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It takes a lot of planning to get to space,
and millions or billions of dollars invested over years, if not decades.
So when the big day finally comes to launch a new mission,
it’s some pretty important news.
Here are three missions to look forward to this year,
if everything goes according to plan.
Every two years, Earth and Mars line up in such a way that makes it easiest to get to Mars.
So this year, we’re gonna be seeing a bunch of missions
beginning a half-year journey to the Red Planet.
NASA’s still-unnamed 2020 rover has gotten most of the spotlight,
but it’s not the only Mars mission on the block.
The United Arab Emirates is sending an orbiter,
and China is sending three separate spacecraft all at the same time.
But for this segment, we’re gonna focus on
a joint mission by the European and Russian Space Agencies.
They’re working on a rover to look for signs of life in Mars’s crust.
And they’ve named their robot after
the woman who gave us the first images of DNA: Rosalind Franklin.
The Rosalind Franklin rover is part of the ESA’s ongoing ExoMars mission,
which has been studying Mars’s thin atmosphere
for signs of biological or geological activity since 2016.
Rosalind Franklin will be searching for signs of life on the ground, though.
It’ll launch this summer and, if all goes well, will touch down in March of 2021.
Its destination is a Martian plain called Oxia Planum, near the planet’s equator.
There, former water channels connect Mars’s southern highlands and northern lowlands.
Those channels are covered by lava from ancient volcanoes,
which protected the matter under it from solar radiation and erosion.
And that’s exciting, because if there were ever organic compounds there,
it’s possible they were never broken down.
In other words, it’s possible there are still organic compounds there.
That’s a lot of maybes, of course, but we won’t know unless we look.
To hunt for the remnants of life,
the rover has a drill that can probe two whole meters into Mars’s crust,
as well as onboard instruments for analyzing soil samples.
Meanwhile, the Russian-made platform that will deliver the rover will stay put,
photographing the landing site, and monitoring the local atmosphere and climate.
Of course, before this duo makes the journey, the humans behind the mission
have to work out some problems with the parachutes that will slow it down for landing.
It’ll take two large parachutes to slow down this heavy load in Mars’s thin atmosphere,
but during tests on Earth, those parachutes have been tearing.
Engineers will need to get those chutes right to keep Rosalind on target for its 2020 launch.
So everybody, cross your fingers!
Engineers are also racing to complete new technology for getting humans into space.
Since 2011, NASA has had to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft
to send its astronauts to the International Space Station.
But that’s not the most practical arrangement, so back in 2010,
the agency paired with private companies in the U.S.
to develop at least one new craft capable of delivering humans to space.
Now, it’s down to just three projects:
NASA’s Orion, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and Boeing’s Starliner.
It is now a race to see which one will be the first to test a crewed launch.
It probably will not be Orion, whose crewed and uncrewed trips are currently facing delays.
But the other teams are doing okay.
The cargo version of SpaceX’s Dragon has been delivering supplies to the ISS since 2012.
And this March, a version of Dragon
capable of supporting human passengers actually went to space.
Unfortunately, though, a month after that test,
the Crew Dragon exploded on the launchpad while SpaceX was testing its thrusters.
The accident also blew up the company’s plans
of testing a crewed launch by the end of last year.
But the company has been hard at work since then.
And if things continue to go well,
plans are back on track to send a crew into space this year.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s a little further behind in the testing phase;
their first uncrewed flight just went up last month.
Their capsule, called the CST-100 Starliner, claims to be reusable up to ten times.
And unlike Crew Dragon and NASA’s previous crewed capsules,
Starliner is designed to land, like, on the land. Not in the ocean.
So in addition to the parachutes that slow its descent, it’s got a bottom full of airbags.
As of this past November, neither SpaceX nor Boeing had met the safety standards
for transporting astronauts, so there are still some hurdles to get past.
But both companies are aiming to get the green light by this summer.
Finally, our third highlight for this year
has already arrived at the launch facility at Cape Canaveral.
It’s the ESA’s Solar Orbiter,
and it has to pass just a few final tests before it blasts off in February.
Over several years, this satellite will enter a highly tilted orbit around our star.
It will give us views of our Sun that we’ve never seen before,
like for the first time, we’ll be able to see its north and south poles!
It might not look that different from the rest of the Sun,
but there’s a lot of interesting physics happening up there.
For example, scientists are hoping to look at the magnetic field lines
around the poles to figure out how the Sun makes its magnetic field.
The Solar Orbiter will also study the Sun’s heliosphere:
a bubble shaped like a windsock that’s filled with plasma from the Sun
and extends beyond all our solar system’s planets.
It won’t get as close to the Sun as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, but it has more instruments,
so the two spacecraft will team up to tell us as much about our star as they can.
We’ll have to wait a few years before any results come in,
but once we do start getting data, we’ll have a lot of new science to look forward to.
And while there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening this year,
both locally and in interplanetary space, the things we learn from these missions
will give us material for years and years of research and discoveries.
Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow Space!
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