A never-before-seen exploration of Mars and the deployment of space tourism were some of the most important events of 2021. However, they are not the only events that have marked a hectic year in aerospace, as evidenced by the five spatial landmarks of 2021.
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Exploration and findings on Mars
February 2021 was the month of Mars. In an unprecedented way, the space missions of three countries coincided, in an effort to unravel the mysteries of the fourth planet in the Solar System and lay the first foundations for future manned travel.
What did each one leave us? The Emirati space probe gave us an impressive image of Mars; while the Chinese rover Zhurong has surprised with photographs and sounds from the red planet, although for now more concrete findings are unknown.
Persverance, the NASA rover, has been the most successful: it confirmed that the Jezero crater was a lake; and obtained the first rock sample from Mars, which will be collected on a future NASA mission.
But perhaps one of the most important achievements was the successful deployment of the Ingenuity helicopter, which traveled aboard Persverance and made the first flight of a human vehicle on another planet, in a milestone that has been compared to that of the Wright brothers and the first powered flight, at the beginning of the 20th century.
2021 will also be remembered for the deployment of large-scale space tourism, boosted by companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
On July 11, 2021, VSS Unity made its first manned suborbital flight, with Branson himself as one of its illustrious passengers. The ship rose 86,000 meters above sea level and, although it did not exceed the Kármán line (100,000 meters), it was considered a space flight.
A week later, it was the turn of the New Shepard capsule from Blue Origin. With Jeff Bezos as the crew member, he soared over the Kárman line for 10 seconds. However, the company’s most iconic flight was in October 2021, which saw Canadian actor William Shatner, Captain Kirk himself from Star trek.
On the side of SpaceX, which has accumulated experience from joint missions with NASA to the International Space Station, it carried out its first 100 percent civilian mission: Inspiration4. An adapted Crew Dragon spacecraft remained in orbit for three days, the longest space tourism flight in history.
In December 2021, for the first time in history, a spacecraft “touched” the Sun: the Parker Solar Probe flew through the Sun’s upper atmosphere, the corona, allowing it to sample particles and magnetic fields at this location. .
As it gets closer to the solar surface, Parker is making discoveries that were too far away to see, even from inside the solar wind, the flow of particles from the Sun that can influence Earth.
By April 2021, the probe had found the specific particle and magnetic conditions at 18.8 solar radii (about 8.1 million miles) above the Sun’s surface, telling scientists that it crossed the critical Alfvén surface before enter the solar atmosphere.
Unlike Earth, the Sun does not have a solid surface. As increasing heat and pressure push that material away from the Sun, it reaches a point where gravity and magnetic fields are too weak to contain it, known as Alfvén.
Until now, researchers weren’t sure where exactly Alfvén’s critical surface was located. Estimates had placed it between 10 and 20 solar radii from the Sun’s surface: between 4.3 and 8.6 million miles.
2021 was also marked by the first missions to asteroids: Lucy and the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), in what was also considered a prelude to what could be space mining.
Sent in October 2021, Lucy aims to study rocks located in Jupiter’s asteroid belt, as well as Trojan asteroids. Although its achievements will only be known in a couple of years, this mission could revolutionize knowledge about the planetary origins and the formation of the Solar System.
NASA and SpaceX also launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which in 2022 will aim to test technology to defend the planet and prevent a dangerous asteroid from colliding with Earth.
The largest telescope
The 2021 space move culminated in the launch of the James Webb, the largest telescope ever built by mankind. Not only will it replace Hubble, which has extended its useful life to the maximum, but it is also tasked with detecting the origin of the first light in the universe.