2020 set to be an action-packed year with missions to Mars, the Moon and new players in space travel

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will put their technological capabilities to test in July 2020, looking for answers on Mars' past life, even as countries hope to extensively map out the Moon's far side


                            2020 set to be an action-packed year with missions to Mars, the Moon and new players in space travel
Mars 2020 rover (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

After an action-packed 2019, space research in 2020 is expected to reach newer heights. We can hope to hear a lot from Mars this year, with China and the UAE hoping to touch down on the Red Planet, for the first time ever.

Missions to the Moon, the Sun and asteroids can help scientists unlock mysteries about the solar system and the origins of life. Here is a line up of important space missions to watch out for in 2020:

The year of Mars

In 2020, Mars will make its closest approach to Earth — an event that occurs once every two years. Countries such as the US, EU, China, and UAE are leaving no stone unturned to make the most of it. To that end, they will send their robots to the Red Planet, with some of them hunting for ancient life.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will put their technological capabilities to test in July 2020. The Mission — dubbed Mars 2020 — will inform scientists whether Mars hosted life in its heydays: a time when it had lakes and rivers dotting the surface before it transformed into the dry, freezing desert that it is today. 

Once it lands in 2021, the robot or rover will search for fossil records of microbes on Mars' Jezero Crater, which was once home to a 36-million-years old river delta. 

NASA's Mars 2020 will land in Jezero Crater, pictured here. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

The crater hosts minerals — carbonates and hydrated silica — that could record signs of past life. On Earth, these minerals have been shown to be ideal for preserving ancient life.

There is more. The Mars 2020 rover, which is expected to land on the red planet in 2021, will be the first mission to return home with Mars' rock samples. Costing $7billion, both space agencies hope to bring back just half a kilogram of rocks to Earth — a feat that will take more than a decade to achieve.

The mission has a lot to accomplish, from testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying subsurface water to improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions — that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars, says NASA.

NASA's Mars 2020 rover will not be the only robot looking for answers on Mars' past life. We can expect to see the ExoMars 2020 rover — a collaboration between ESA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos — blasting off Earth in 2020. 

ExoMars' robot rover will be carried by a Russian rocket from Baikonur. The mission has a landing site too. Known as Oxia Planum, the site is just north of Mars' equator, according to the Guardian.

Scientists chose to study Oxia Planum because they suspect that the region was home to an ancient lake — its clay-bearing rocks may hold records of ancient life. Also, the region's terrain may pose lesser challenges to the mission than other sites.

The rover comes equipped with a sophisticated lab. As it roams Mars' soils, it will collect samples with a drill and analyze them using its next-generation instruments.

Earlier, the mission's fate appeared to be on shaky grounds, as the complex parachute system that was supposed to help the rover land on Mars failed during recent tests on Earth.

Parachutes are essential in helping slow down the spacecraft from 21,000km/h at the top of the planet's thin atmosphere, to virtually nothing six minutes later, when it touches down on the Martian soil, says the Guardian.

The ExoMars rover (ESA)

Recently, Europe's Mars lander passed the parachute test conducted in Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The ExoMars 2020 is scheduled to launch sometime between July 26 and August 11, 2020.

Space to get new players 

Gone are the days when the US and Russia were the only space powers. Both these countries have successfully landed spacecraft on Mars. This is about to change in 2020, with China and the UAE entering the picture.

China is on track to launch its Mars mission, Zhang Kejian, the head of the China National Space Administration, said in a press conference.

In November 2019, China cleared its hovering-and-obstacle avoidance test. The test was meant to check how the lander navigates on a site littered with small mounds of rocks — conditions that the lander is expected to face on Mars' uneven terrain.

The Chinese agency has also announced that the Mars probe will be launched by China's powerful Long March 5 rocket.

The journey through space will take about seven months, while landing will take seven minutes, said Zhang Rongqiao, chief architect of the Mars exploration program.

The Arab world is also expected to make a mark on the Red Planet.

In 2020, UAE's Hope Mars Mission will leave for Mars in the Japanese H-IIA rocket and is expected to enter the Martian atmosphere in 2021, the same year that the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Hope's probe will use its infrared and ultraviolet eyes to inspect Martian climate, recording changes occurring every day and through seasonal cycles.

It also hopes to find a connection between the planet's ancient climate and its current one, and how it has evolved over the years. Studying Mars' climate can also inform scientists how Earth might respond to climate change threats in the future.

Additionally, it will also analyze how the planet lost its oxygen and hydrogen reserves.

"For the UAE, this is the Arab world's version of President John F. Kennedy’s moon shot — a galvanizing vision for the future that can engage and excite a new generation of Emirati and Arab youth," says UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba during the Embassy's National Day celebration in 2015.

The thirst for Moon's water

In 2019, China became the first country to explore the Moon's far side or the South Pole. This year, countries are hoping to extensively map out the Moon's far side.

This region holds promise, especially after scientists found evidence of water ice, a resource that can help future astronauts set up base on the Moon and create fuel.

Scientists have also found variable amounts of ilmenite and related oxide minerals, silicate minerals and iron material with grain sizes under 100 nanometres — all of which will prove useful for future construction on the moon. They suspect that these valuables may be hiding in the craters, shielded from sunlight.

But there is a catch. To extract these valuables, scientists will still have to learn about them: from figuring out their form and whether they are buried deep in the craters to finding out whether they exist freely or are attached to something.

This artist's concept shows the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft, a six-unit CubeSat designed to search for ice on the Moon's surface using special lasers. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA is gearing up for its Lunar Flashlight mission, scheduled for 2020. NASA's Lunar Flashlight mission will be a cheaper one, thanks to CubeSats — miniature satellites that weigh a few tens of kilograms. The satellite will use lasers to see what is inside of the craters.

In 2020, NASA will also test their preparedness for their 2024 Moon Mission. Called Artemis 1, the mission will test the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, both of which will be deployed to take the first woman and the next man to the Moon in 2024. 

During the 2020 test flight, two dummies will board the spacecraft. One of them will don a vest — StemRad — designed to protect future astronauts from the harsh space radiation, while the other will travel unprotected. This is to check the efficiency of StemRad vests, made of plastics that are normally used to make toys: polypropylene.

China, on the other hand, has plans to pick up two kilograms of samples from the near side of the moon, on a site close to Mons Rümker, a volcanic formation situated in the Oceanus Procellarum region. To this end, we can expect to see China launching its Chang'e 5  lunar sample return mission in late 2020.

A rendezvous with the Sun's poles

Last year, NASA's Parker solar probe touched the sun, becoming the first object from the Earth to do so. It also traced the origins of slow solar winds.

In 2020, NASA and ESA have something else in store. Their solar orbiter, scheduled for launch in February 2020, will have a far wider reach than the Parker probe: the Sun's poles.

Solar orbiter (ESA/ATG medialab)

While providing the first images of the Sun's poles, the mission will also study the Sun and how it can affect the space environment throughout the solar system.

The orbiter will take three years to reach the Sun. Once there, it will orbit the sun coming as close to 26 million miles away from the star every five months — even closer than Mercury.

Steps to counter threats from Near-Earth objects

Miniature satellites, CubeSats will be deployed to study Near-Earth Objects. NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Scout will study objects that can potentially pose threats to Earth. In 2013, a 20-meter meteor exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, damaging thousands of buildings and injuring more than 1,500 people. 

The concept image above shows the NEA Scout CubeSat with its solar sail deployed as it characterizes a near-Earth asteroid. (NASA)

Scientists believe it is crucial to study the properties of these objects, as it may help them devise ways to stop such a collision, says NASA.

Scheduled for launch in 2020, the mission will take pictures and observe the position of asteroids in space, its shape, and other properties. Additionally, scientists study these objects to search for clues to the origins of life.

NASA is also studying a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu. In late 2018, NASA's OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft arrived at the roughly spherical asteroid.

It has found a landing site too. It is expected to land on the asteroid in August 2020 and collect samples from the asteroid. OSIRIS-REx will return home with these samples in 2023. 

In December 2020, we can expect to hear from Hayabusa 2, a spacecraft sent on a sample return mission to asteroid Ryugu. After successfully collecting asteroid samples from Ryugu, the spacecraft left for Earth in November last year.

If it all goes well, scientists will be able to study the samples once Hayabusa 2 crashes into the Woomera Prohibited Area, located in the outback desert of South Australia.

The age of internet from space

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, is all set to provide high-speed, low-latency internet, but not through undersea cables, but through satellites in space.  

In 2019, SpaceX had already launched 120 Starlink satellites and they will be joined by 1,400 more satellites in 2020. The company has big plans: after obtaining permission to send 12,000 Starlink satellites, the company now hopes to send 42,000 of them.

Another private company called OneWeb, which sent six such satellites last year, will have three launches in 2020, sending 30 satellites in each of them.

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