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2021 is expected to bring some very exciting missions: We're putting more cool tech on Mars, going back around the Moon, and testing some sweet planetary defense from asteroids!

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[♪ INTRO].

Let’s be honest: 2020 hasn’t exactly been what any of us expected, and that goes for space science, too. Lots of missions have faced setbacks, including the infamously delayed James Webb Space Telescope.

But there’s no stopping progress, and space agencies have big plans for 2021. So, if everything goes according to plan, here are three of the most exciting missions we can look forward to in the coming year. Now, one thing that did happen last year was the launch of the Mars 2020 mission, back in July.

It’s carrying a rover named Perseverance, and, after a seven-month cruise to the Red Planet, it’s set to land in February. First, it’ll touch down via a jet-powered sky crane; a platform that will hover over the ground and lower it to the surface by cables. Then, it’ll get to work exploring the Jezero Crater on the edge of Mars’s Northern Lowlands.

This 45-kilometer-wide crater once contained a lake, and scientists think it could have been an ideal cradle for life on Mars. So Perseverance will spend some of its time looking for signs of ancient microbial life in the dry lake bed, things like key molecules. But it’ll also start to set the stage for the first missions to return to Earth from Mars.

So far, every mission to Mars has been stuck there, largely because they haven't been able to transport enough fuel for the return journey. So we've never been able to bring a sample from Mars back to Earth. But it may be possible in the future, and Perseverance is expected to help with that.

Its onboard experiment called MOXIE will test a new technology for turning carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere into oxygen. And someday, that oxygen could be used as rocket fuel for a return mission. Scientists are actually so optimistic about the idea of a sample return mission that the rover will start to collect and stash samples to return to Earth on some future spacecraft.

In the meantime, once it settles in,. Perseverance will also deploy the two-kilogram Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, which is set to make the first-ever powered flight on the Red Planet. And that’s no small feat in Mars’s thin atmosphere, which is about 1% as dense as Earth’s.

There’s just really not a lot of air to push against. But scientists hope that with Ingenuity’s blades rotating up to 40 times a second it’ll be possible. The tiny craft is designed to hover about three to five meters above the ground, and could travel up to 300 meters in a single flight.

And if it works, it could pave the way for larger, more complex Mars helicopters that could explore farther than ever before. But Mars isn’t the only world we’ll be visiting in 2021. Back in 2019, NASA set out to send people to the Moon by 2024.

And granted, there are a lot of engineering challenges to overcome before that happens, but 2021 will see the first major step toward that goal. That’s because, in November, the Artemis 1 mission will do a test run of a trip to the Moon and back. The mission has two main parts: a spacecraft called Orion and a Space Launch System, or SLS rocket.

Orion won’t carry a crew this time, but other than that, the mission will be a full test of all of the technology that will ultimately take two astronauts to the Moon. For now, the plan is for Orion to shoot past the Moon, orbit it for a few days, and then head home. But this mission isn’t just about the capsule: It’s also about the rocket.

The SLS rocket is NASA’s modern-day counterpart to the Apollo program’s Saturn V, and it’s 15% more powerful. It’ll be capable of launching at least 95 metric tons into low-Earth orbit. And from there, a second stage will fire to send Orion to the Moon.

This rocket will be absolutely crucial for the Artemis program, which will be delivering heavy loads of cargo and eventually crew to the Moon. So while it’ll still be some time before NASA is ready to put people in that capsule, this is a good start toward that 2024 goal. Finally, our last highlight isn’t about other planets or moons:.

It’s a mission that’s aimed at protecting our planet from asteroids. We don’t know of any asteroids that are currently threatening to hit us, but we want to be prepared in case we ever need to protect ourselves from an impact in the future. So, NASA has designed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, to try a technique that could potentially deflect asteroids headed our way.

The principle is pretty simple: Basically, they’re going to throw something really hard at an asteroid to try and change its course. The target for this test is a tiny asteroid between Earth and Mars nicknamed Didymoon. It orbits a larger asteroid, called Didymos, about every 12 hours.

According to NASA’s plan, an experimental spacecraft will launch in mid-to-late 2021 and travel 11 million kilometers toward the asteroid pair, before smashing into Didymoon at nearly 24,000 kilometers per hour. After this head-on impact, scientists predict that Didymoon will get knocked inward. That should shorten its orbit, so researchers will be able to gauge their success by seeing how much the asteroid’s orbital period changes after the test.

And that will help us figure out how successful a strategy like this can be, and how asteroids behave when they’re hit really hard. Like, will they really move as much as we expect them to? Or will they break up under the impact?

And what does that mean for us? The better we can answer these questions, the better we can defend our planet from any asteroids in the future. And these are just three of the missions scheduled for 2021!

We’ve got a lot to look forward to in space science, and it’s shaping up to be a really exciting year. We’ll both explore new worlds and learn how to protect the one we call home, and I’m sure there will be some surprise discoveries along the way. Before we go, we wanted to give a special shoutout to this week’s President of

Space: Matthew Brant! Matthew is one of our patrons on Patreon, and they’re the reason we’re able to keep making this show. So, to Matthew and all of our patrons, thanks for your support! If you want to learn more about supporting episodes like this, you can head over to [♪ OUTRO].