2021 was a banner year for NASA and the rest of the spaceflight community around the world. From landing on Mars to launching private citizens into space, and everything in between, this year has seen many historic milestones and next-giant leaps. Here we take a look back at all the incredible moments in spaceflight and explore what they mean for the future.
Perseverance lands on Mars
NASA took a major step forward in its pursuit of life beyond Earth when it launched its newest Mars rover. Named Perseverance, the four-wheeled robotic scout landed on the red planet in February and has spent the first 10 months of its mission driving around and checking out interesting rock formations in the hopes of finding biosignatures, or evidence that life could have existed on Mars.
The rover also collected its very first sample of the Martian terrain, which is stored in a special tube for safekeeping until a future mission can retrieve it and bring it, along with a host of other samples back to Earth. Scientists have planned a total of 38 samples to be bagged and tagged for the eventual trip back to Earth. This way, scientists can study pristine bits of the Red Planet, to learn more about Mars and how it changed over time.
Perseverance touched down on Mars inside a massive crater, called Jezero. Here, scientists are hopeful that their robotic helper will be able to locate the first indications of life beyond our planet. This particular landing spot was chosen because it's the home of a giant lake bed, complete with a river delta. Geographic evidence collected by the many robots NASA has stationed around the Red Planet and on its surface, have collected a plethora of data about Jezero and all signs point to this region being one of the top areas on Mars that could have hosted life.
As such, Perseverance has embarked on a mission that's two fold: look for signs of past life and collect pristine samples of Mars to send back to Earth. To that end, NASA is currently working with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a plan to bring those samples home within the next decade.
Ingenuity takes flight
The Perseverance rover did not travel by itself to Mars, it brought a small companion. Attached to the rover's belly was a small helicopter. Named Ingenuity, the little rotorcraft was the first of its kind to fly on another world.
As a technology demonstration mission, Ingenuity's purpose was to prove that such an object could fly in the thin Martian atmosphere. And the plucky little chopper did just that. To date, the 4-pound (18 kilograms) rotorcraft has logged 18 flights, with more on the schedule next year. Its most recent excursion lasted a grand total of 30 minutes, exceeding all of its mission objectives thus far.
NASA hopes that Ingenuity will serve as a pathfinder mission for future rotorcraft, just like the Sojourner rover did in the 1990s. That first little rover paved the way for Perseverance and all the other rovers that came before it.
The agency also hopes that helicopters and rovers can be used in tandem on Mars (and other planets) to scout locations and collect data and imagery of whatever world they're exploring.
Hope Mars mission reaches the Red Planet
NASA isn't the only space agency to send a probe to Mars this year. United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent its first interplanetary spacecraft on a course to Mars in 2020, with it becoming the fifth country to successfully achieve Mars orbit.
It also marks the first science mission led by an Arab-Islamic country. The orbiter, called Hope, will collect scientific data using three different technologies mounted on the satellite: the Emirates Exploration Imager (EXI), the Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS) and the Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS).
Using these three instruments, the spacecraft will study the Martian atmosphere, looking at dust content, water and ice and how much ozone is in the air. It will also track seasonal changes with the Martian atmosphere to try to understand how it changed over time.
China lands a Mars rover
China made history this year by being the third country to successfully land on the Red Planet. While NASA has celebrated nine successful landings, the touchdown of the Zhurong lander marked the first Martian success for China.
This ambitious first Mars endeavor, is the first by any country to feature an orbiter, lander, and rover in the same mission.
Over the course of its mission, called Tianwen-1, Zhurong will explore an area called Utopia Planitia, which formed billions of years ago when a meteorite smashed into the planet's surface, leaving behind a surface of mostly volcanic material.
The six-wheeled rover left its landing craft and began exploring the Martian surface soon after landing on May 14. It's equipped with a total of six scientific instruments, similar to the ones carried by NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which will look for water and ice on the Martian surface.
SpaceX crewed missions
SpaceX may have launched its first human mission for NASA in May 2020, but this year the company moved ahead full steam, launching not one but two different long-duration crewed missions for NASA.
In 2014, the company (along with Boeing), won a contract to essentially act as a taxi service, ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) for the U.S. space agency. Both companies have spent the intervening years developing and building their own spacecraft to transport astronauts.
While Boeing's Starliner spacecraft still needs more testing, SpaceX's Crew Dragon has now carried four different crews of astronauts to the ISS for NASA, with two launching in 2021. As a result, NASA is in talks with SpaceX to contract three additional rides to space as its original contract called for a total of six missions.
So far crew Dragon has carried 10 NASA astronauts, two Germans and two Japanese crewmembers to the space station. Earlier this month, NASA confirmed Roscosmos announcement that the two agencies are in talks to send the first cosmonaut into space aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft next fall. If all goes as planned, Anna Kikina will fly as part of the Crew-5 mission, which is set to launch in October 2022.
SpaceX was founded with the idea of making life multiplanetary. To that end, the company has set up shop in a tiny South Texas town to develop its first interplanetary craft: a massive, silvery spaceship called Starship.
Standing nearly 395 feet (120 meters) tall, the retro-looking ship will one day take travelers to the moon and Mars. But first, it has to prove it has what it takes to fly.
Starship was first announced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk in 2016, but it wasn't until five years later that an assembly line of Starships popped up. The first Starship launch of 2021 launched on Feb. 2 and ended with an epic crash-landing in South Texas. Then SpaceX achieved a major success in March of this year as the company's third full-sized prototype leaped into the air above Boca Chica, Texas, belly-flopped in mid-air, before standing up straight and touching back down on terra firma.
Unfortunately, a few minutes later the craft exploded on its landing pad. It did, however, succeed in proving that not only could Starships fly, but they could also land. This initial success has earned SpaceX some credit with NASA as the Starship was chosen as NASA's initial human lander for its upcoming Artemis moon mission.
With the next Starship test flight in May, the SN15 ("Serial No. 15") became the first Starship prototype to ace a landing — and remain intact after doing so.
Not only did SpaceX launch two crewed missions to the ISS for NASA, but it also launched the first all-civilian orbital mission, named Inspiration4. As part of a fundraising effort for St. Jude Children Research hospital, the mission launched four private citizens into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
During the three-day mission, the crew — Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski — orbited the Earth inside their crew Dragon Resilience. That particular spacecraft, which originally carried the Crew-1 astronauts into space, was modified for the Inspiration4 mission.
In place of its docking adapter, a dome-window (called a cupola) was installed, providing the crew with epic views of the Earth below.
Isaacman, billionaire and founder of Shift4 payments, booked the flight, donating two of the seats to St. Jude. One went to Arceneaux (a former patient and current physician's assistant), while the other went to Sembroski as part of a fundraising contest. The fourth seat, which went to Proctor, was part of a shark tank-like contest where contestants came up with a business that would raise money for St. Jude.
The crew carried up a variety of items, some personal and some that have been auctioned off to raise even more money for St. Jude. To date the mission has surpassed its original goal of raising $250 million for the cancer research institute.
Russia's ASAT test
In November, Russia launched an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile. Its target: one of Russia's own satellites.
While these types of tests have been conducted in the past, this particular test was especially controversial. That's because it created a massive debris cloud of floating shrapnel, causing havoc for the space station and other satellites that were in its path.
Earlier tests of this type of technology have essentially aimed at a certain point in the sky, proving that the missile could reach an imaginary target. However, this time it has a real target, leaving behind more than 1,000 pieces of debris.
China conducted a similar test in 2007, resulting in nearly 2,800 pieces of trackable debris, and with all the other satellites in orbit, these types of tests are becoming increasingly troublesome.
The ISS was forced to maneuver out of the way of the debris cloud produced by both of these tests in recent months. The Russian event has left many wondering why Russia would potentially endanger its own astronauts living and working on the orbital outpost.
DART and Lucy
NASA launched not one, but two different asteroid-hunting missions this year. While the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) and Lucy will have very different targets, their goal will be to help scientists better understand these rocky bodies.
Lucy launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket in October, bound for the outer solar system. Its target: a set of Trojan asteroids in orbit around Jupiter. Scientists believe that these rocky bodies are some of the building blocks of the universe. And as such, by studying them, they can unlock some of the secrets of planetary evolution.
While Lucy will act as a cosmic archaeologist, observing rocky fossils left behind from the formation of the solar system, DART will see what it takes to knock an asteroid off course.
Dubbed NASA's first mission devoted to planetary protection, the DART spacecraft is heading for a binary asteroid system. Slated to arrive at Didymos next fall, the spacecraft will actually smack into its smaller moon, Dimorphous, in an attempt to move it ever-so-slightly out of orbit.
If successful, this technology could help NASA and other space agencies protect the Earth from asteroid impacts in the future.
Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
NASA capped off an incredible year with the launch of the decade. The agency has spent 25 years and $10 billion to build its next great space observatory: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
Essentially a giant piece of space origami, the JWST will use a set of golden mirrors to peer into the depths of the universe. Operating in the infrared, JWST will be able to see further back in time, giving scientists a better understanding of the early days of the universe.
Researchers will also be able to spy on stellar nurseries and massive galaxies to better understand star formation. Additionally, with the help of JWST's powerful mirror, planetary scientists are hoping that they will be able to spy on planets in other star systems, and may even be able to analyze exoplanet atmospheres to better classify these cosmic bodies and determine their habitability.
Webb launched on Christmas Day and is on its way to its parking spot out in the cosmos. It's begun a complex process to unfold itself and its massive solar array that is the key to keeping the spacecraft cool enough to soak in all the infrared light it needs to in order to complete its vast array of science objectives.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the height of SpaceX's stacked Starship and Super Heavy rocket. The combined rocket and booster are about 395 feet (120 meters) tall, not 1,565 feet (477 meters) tall.