Fri, Jan 10, 2020 - Page 9 News List

The moon, Mars and beyond — the space race in 2020

Not since the 1960s have we witnessed such appetite for space missions. Here is what to expect in the year ahead, from commercial launches to Chinese ambitions

By Robin McKie  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

Space missions of a startling variety and ambition are scheduled for launch this year. Indeed, space engineers have not planned so much activity — for both crewed and robot projects — since the heady days of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. At last, humanity is returning to explore the heavens with renewed vigor.

However, it is not just the US and Russia that are dominating this year’s space agenda. India, Japan and China are all planning complex programs and are vying to become space powers in their own rights.

Their plans for this year include missions to the moon, Mars and the asteroids.

At the same time, the US will inaugurate its Artemis program, which will eventually lead to a series of manned deep-space missions and a space station that will orbit the moon later in the next decade. Europe will be closely involved in Artemis and will also send its first robot rover to Mars this year.

For good measure, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to become a space power this year, with its own robot mission to the red planet.


China aims to become the third nation to bring samples of lunar soil back to Earth in the wake of US and Soviet successes decades ago. Its Chang’e 5 robot mission is scheduled to blast off from the Wenchang satellite launch center in Hainan later this year.

The purpose of the project — named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e — is to collect about 2kg of lunar rocks and return them to Earth.

A robot lander will scoop samples into an ascent vehicle, which will be blasted into space to dock automatically with a probe circling the moon. The samples will then be transferred to a capsule and fired back to Earth.

It will be a highly complex business involving several dockings and maneuvers in orbit. By contrast, the last robot lunar sample return — accomplished by the Soviet Union’s 1976 Luna 24 mission — did so using a much simpler direct return.

Chang’e 5’s more adventurous route is considered by many to be evidence that the Chinese are using the mission as a dress rehearsal for manned lunar landings in the near future.

US scientists are also planning a moon mission late next year — but on an even grander scale.

The first of the country’s Orion capsules is scheduled for launch as part of an uncrewed Artemis program test flight.

Orion is to spend about three weeks in space, including six days orbiting the moon. The craft will have a complete life-support system and crew seats, but no crew.

A European-built service module will play a key role in all Artemis missions. It will power Orion capsules after their launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

However, future Artemis missions are to be crewed, with the ultimate aim being to land “the first woman and the next man” on the moon by 2024.

A crewed space station in lunar orbit, called Lunar Gateway, is also planned.

In addition, India is to send a new lander mission to the moon in November: Chandrayaan-3. It is to attempt what its predecessor failed to achieve. Chandrayaan-2 was India’s first attempt at a lunar touchdown, but its main lander craft and robot rover crashed after a communication failure.


The fourth rock from the sun will become a focus of attention for space engineers this year. In July and early August, Earth and Mars will be in their best positions for craft to be sent to the latter.

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