NASA 2021 Included Mars Landing, First Flight, Artemis, More
In 2021, NASA completed its busiest year of development yet in low-Earth orbit, made history on Mars, continued to make progress on its Artemis plans for the Moon, tested new technologies for a supersonic aircraft, finalized launch preparations for the next-generation space telescope, and much more – all while safely operating during a pandemic and welcoming new leadership under the Biden-Harris Administration.
“At NASA, we turn science fiction into science fact, and we do it daily. From continuing to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil to landing the Perseverance rover on Mars and logging the first flight on another planet, 2021 was a banner year for the world’s premier space agency and all of humanity,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who was sworn into office May 3 by Vice President Kamala Harris. “Next year, NASA will accomplish more daring feats with new discoveries and technological advancements, especially as our Artemis I mission paves the way for future crewed missions to the Moon – and beyond.”
Among the many science accomplishments for the year, NASA continued preparations to launch the James Webb Space Telescope on Dec. 24 from French Guiana, successfully landed the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars, and piloted the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter – the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
NASA welcomed back to Earth the first two sets of commercial crew astronauts to complete expedition missions aboard the International Space Station and launched Crew-3 to the orbiting laboratory. During the Crew-2 mission, astronauts spent a U.S. record-setting 199 days in orbit, surpassing the 168 days set by Crew-1 mission earlier this year.
The agency advanced plans to explore more of the Moon through Artemis, pledging to send the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface. To pave the way for future lunar missions with crew, NASA completed stacking of its Space Launch System rocket, with its Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission launching in spring 2022. In addition to other highlights, NASA also picked SpaceX to continue the development and demonstration of the first commercial human lunar lander.
This year, the Biden-Harris Administration tapped NASA to join the White House Climate Task Force. The agency also established a new position of senior climate advisor and released a climate action plan aimed at averting mission impacts due to climate change.
NASA also took action to roll out aviation technology to more airports to help save time for passengers, pushing the boundaries of making aeronautics more green and more efficient.
Solar System and Beyond
Prior to the targeted Dec. 24 launch of the Webb Telescope, NASA this year completed testing and sent the telescope on a 5,800 mile journey by sea to its launch site in French Guiana.
- Webb is the agency’s final launch this year, and was preceded by several other scientific missions launches, including the cosmic X-ray studying Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), the asteroid-studying Lucy spacecraft, the world’s first planetary defense test mission – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – and two CubeSat missions.
NASA selected multiple new missions for development, including two to Venus, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor: DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) and VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy). The Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) mission will study gamma rays to chart the evolution of the Milky Way galaxy.
Spacecraft and rovers already in space continued to help advance our understanding of the universe, providing a variety of new findings.
- NASA’s Perseverance rover’s two-year science investigation of Mars’ Jezero Crater is studying the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta and aiding in the search for signs of ancient microbial life. Actions included:
- The Perseverance rover drilled, extracted, and sealed its first rock core into its sampling tube. The core now is enclosed in an airtight titanium sample tube, making it available for retrieval in the future.
- The mission is the first step in the round trip Mars Sample Return campaign, being planned by NASA and ESA.
- Ingenuity became the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet, and recently completed more than 30 minutes of cumulative flight time.
- In April, Perseverance’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument converted the Red Planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen for the first time.
- NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission touched the Sun to provide us the first ever direct observations of the solar atmosphere, the corona, as well as traveling by Venus, where it gave scientists the first complete look at Venus’ orbital dust ring, detected a bright rim around the edge of the planet that may be nightglow, and discovered natural radio emission.
- The Juno probe provided a fuller picture of how Jupiter’s distinctive and colorful atmospheric features offer clues about the unseen processes below its clouds.
- NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory detected evidence of a possible planet transiting a star in another galaxy, and, for the first time, it detected X-rays from Uranus.
- A small near-Earth asteroid (NEA) made history, becoming the 1,000th NEA to be observed by planetary radar in just over 50 years.
- The retired Spitzer Space Telescope continued to offer new insights into the universe. Using Spitzer data, astronomers identified the three fastest-spinning brown dwarfs ever found and discovered a previously unrecognized “break” in one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms.
- Using Hubble and Swift data, scientists identified a new type of supernova. Hubble data also helped astronomers trace the locations of five brief, powerful radio blasts to the spiral arms of distant galaxies.
- Using observations from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), astronomers discovered a trio of hot worlds larger than Earth orbiting a much younger version of the Sun.
NASA researchers, facilities, instruments, and spacecraft were involved in many more scientific activities in 2021. Highlights this year included:
- Highlighted two solar eclipses this year including a partial solar eclipse in June and a total solar eclipse in December visible to people in Antarctica. Observations of total solar eclipses revealed the Sun’s corona maintains a fairly
constant temperature despite its solar cycles.
- Provided a closer look at a nearby star, which allows scientists to better understand what our Sun may have been like when it was young, and how it may have shaped the atmosphere and development of life on Earth.
- Set up the infrastructure for a 2022 sounding rocket launch in Australia. This progress represents a return to launches for Australia and the first time NASA will launch a sounding rocket from a non-U.S. commercial launch pad.
- NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft fired its main engines full throttle and departed the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and set its course back to Earth with an abundance of rocks and dust sample.
- Selected SpaceX to provide launch services for its Europa Clipper mission in October 2024. Clipper is Earth’s first mission to conduct detailed investigations of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
- NASA’s InSight lander celebrated its 1,000th Martian day, or Sol, and measured one of the biggest, longest lasting marsquakes the mission has ever detected.
- Developed new visualizations to show how binary black holes distort and redirect light emanating from the hot gas that surrounds them.
- Proposed creating a scale for evaluating and combining different lines of evidence that would ultimately lead to answering the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe?
- More than 28,000 participants from 162 countries and territories participated in the virtual Space Apps Challenge in October – the largest such event in its 10-year history.
- A solar “Rosetta Stone” explosion that contained components of three different types of eruptions revealed new clues that could help scientists solve the long-standing mystery of what causes the Sun’s powerful and unpredictable eruptions.
- The U.S. Postal Service issued a set of stamps highlighting views of the Sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, celebrating a decade of the mission.
- Using combined data from three NASA satellites, scientists found that parts of the upper atmosphere are gradually contracting in response to rising response to rising human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
- Research conducted by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division contributed to scientific discoveries that will both enable humans to thrive in deep space and benefit life on Earth. This past year, researchers made significant discoveries in quantum science using the International Space Station’s Cold Atom Lab, examined the underlying causes of muscle loss, advanced the knowledge needed to grow plants in space, and continued soft matter investigations on colloids, which could have myriad benefits in the development of household products and drug treatments.
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