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Looking back at 2020 in space

Posted December 31, 2020 8:19 p.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2020 8:28 p.m. EST

The 900 ton instrument platform above the Arecibo Observatory crashed to the dish below on Dec 1, destroying it. Image: University of Central Florida

Despite its challenges, 2020 was a surprisingly productive year in space with firsts and finales as well as some astronomical sights for us all.

Comet 2020 F3 (NEOWISE) dazzled sky-watchers for weeks, first in the predawn hours and then in the evening. The 1.5 mile wide comet remained remarkably intact as the Sun boiled off its 13 million Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water carrying dust and debris along to create a stunning tail visible, visible with the naked eye from darker locations.

Many of you ventured out in the predawn hours for a look. The web app created to help comet hunters know where and when to look received 10 requests per second as the comet drew closer.

The year rounded out with the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter when the pair appeared 1/10th of a degree apart in the evening sky, a sight not seen in nearly 800 years.

Robotic missions

Three missions launched for Mars including the United Arab Emirates Hope Orbiter which will study how the upper and lower atmospheres interact, China's Tianweb-1 orbiter, lander and rover, and NASA's Perseverance Rover and helicopter drone. While keeping to a launch schedule is always a goal, it is particularly important when sending spacecraft to Mars.

Miss the roughly 6 week launch window and you must wait 26 months for Earth and Mars to be in the right places again. That's what happened to ExoMars, a joint mission by the European and Russian Space Agencies. Time ran out before problems with electronics in the descent module and a pair of parachutes used to slow the lander could be solved.  Launch is now scheduled for September 2022.

The Mars 2020 mission and its Perseverance rover will land on February 18, 2021. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is currently planning an online event with information about the mission and Mars exploration.Human spaceflight

North Carolina's astronaut, Christina Koch followed up her first all female spacewalk in 2019 with colleague Jessica Meir by setting the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, and second longest by any US astronaut, 328 days. Koch turned her attention to the Moon as she was named part of the Artemis Team of astronauts planning to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024.

Human spaceflight also returned to US soil after nearly a decade of NASA astronauts making the trip to the International Space Station via Russian rockets when NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley rode the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for a two month stay. They were followed in November by three NASA and one Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) astronaut aboard the SpaceX Crew-1 mission.


The year began with the launch of another 60 Starlink communication satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 and ended with the 114th and final launch when a French reconnaissance satellite was lifted into orbit on December 29.

The United States led with 40 successful launches. This included new comer Rocket Lab which recovered it aptly named "Return to Sender" first stage after successfully launching 30 satellites from its launch facility in New Zealand.

Rocket Lab recovers its Electron rocket

China, last years launch leader, slipped to the number two position with 35 launches. Russia trailed again this year with 17 launches, Europe and Japan with four, India with two and Iran and Israel each with a single launch.

Florida's space coast was the busiest it has been in 54 years with a combined 31 launches from launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center and adjacent Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, renamed as of December 9.

2020 saw upgraded hardware as well with the Soyuz 2.1a taking flight in April. SpaceX's 100th successful Falcon 9 launch on December 6 was also the first flight of the upgraded Dragon Cargo capsule which features 20% more capacity along with the ability to support double the number of powered lockers, critical to life science experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station.

Space Science

Astronomers discovered in August what is being called a twin to our Milky Way galaxy, 12 billion light years away. SPT0418-47 was spotted via the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA Radio Telescope) in dry air of Chile's Atacama Desert.  The galaxy is so far away that it researchers are able to see it when it was only 1.4 billion years old.  Observations have challenged scientists understanding of how galaxies form, giving new insights into the past of our Universe.

The school bus sized Hubble Space Telescope also celebrated its 30th birthday this year.

The 900 ton instrument platform above the Arecibo Observatory

The year ended badly when cables supporting the instrument platform suspended above the iconic Arecibo Observatory snapped, sending 900 tons crashing into the dish below. The National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory announced permanent closure of the telescope following the December 1 incident, citing the extent of the damage and further safety concerns.

But Arecibo's future may not be so final. Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced singed an executive order on December 28 declaring the site a historic zone and allocating $8 million to rebuild according to El Nuevo Dia.

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