An illustration of the Perseverance rover

An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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10 Things to Expect in Planetary Science for 2021

By Amanda Barnett

Feature | January 28, 2021

New missions and new milestones are on the calendar for 2021. Here are some of the things to watch for in planetary science, as we continue to explore and learn about our incredible solar system.

Deep Space Antenna 43
Deep Space Station 43 officially opened in 1973. It remains the largest steerable parabolic antenna in the Southern Hemisphere. Credit: NASA

1. Deep Space Network Upgrades

The Deep Space Network – or DSN – is NASA’s international array of giant radio antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions, plus a few that orbit Earth. The DSN also provides radar and radio astronomy observations that improve our understanding of the solar system and the larger universe.

The DSN’s largest antenna in the Southern Hemisphere returns to full service on Feb. 12, 2020. Deep Space Station 43, the 70-meter antenna at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex in Australia, has been undergoing repairs and upgrades for more than 10 months.

​At the DSN’s American site, the newly restored Goldstone Solar System Radar is already tracking near-Earth asteroids, helping to compensate for the recent collapse of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

At the DSN site in Madrid – Deep Space Station 56, or DSS-56 – a new 34-meter beam waveguide antenna came online in January, just in time to support the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover landing in February.

A new antenna – DSS-23 – is under construction at Goldstone. On Feb. 11, 2020, NASA, JPL, military, and local officials broke ground for the 34-meter antenna dish that will include mirrors and a special receiver for optical, or laser, communications from deep space missions.

The DSN is operated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which also operates many of the agency's interplanetary robotic space missions.

Perseverance exploring Mars
An artist's concept of NASA's Perseverance rover exploring Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

2. New Rover for Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021. It will search for signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, and for signs of past microbial life itself. The rover will land in Jezero Crater, a large impact crater about 28 miles wide (45 km) just north of the Martian equator. Jezero once contained a lake, which scientists think is one of the most ideal places to find evidence of ancient microbial life.

Perseverance is one of three spacecraft traveling to Mars in 2021. The Hope orbiter from the United Arab Emirates arrived on February 9. NASA provided guidance to the UAE on its mission, and will support it with the Deep Space Network. China’s Tianwen-1 mission is scheduled to arrive in mid-February. The mission includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.

Sending the first Artemis mission to the Moon in preparation for human missions, landing a new rover on Mars, and launching the James Webb Space Telescope into space, expanding our ability to see deep into the universe, are just a few of the things NASA has planned for 2021.

3. First Commercial Moon Missions

NASA is working with several American companies to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The first two missions are on the 2021 calendar. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will carry 11 NASA payloads to the lunar surface. Intuitive Machines will carry five NASA payloads to the Moon on its Nova-C lander. These missions will help pave the way for sending the first woman and the next man to the lunar surface.

Illustration of the DART spacecraft
An illustration of NASA's DART spacecraft with its ion engine firing. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

4. Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART)

DART is NASA’s first mission to demonstrate a planetary defense technique. It will travel to Didymos, a near-Earth asteroid that has a small moon, and will try to collide with the moonlet. DART is scheduled to launch in July.

NASA's Psyche Spacecraft
This artist's concept shows NASA's Psyche spacecraft near the metal asteroid Psyche. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

5. Psyche – Mission to a Metal World

​NASA’s mission to metal asteroid Psyche will begin assembly, integration, and testing of the spacecraft in 2021, a process known as ATLO (Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations). Psyche, the 16th asteroid discovered, may consist largely of metal from the core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system. The mission is scheduled to launch in 2022 and will arrive at Psyche in 2026.

Illustration of the Lucy spacecraft
This illustration shows the Lucy spacecraft passing one of the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter. Credit: Southwest Research Institute

6. Lucy Mission

Lucy will be the first mission to the Trojan asteroids – leftover building blocks of the solar system’s outer planets orbiting the Sun at the distance of Jupiter. The mission takes its name from the fossilized human ancestor (called “Lucy” by her discoverers) whose skeleton provided unique insight into humanity’s evolution. Likewise, the Lucy mission will revolutionize our knowledge of planetary origins and the birth of our solar system more than 4 billion years ago. During its mission, the spacecraft will complete a 12-year journey to eight different Trojan asteroids. Lucy will launch no earlier than Oct. 16, 2021, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Illustration of the James Webb Telescope
An artist rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Northrop Grumman

7. James Webb Space Telescope

NASA’s new space telescope – sometimes called JWST or just Webb – is expected to launch in October 2021 from French Guiana, in South America. Webb is an orbiting infrared observatory with a 6.5-meter primary mirror. It will be NASA’s premier observatory over the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. Its mission will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb will have longer wavelength coverage and greatly improved sensitivity. Webb is named after former NASA administrator James Webb.

Artemis I Spacecraft
The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission sits atop its transport pallet in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 14, 2021. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

8. First Artemis Mission to the Moon

NASA is working to send humans to the Moon for the first time since 1972. A test flight called Artemis-1 will send an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon and back to Earth. The mission will be the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the ground systems at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. It will help set the stage for the first woman and next man to step foot on the Moon in 2024. Artemis-1 is tentatively scheduled for launch in November.

Illustration of the Europa Clipper spacecraft
An artist's rendering of NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

9. Europa Clipper

NASA's mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa undergoes its next milestone: moving forward with spacecraft fabrication and testing. Europa Clipper will conduct the first dedicated and detailed study of an ocean world beyond Earth to determine if Europa has conditions favorable for life. The expedition’s objective is to explore the icy moon to investigate its habitability. And it could move us closer to answering a fundamental question: Are we alone? Europa Clipper is aiming for launch readiness by 2024.

Illustration of Lunar Trailblazer
An illustration depicting NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

10. Future Missions

Also coming in 2021, the selection of Discovery mission finalists, and confirmation by NASA of Lunar Trailblazer, selected by the agency in 2019 to map water on the Moon as one of the first small satellite missions for planetary science.