The race to Mars
Probes from China, US and UAE are set arrive on Mars in February 2021. All three missions were launched in July 2020. China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which is set to be the first to land, will look for water and signs of life using cameras, radar, particle analysers and other instruments. If touchdown is successful, this will be the first exploration of the planet by a probe carrying an orbiter, a lander and a rover all in one. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter and the US’ Perseverance Rover Mission should arrive at Mars around the same time. The Hope mission is set to study daily and seasonal weather cycles to understand how the Red Planet’s climate and weather differs from that of Earth. Perseverance, which includes a helicopter drone, aims to look for signs of past life on Mars as well as water.
The first jabs of the vaccine
A Serum Institute of India employee checks vials of the covid-19 vaccine (Reuters)
Across the world, mass covid-19 vaccination programmes are set to begin even as the international science community and the pharma industry collaborates at a scale never seen before. India on Friday granted emergency use approval for the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, made and distributed by Serum Institute of India. The vaccine, which has shown an efficacy rate of 62%, was cleared by UK authorities early last week, but the director-general of India’s Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation had said it would review the data independently. On 2 January, state governments conducted a dry run of the vaccination drive in their capital cities. Serum Institute has said that it has reserved 75 million doses of the vaccine for India and could increase this to 100 million doses in January. In India, a select group of 300 million people will get the vaccine first — 10 million healthcare workers, 20 million frontline workers and 270 million people over the age of 50 along with those under 50 co-morbidities. Identifying these groups will be a challenge but it’s definitely a list to look forward to.
Cleaning up space
Astroscale has entered a technical cooperation with the European Space Agency to develop a space debris removal service (Courtesy: astroscale.com)
Masses of junk are floating around in space, and a project to try and clean up the debris will be launched in March 2021 on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan. The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d) mission a 175kg ‘servicer’ and a 17kg ‘client’ that will try to capture orbital debris. The number of dead and dying satellites and other space junk is expected to increase in the coming years as satellite development costs fall and more private companies send spacecraft, satellites and other objects into low earth orbit.
India’s PSLV-C51 launch
File photo of the launch of ISRO’s PSLV-C50/CMS-01 Mission (Courtesy: isro.gov.in)
The PSLV-C51 will be the Indian Space Research Organisation’s first launch of 2021. It will carry three privately-built Indian satellites and one from Brazil. India had scheduled its first crewed mission into space, Gaganyaan, in December 2021 but the covid-19 pandemic has disrupted schedules. Two uncrewed missions–one in December 2020 and one in July 2021–were to have preceded the crewed launch. The revised timeline is now August 2022. The pandemic has also delayed other big-ticket missions that ISRO had planned for the year, including India’s first solar mission, Aditya L1, scheduled for mid-2020.
James Webb Space Telescope launch
Technicians conduct final tests on the James Webb Space Telescope in December 2020 (Courtesy: NASA)
In October, the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, expected to be the most powerful space telescope, will be launched. The $8.8-billion telescope will follow in the stardust of the Hubble Telescope, which was launched in 1990 and has made over 1.3 million observations since. The Webb telescope will be able to cover greater wavelengths than the Hubble, and allow scientists to peer deeper into the universe. They’ll get to observe the galaxies that first formed and see stars forming planetary systems. The final series of tests for its deployment were completed in December 2020, taking it one step closer to its launch in 2021.