Posted on : Tuesday, 31st December 2019
After a decade of incredible changes and achievements in space exploration, the Universe is back in fashion.
The 2010s did not start particularly well. In 2011, NASA retired its Space Shuttle program, and the U.S. relinquished its position as a space power capable of crewed spaceflight. Almost a decade later, you could say that nothing’s changed, except it has. Everything has changed. The U.S. is now on the cusp of a new era of quasi-commercial crewed spaceflight thanks to SpaceX and now Boeing. More globally, we can look back at the 2010s as a decade that saw the exploration of new worlds and new frontiers by the likes of NASA, Europe’s ESA, Japan’s JAXA and China’s CNSA. It was a decade when crewed missions to Mars, and even Martian colonies, were openly discussed. Space caught the public’s attention and imagination in a way not seen since Apollo.
Here are a just a few of the moments that contributed to, and benefited from, a new-found lust for space exploration.
1. The final flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle
The decade started with a death. In 2011, NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis took the program’s last flight, but it got everyone asking a question: what happens next? It started to focus minds that had long since got tired of the same old missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The 33rd and final mission by space shuttle Atlantis—before it was installed as a museum exhibit in Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida—begun at 11:29 a.m. EDT on Friday, July 8, 2011 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. This 135th shuttle mission (STS-135) lasted 12 days and landed on July 21. The U.S. still doesn’t have a way to send astronauts to space from its own territory, and for now relies on Russia, but SpaceX and Boeing are about to change that. Despite delays, the U.S. getting its own launch capability back has been a constant source of public interest in space throughout the 2020s.
China's moon rover on the lunar surface. CNSA
2. China becomes a space superpower
There’s a decent chance that we’ll look back at the first few decades of this century as being most notable for the emergence of China as the pre-eminent spacefaring nation of the 21st century. After becoming only the third country to launch astronauts into orbit in 2003, there followed a space station, a moon landing and, in the last decade, two Tiangong space stations and two successful Chang’e missions to land on, and explore, the lunar surface. The most recent in 2019 was a daring trip to the moon’s far side that required a relay satellite in a very complicated halo orbit. It doesn’t rush things, it doesn’t make much noise about its plans, and it’s PR is terrible, but the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is going places … next stop a lunar rock return by Chang’e-5, a space station, a moon base and summer 2020’s Huoxing mission to Mars. If nothing else, the 2010s saw a billion people take an interest in space exploration for the first time.
3. SpaceX’s reusable rocket boosters
There was one private company in the 2010s that was more responsible for the new interest in space exploration that any other. So much so that many in the U.S. appear to now think that NASA and SpaceX are in competition with each other.
It was all about money. In a bid to drive down costs and speed up flights, Elon Musk’s SpaceX experimented rocket boosters that could be re-used, thus saving money and making trips to space much cheaper. That meant landing boosters after the payload had gone into orbit. It worked, and as well as being a tremendous technical achievement, iconic views of boosters landing back on the launchpad was also a massive PR success for SpaceX. There were plenty of big moments for SpaceX. One was the sending of Musk’s own Tesla Roadster—“driven” by a mannequin called Starman dressed in a spacesuit—into orbit of the Sun after a test flight of the Falcon Heavy in February 2018. Another was Elon Musk’s appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”; he famously said Mars could be warmed up by “dropping thermonuclear weapons over the poles” of Mars. Musk’s Mars obsession stretched to headline-grabbing plans for Mars colonies and interplanetary transport systems. SpaceX ended the decade marred in controversy over the effect on astronomy of its Starlink mega-constellation of satellites—and all for a rather uninteresting broadband internet service. However, with Crew Dragon and Starship on the horizon, the 2020s are nevertheless a mouth-watering prospect for SpaceX fans ... and who isn’t a SpaceX fan?
4. Curiosity Has Landed
Did you watch the video? Eight years later it can still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Landing on the red planet on August 6, 2012, NASA's Curiosity rover has been hunting for evidence of Mars' habitable past and has sent back some incredible photos of the Martian surface—in particular this huge 15,000-pixel-wide mosaic of Mount Sharp. However, it’s Curiosity’s arrival that has to rank up there with the great moments of space exploration.
5. Cassini at Saturn
Although their scientific worth is incalculable, un-crewed robotic missions do tend to struggle to capture the public’s imagination. Not so NASA’s Cassini, which spent most of the 2010’s sending back jaw-dropping images that reminded everyone why Saturn is our favourite planet … apart from Earth. Cassini helped reveal a global ocean on Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, but publicity-wise it’s finest moment came when, in July 2013, it moved 750,000 miles behind Saturn with regard to the Sun, creating an eclipse (above) that included Earth 900 million miles away. Gulp.
Baily's Beads and a double diamond ring effect at the end of totality of the moon eclipsing the sun WIREIMAGE
6. The ‘Great American Eclipse’
Total solar eclipses happen roughly every 18 months, but mostly they occur at sea or in unpopulated areas. They’re expensive to travel to. So the arrival of a coast-to-coast “Great American Eclipse” stretching from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21, 2017, was a massive cause for celebration. Most Americans just didn’t get it, didn’t travel to the narrow “path of totality” to glimpse the solar corona, and will probably never know what they missed. However, for those that did get clued-up and travel to experience totality, it was life-changing—as eclipse-chaser David Barron eloquently explained in a TED talk. If you’ve never experienced a total solar eclipse, what exactly is on your bucket list? North America will get another chance in April 2024.
An artist's concept of the alien planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size alien planet to be NASA/JPL-CALTECH/T. PYLE
7. The search for Earth 2.0
In 2010 astronomers knew of about 450 exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars. Now they know of over 4,000 thanks to the incredible work of the Kepler Space Telescope between 2009 and 2018. Kepler-452b was the first near-Earth-size alien planet to be discovered in the habitable zone of a sunlike star, unveiled on July 23, 2015, but there have been countless others. The number of known exoplanets now doubles approximately every 27 months, so it was fitting when, in October 2019, the Nobel Prize in Physics was split between cosmologist Jim Peebles and Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, who found the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star (51 Pegasi) in 1995. No doubt about it, during the 2010s exoplanet-hunting went from being a niche area to become the pre-eminent area of enquiry in modern astronomy.
8. Pluto revealed
It may not be a planet anymore, but Pluto was revealed to be a wondrous world when, in July 2015, NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft whizzed past its icy surface and collected some remarkable data. As well as taking our first-ever close-up photos of Pluto, New Horizons discovered that the dwarf planet is geologically active and may have a subsurface ocean beneath its crust. New Horizons then sped-off to rendezvous on New Year’s Day 2019 with Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. but since renamed Arrokoth. What a mission!
9. Thunder over Chelyabinsk
This one wasn’t planned, but it was easily the most impactful astronomical event of 2013. On February 15 that year the entire planet got a wake-up call when a 19-meter-wide, 12,000-ton asteroid detonated above Chelyabinsk in west-central Russia. A long vapor trail and its startling light was captured by hundreds of dash cams, while the explosion’s shock wave moments later shattered windows and injured thousands. Overnight, asteroid impact avoidance became the business of space agencies.
What is missing from this list? A lot, for sure. There are dozens more SpaceX moments that could be included and a few from Blue Origin, too, though space tourism never really got off the ground (and even cost lives in the crash of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise in 2014). For British space fans, Tim Peake’s six months in the ISS in 2015 -2016 were a game-changer. In Israel, SpaceIL’s brave Beresheet moonshot mission sparked incredible enthusiasm.
In the end, though, space exploration is all about looking forward, not back. Come the summer of 2020, we’re all be talking about NASA astronauts finally going up to the ISS from American soil, and then it’s “Mars season”—NASA, ESA and China’s CNSA all blast-off to the red planet in a short launch window—before we start watching for progress on NASA’s ambitious Artemis mission.
None of that would be on the slate if it wasn’t for the decade just gone, one that renewed public and private interest in space, astronomy and space exploration.