6 spectacular space missions to look forward to in 2021

6 Jan 2021

Image: © chathuporn/Stock.adobe.com

Dr Ian Whittaker from Nottingham Trent University and Gareth Dorrian from University of Birmingham take us through the exciting space missions set for this year.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Space exploration achieved several notable firsts in 2020 despite the Covid-19 pandemic, including commercial human spaceflight and returning samples of an asteroid to Earth.

The coming year is shaping up to be just as interesting. Here are some of the missions to keep an eye out for.

Artemis 1

The launch of Artemis 1 is currently scheduled for late in 2021. This will be the first flight of the NASA-led, international Artemis programme to return astronauts to the moon by 2024. This will consist of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft which will be sent on a three-week flight around the moon. It will reach a maximum distance from Earth of 450,000km – the farthest into space that any spacecraft capable of transporting humans will have ever flown.

Artemis 1 will be launched into Earth orbit on the first NASA Space Launch System, which will be the most powerful rocket in operation. From Earth orbit, the Orion will be propelled onto a different path towards the moon by the rocket’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage. The Orion capsule will then travel to the moon under the power provided by a service module supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The mission will provide engineers back on Earth with a chance to evaluate how the spacecraft performs in deep space and serve as a prelude to later crewed lunar missions.

Multiple missions to Mars

In February, Mars will receive a flotilla of terrestrial robotic guests from several countries. The United Arab Emirates’ Al Amal (Hope) spacecraft is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. It is scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit on 9 February 2021, where it will spend two years monitoring the Martian weather and disappearing atmosphere.

Arriving within a couple of weeks of Al Amal will be the China National Space Administration’s Tianwen-1, consisting of an orbiter and a surface rover. The spacecraft will enter Martian orbit for several months before deploying the rover to the surface. If it succeeds, China will become the third country to land anything on Mars. The mission has several objectives including mapping the mineral composition of the surface and searching for sub-surface water deposits.

NASA’s Perseverance rover will land at Jezero Crater on 18 February and search for any signs of ancient life which may have been preserved in the clay deposits there. Critically, it will also store a cache of Martian surface samples on board as the first part in a highly ambitious international programme to return samples of Mars to Earth.


In March 2021, the Indian Space Research Organisation is planning to launch its third lunar mission: Chandrayaan-3.

Chandrayaan-1 launched in 2008 and was one of the first major missions in the Indian space programme. Comprising an orbiter and a surface penetrator probe, the mission was one of the first to confirm evidence of lunar water.

Unfortunately, contact with the satellite was lost less than a year later. There was a similar mishap with its successor, Chandrayaan-2, which consisted of an orbiter, a lander (Vikram) and a lunar rover (Pragyan).

Chandrayaan-3 was announced a few months later. It will consist of only a lander and rover, as the previous mission’s orbiter is still functioning and providing data. If all goes well, the Chandrayaan-3 rover will touch down in the lunar south pole’s Aitken basin, which is thought to host numerous deposits of subsurface water ice – a vital component for any future sustainable lunar habitation.

James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope but has had a rocky start, now far beyond its initial plans for a 2007 launch and costing about $9.66bn, almost 10 times more than originally conceived, after apparent underestimates and overruns similar to those experienced by Hubble.

With Webb, we are likely to be treated to some stunning images similar to those produced by Hubble. But while Hubble has provided some amazing views of the universe in the visible and ultraviolet region of light, Webb will focus observations in the infrared wavelength band.

The reason for this is that when observing really distant objects there will probably be gas clouds in the way. These gas clouds block really small wavelengths of light, such as x-rays and ultraviolet light, while longer wavelengths such as infrared, microwave and radio can get through more easily. By observing in these longer wavelengths, we should see more of the universe.

Webb also has a much bigger mirror at 6.5 metres in diameter compared to Hubble’s 2.4-metre diameter mirror. This will prove essential for improving image resolution and seeing finer detail.

The primary mission of Webb is look at light from galaxies at the edge of the universe, which can tell us about how the first stars, galaxies and planetary systems formed. Potentially this could include some information about the origin of life as well, as Webb is planning on imaging exoplanet atmospheres in high detail, searching for the building blocks of life. Do they exist on other planets and, if so, how did they get there?

Webb is currently scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket on 31 October.

The Conversation

By Dr Ian Whittaker and Gareth Dorrian

Dr Ian Whittaker is a senior lecturer in physics at Nottingham Trent University, and strongly interested in space science outreach. Gareth Dorrian is a postdoctoral research fellow in space science at University of Birmingham.