for ice deposits and identifying favorable locations.

  • Satellites as numerous as stars

    Well, almost. But 2020 will be the year for mega-constellation launches of communication satellites. SpaceX's Starlink broadband service is scheduled to begin in the latter half of 2020. It will include 720 satellites, many to be launched this year. SpaceX launched the first Starlink mission, a Falcon 9 carrying 60 satellites, back in May of 2019. Another 60 were launched in November 2019.

    Not to be outdone, the competitor OneWeb is expected to begin monthly launches in 2020. OneWeb’s goal is to have over 600 satellites in orbit by the end of the year so it too can offer consumer Internet services. All of these satellites are part of what some call the Internet of Space. An unwelcomed side effect of all these hundreds of new satellites will be an increase in the probably of collision with existing satellites and orbiting space junk.

  • Retro Spaceship

    SpaceX’s retro-looking, reusable interplanetary spacecraft known as Starship was first revealed in 2019. This year, the spacecraft will undergo several demonstration projects this year including a high-altitude test flight followed by an orbital flight.

  • Space Tourism

    Other commercial space competitor’s worth watching include Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos. Instead of traveling to the Moon or Mars, the company’s flagship suborbital rocket is intended as a space tourist vehicle. Its latest launch of New Shepard, which ferried an unmanned crew capsule into space, was designed to resemble a mission with human passengers. CEO Bob Smith has said the firm expects to send humans into space sometime in 2020.

  • Right Stuff

    Finally, Branson’s space venture known as Virgin Orbit could reach a significant milestone in 2020 with the first time launch of its rocket, LauncherOne. Instead of taking off vertically, the craft would be dropped from the wing of a 747 jet before its engines ignite to carry it into space. This was the same approached used back in the late 1950s with the B-52 Stratofortress aircraft /X-15 launches. It was the right stuff back then and maybe it will prove so again for Virgin Orbit.

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

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