Russia added new modules to the ISS, NASA and China competed to explore Mars, and powerful anti-satellite weaponry was tested in orbit
By any measure, 2021 was a busy year in space exploration and technologies, with global superpowers and the mega-rich duking it out for mastery of the cosmos. Here are some of the highlights from the year.
ISS gets new modules and hosts space movie
Nauka, aka the Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module, docked with the International Space Station (ISS) in July, after 14 years of delays and setbacks. The long-awaited launch was followed by some drama, after an accidental firing of the module's thrusters sent the ISS into a spin. The crew had to fire the thrusters on another Russian module, the Zvezda, to counter the rotation.
Several months later, another Russian module, Prichal, hooked up with the Nauka. This time, the coupling went off without a hitch.
Apart from their scientific value, the new modules added some much-needed room, as the ageing space station got increasingly more crowded, with multiple American, Russian, and European missions docking with the ISS. The current cohort of astronauts at the station arrived on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and two craft launched by Elon Musk's space exploration firm, SpaceX.
One mission in particular grabbed headlines this year: in October, the Russian space agency Roscosmos sent a film crew to the ISS on a 12-day mission, during which they shot footage for the first-ever movie filmed in space. Cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky told RT he hopes the film will help increase public interest in space exploration.
Rival US and China rovers land on Mars
After a 300-million-mile voyage from Earth, NASA's Perseverance rover touched down on Martian soil in February. Perseverance is the fifth American rover to scour the surface of Mars and has been set to work collecting rock and soil samples and taking more than 100,000 images of the Red Planet.
A portion of a panorama made up of individual images taken by the Navigation Cameras, or Navcams, aboard NASA's Perseverance Mars rover shows the Martian landscape ,February 20, 2021 Reuters / NASA
Within days of landing, Perseverance ticked off a first in space exploration when its attached Ingenuity helicopter took off, proving that controlled flight is possible in Mars' atmosphere. Ingenuity has since logged 18 successful flights.
Not to be outdone, China landed its Tianwen-1 rover on Mars in May. Tianwen-1 is China's first vehicle to drive on Mars, and its having done so solidified Beijing's entry into the top tier of space explorers. Reacting to the successful landing, NASA chief Bill Nelson called China a "very energetic opponent" in what is shaping up to be the space race of the 21st century.
Billionaires blast off into space
After becoming the first private company to send humans into orbit in 2020, Elon Musk's SpaceX continued checking off a list of 'firsts' in 2021. It sent a record 143 satellites into space on a single mission in January, launched the first crewed flight of a reused space capsule in April, and, in September, once again made history with the launch of the first all-civilian crew into orbit.
This summer, however, all eyes were on Musk's fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Both flew to the edge of space aboard craft built by their respective companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, blasting off within weeks of each other, although neither tycoon actually entered the orbit.
Jeff Bezos (2nd-L) poses for pictures with crew mates after they flew on Blue Origin's inaugural flight to the edge of space, in Van Horn, Texas, July 20, 2021 Reuters / Joe Skipper
For his flight in July, Bezos brought along his brother Mark, high-school graduate and rookie pilot 18-year-old Oliver Daman and trailblazing female aviator 82-year-old pilot Wally Funk. Daman became the youngest person to fly into 'space' and Funk the oldest. Branson's flight, which took place a week before Bezos', saw the Virgin billionaire blast off with three of his employees aboard Virgin Galactic's Unity spaceplane, with two professional pilots in control.
Although both billionaires publicly squabbled about whether each other had actually entered space proper, they later congratulated each other on their successful missions.
Anti-sat weapon tests heat up arms race in space
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed in November that it had destroyed a Soviet-era reconnaissance satellite with a precision missile strike. While the satellite was quietly destroyed outside the planet's atmosphere, the political shockwaves back on Earth were loud and immediate.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price denounced Moscow's "reckless" actions, claiming that the debris that would have been scattered into orbit threatened the ISS, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken attacked Moscow for going against public opposition to "the weaponization of outer space."
However, Russia alone is not driving the competition to develop space weaponry, and the US, China, and India have all tested, or reportedly tested, anti-satellite missiles in the past. The US top brass was particularly rattled by Beijing's alleged summer test, with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley calling it a potential "Sputnik moment," and the Pentagon apparently stepping up its lobbying for even more resources.
American officials have publicly claimed that the US military behemoth, which scooped up a $770-billion budget for 2022, may be several years behind the Chinese when it comes to hypersonic weapons and other space tech. Beijing has refused to publicly acknowledge its anti-satellite test ever took place.
Moscow, meanwhile, has been calling for an end to the heating-up of the orbital arms race and a potential conflict in space. Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for the space powers to agree on "measures acceptable for all to prevent confrontation in outer space."
James Webb telescope launched after 25 years
The most powerful space telescope ever built took off from the European Space Agency's launch base in French Guiana on Christmas Day. The $10-billion James Webb Space Telescope is 100 times more sensitive than its famed predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and, according to NASA, the new tool "will change our understanding of space as we know it."
Leaving Earth behind at a speed of 40,000 kph (25,000 mph), the telescope will slowly unfurl its multilayered sunshield and giant honeycomb-shaped mirror over the next two weeks, becoming roughly the size of a tennis court.
While the telescope is being touted as significantly more powerful than Hubble, it won't serve as a complete replacement to the three-decade-old orbital tool producing mind-blowing multicolored images of deep space. The new scope operates in the infrared spectrum, invisible to the human eye, but its images nevertheless can be 'translated' into enhanced false-color imagery.
On reaching its destination at the second Sun-Earth Lagrange Point (L2), 1.5 million kilometers (a million miles) away from Earth, the James Webb Telescope will begin scouring the infrared for signs of the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, hopefully revealing the never-before-seen ages of the universe's history. As a bonus, the powerful new tool will allow scientists to peer into the atmospheric composition of exoplanets, aiding the search for Earth-like planets that may harbor life.