Earth heads to the Moon, invades Mars, and explores the inner solar system with space missions in 2020.
What a year: 2019 started with the Chang’e 4 lunar farside landing, saw an announcement to return humans to the Moon with the Artemis initiative, and finished out with the launch of the CHEOPS (Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite) exoplanet hunting satellite.
There’s even more to come in 2020. The coming year promises to be a big one for spaceflight, as four nations have plans to send orbiters or rovers to the Red Planet. The U.S. initiative to return to the Moon also gets underway as the long awaited Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket will take to the skies. SpaceX’s Crewed Dragon capsule may also begin launching crew to the International Space Station in the coming year. Here are some of the top science and space missions in Earth orbit and beyond to watch for in 2020.
Earth Orbit and Return to the Moon
SpaceX will continue to add to its Starlink constellation in 2020; one more batch of 60 satellites may launch at the very end of December 2019, and two more batches are set to launch in early 2020. Elon Musk states that Starlink may begin to provide initial service by the end of 2020, when the number of Starlink satellites in orbit could reach 720.
OneWeb is also joining the megaconstellation game, with a launch of 32 satellites scheduled from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on January 30th. OneWeb also wants to provide 595 megabits per second web service via over 600 satellites by the end of 2020. If SpaceX, OneWeb, and others complete their constellations, astronomers both professional and amateur may soon face a radically different sky, populated with more satellites than stars.
It will be another busy year for commercial spaceflight as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner both begin carrying crew to the International Space Station. These will mark the first crewed launches from U.S. soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in July 2011. Both companies plan to launch crew by March 2020. Also, NASA plans to conduct the first uncrewed launch of its SLS heavy lift rocket by June, part of the Artemis mission to return humans to the Moon.
While NASA begins the process of returning humans to the Moon later in the decade, several space agencies have plans to send robotic missions to land on the Moon in the coming year. First up is OMOTENASHI (Outstanding Moon Exploration Technologies, Demonstrated by a Nano scale, Semi-Hardened Impactor), designed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). This mission will demonstrate the feasibility of small, low-cost CubeSat lunar explorers. OMOTENASHI is the only lander in the group of thirteen small-sat payloads aboard the inaugural Artemis 1 launch, all of which will head for cis-lunar space.
China also plans to carry out their first-ever lunar sample return mission in 2020 with its Chang’e 5 spacecraft. The mission will represent the culmination of the China National Space Administration’s successful Chang’e program, which featured the first soft landing on the lunar farside in early 2019. Chang’e 5 will utilize China’s new Long March 5 heavy lift rocket.
NASA may also field the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning Systems Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (Capstone) in lunar polar orbit by the end of 2020. This proof-of-concept mission leads the way for the Artemis program's crewed Lunar Gateway station.
When it comes to planetary exploration, 2020 is a Mars year, as the Red Planet reaches a favorable opposition on October 13th. The window for an optimal launch — one that requires the least amount of energy and fuel and the shortest transit time — opens in July.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will launch from the Cape on or around July 17th, a followup to the successful Mars Curiosity rover. Like Curiosity, the nuclear-powered Mars 2020 rover will make a skycrane-style landing, this time over Jezero Crater.
The European Space Agency (ESA) also plans to launch the Rosalind Franklin rover (named after the 20th-century DNA pioneer) on July 25th. Taking lessons learned from the failed Schiaparelli Entry Descent and Landing demonstrator, the rover will land at Oxia Planum in March 2021. The mission has been plagued by cost overruns and experienced a catastrophic parachute failure during testing. ESA has asked NASA for assistance, and project manager Pietro Baglioni only gives the mission a 50/50 chance of making the 2020 launch window.
Two newcomers may also take advantage of the upcoming Mars launch window. China has plans to send its Mars Global Sensing Remote Orbiter Huoxing-1 (HX-1) and lander, set to launch in the late July to early August timeframe from Wenchang Space Center. The United Arab Emirates may also field its Mars Hope orbiter in July, launching atop a H-IIA rocket from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.
Meanwhile, in heliocentric orbit, two missions will take to space to study the Sun. First up is the joint NASA/ESA Solar Orbiter, launching from Cape Canaveral on February 6th. The mission of the Solar Orbiter is complementary to the Parker Solar Probe, heading close enough to the Sun to measure the solar wind in the heliosphere's inner zone, but from far enough away to give it a more global view.
Next up is the Indian Space Research Organization’s Aditya 1 solar mission, slated for mid-2020. Aditya will head for a stable halo orbit around the sunward L1 Lagrange point, where its battery of instruments will study the Sun. We’re still in a profound solar minimum, with 2019 already topping 2008 in terms of solar inactivity, which means these solar missions will observe the Sun when its magnetic field is in its simplest form.
Deep Space Rendezvous Missions
Some missions are already underway but will have notable events to watch for in 2020. ESA’s BepiColombo will fly by Earth for a gravitational assist on April 13th, followed by a Venus flyby on October 16th. BepiColombo won't reach Mercury until late 2025, though.
The Solar Parker Probe will also make the third Venus flyby of seven on July 11th as it continues to make close passes by the Sun in January, June, and September.
And to cap off 2020, watch for the Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return to Earth in December over the Woomera Test Range site in Australia.
2020 will be another exciting year of space exploration, as we head into the decade beyond.