2020, Space Odyssey
While the world turned inward and became more confined, humanity’s adventure into space has taken unprecedented steps over the past year, opening the way to technological innovations and new discoveries. Here is a look back at some recent highlights in our exploration of the universe.
China brings back 2 kg of pebbles
On 16 December last, the Chinese ship Chang'e 5 returned to Earth after three weeks of a journey of some 750,000 kilometres. Launched on November 23rd, landing on the moon on December 1st, its objective was to collect two kilogrammes of lunar soil and rock. Too far away for manual operation from the ground control centre, mooring and collection were carried out on site using automatic pilot. The machine is named after the Chinese moon goddess. In January 2019, her predecessor Chang'e 4 landed on the far side of the white planet, a major event for China, the only country along with Russia and the United States to bring back fragments of the satellite. The last such excavation dates back to 1976, with the Soviet module Luna 24 which returned with only 170 grams of samples.
“The SpaceX NASA-industry partnership has re-launched the epic story of human space travel."
300 million km and dust
On December 6, after six years of odyssey, the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2 – which translate as "peregrine falcon" –brought back 0.1 grams of particles from the asteroid Ryugu located more than 300 million kilometres away. From the cosmos, it had then released its capsule containing the precious black sand-like material. Teams from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), given responsibility for retrieving it from the Australian desert, were able to identify the canister thanks to the gas which was being emitted, which is different to earth’s atmosphere. The analysis will help to better understand the origin of life, as well as the formation of the universe and the 13.8 billion-year-old solar system. Before the end of 2021, JAXA will share its treasure with international scientists. Meanwhile, Hayabusa2 continues its journey to other asteroids. This is the second Japanese excursion to collect stellar samples.
By taxi with SpaceX
On May 31, 2020, a private vehicle dropped off two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, at the International Space Station (ISS) for a six-month mission. Developed and chartered by SpaceX – the Californian company of American-Canadian entrepreneur Elon Musk – the Dragon shuttle is still the only non-institutional rocket to carry people into space. It can carry up to seven passengers and cargo. A first in the history of aeronautics, and a return by the Americans of manned flights to the ISS after nine years of absence. Musk is quoted as saying that "they were building a Ferrari for every launch, when it was possible a Honda Accord would do the trick." Since that pioneering commercial journey, Dragon has made 23 visits to the ISS. This US NASA-industry partnership has re-launched the epic story of human space travel. It heralds travel that will be safer and will go further, points to an increased number of expeditions, discoveries and scientific experiments, and bodes well for new business opportunities.