By Erin Whitney
With the start of a new year, NASA, China’s, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s national space programs, as well as emerging private companies are gearing up for an important year in space exploration. For the first time in history, commercial organizations SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin may send tourists to space.
One of these commercial organizations is Virgin Galactic, the self-proclaimed “world’s first commercial spaceline,” where tickets go for over $250,000. Already, over 600 wealthy individuals have expressed interest in the experience. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic will all send tourists to Earth’s orbit and possibly the International Space Station.
Never in history has space been more accessible for regular people (granted that these ‘regular people’ have a quarter million dollars laying around). It is probable that this advancement is just a taste of what is to come: in 50 years, a trip to space may be as obtainable as a flight is currently on Earth.
In addition to private organizations, government space agencies are planning for an important year. In the first six months of 2021, missions from the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates will reach Mars. NASA will land a rover on Mars in February to collect samples in search of evidence of extinct life. The mission will also test a helicopter on the surface of the planet and attempt to produce oxygen from the Mars atmosphere in preparation of possible future human colonization. Additionally, China’s rover will survey the planet and the UAE will collect samples for testing.
NASA is also working on the Artemis program, through which scientists hope to land people to the moon again in 2024. This year, they will work with private companies such as SpaceX, Dynetics, and Blue Origin to build human landing systems and test launch systems. According to a NASA administrator, the agency is “ensuring multiple commercial partners are providing access to the space station.”
In addition, the agency is planning for planetary protection in case of a possible asteroid strike. They will build a spacecraft with the goal of altering an asteroid’s course. A number of tests will be conducted on asteroids to determine if their course is altered when the spacecraft collides with them. The first test will be launched in late July, and NASA will conclude the testing in 2022.
Finally, NASA will launch the Webb telescope into orbit, which will allow astronomers and scientists to see further into space than ever before. They hope to watch distant solar systems form to possibly understand how Earth’s solar system came to be.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “With our rover landing on Mars, an asteroid protection space test, the Webb telescope launch, and the Artemis I mission among other activities on the horizon, we have another big, big year ahead for America’s space agency.” It’s not only a big year for NASA, but a big year for space exploration in general.