Car-sized rover next to a small helicopter on a rocky Martian plain. The rover's tire tracks are visible in the dust.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet (3.9 meters) from the rover in this image from April 6, 2021. The selfie is made up of 62 individual images taken with a camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, and later stitched together. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS > Full image and caption

NASA Planetary Science Highlights: 2021

Feature | December 23, 2021

As 2021 began, we eagerly awaited the Perseverance rover’s arrival at Jezero Crater on Mars. The early part of the year was all about the Red Planet – with a successful rover landing and the first-ever helicopter flight on another world.

As the year progressed, our asteroid missions came into the spotlight. OSIRIS-REx started its journey back to Earth with precious cargo, and two new asteroid missions – Lucy and DART – launched to the skies.

Here’s the 2021 round-up of NASA planetary science, highlighting the year’s most spectacular images, the most ground-breaking discoveries, and the most incredible mission milestones.

February 18, 2021: Touchdown! The Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars

What has NASA's Perseverance rover accomplished since landing on the surface of Mars in February 2021? Surface Operations Mission Manager Jessica Samuels reflects on a year filled with groundbreaking discoveries at Jezero Crater and counts up the rover's achievements. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • Millions of people watched as Perseverance descended via parachute and jetpack to touch down on the Red Planet, ready to begin its multi-year mission to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock for possible return to Earth. The rover has collected six samples so far, and sent home thousands of images, along with data about the geology, weather, and even the sounds of Mars. Perseverance is paving the way for human explorers in other ways too, such as testing technology for pulling oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

March 18, 2021: Hubble Sees Changing Seasons on Saturn

Hubble Space Telescope images of Saturn taken in 2018, 2019, and 2020 as the planet’s northern hemisphere summer transitions to fall. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/A. Simon/R. Roth
  • This series of images taken in 2018, 2019, and 2020 by the Hubble Space Telescope shows slight changes in the atmosphere on Saturn’s northern hemisphere as the season changes from summer to fall after seven long Earth years of summer.Over three years, the equator got 5 to 10 percent brighter, and the winds changed slightly. In 2018, winds measured near the equator were about 1000 miles per hour (1609 kilometers per hour). In 2019 and 2020 the winds decreased to 800 miles per hour (1287 kilometers per hour). Can you spot the difference in the images? (Hint: Look at the north pole.)

April 19, 2021: Ingenuity’s First Flight

In this video captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover, the agency's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

  • The Ingenuity helicopter was originally designed as a technology demonstration to test the feasibility of flying in the thin atmosphere of Mars. After being carried to the surface by the Perseverance rover, it completed five planned test flights. These went so well that the project transitioned into an operational demo phase, exploring how future rovers and aerial explorers can work together. Ingenuity has completed 18 successful flights so far. In this video from April 25, 2021, the helicopter takes off and lands, as seen by a camera aboard Perseverance. As expected, Ingenuity flew out of the camera’s field of vision while completing a flight plan that took it 164 feet (50 meters) downrange of the takeoff spot. Keep watching – the helicopter will return to stick the landing.

April 26, 2021: Image of Landslide in Klute Crater

Lunar Landslide
On the farside of the Moon, where the western wall of Klute Crater meets Klute W Crater, the wall appears to have slumped and fallen towards the crater floor. As a result of a nearby moonquake or surface impact event, at some point in this crater’s history, a geological process known as mass wasting was triggered. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University | > Full image and caption

Our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been at the Moon for over 12 years now and continues to capture incredible images of our natural satellite. In this image from the Narrow Angle Camera, the western wall of Klute crater on the far side of the Moon is slumped towards the crater floor, likely as a result of a nearby moonquake or surface impact event. Images like these demonstrate that the Moon is more geologically dynamic than we previously thought.

May 10, 2021: OSIRIS-REx Departs Bennu

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft left its mark on asteroid Bennu. Now, new images — taken during the spacecraft's final fly-over on April 7, 2021 — reveal the aftermath of the historic Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample acquisition event from Oct. 20, 2020. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center | > Full videos, images and captions

June 2, 2021: Venus Mission Selections

Radar-generated view of an ancient volcano above lava flows on Venus.
Lava flows extend for hundreds of kilometers across the fractured plains shown in the foreground, to the base of Maat Mons. The view is to the south with the volcano Maat Mons appearing at the center of the image on the horizon and rising to almost 5 kilometers (3 miles) above the surrounding terrain. Credit: | > Full image and caption
  • It’s been over 40 years since NASA sent a spacecraft to Venus and many many members of the planetary science community have long hoped for a mission to our sister planet. Scientists believe that Venus once resembled Earth and may have even been habitable, but now it's unbearably hot and covered in clouds of sulfuric acid. This year, NASA selected not just one mission, but TWO! The DAVINCI and VERITAS missions will complement each other’s science to provide a more complete view of this mysterious planet and understand how this planet that was once Earth-like became so… Venus-like.

June 7, 2021: Return to Ganymede

On June 7, 2021, NASA’s Juno spacecraft flew closer to Jupiter’s ice-encrusted moon Ganymede than any spacecraft in more than two decades. Less than a day later, Juno made its 34th flyby of Jupiter. This animation provides a “starship captain” point of view of each flyby. For both worlds, JunoCam images were orthographically projected onto a digital sphere and used to create the flyby animation. Synthetic frames were added to provide views of approach and departure for both Ganymede and Jupiter. Visit & to learn more. Animation: Koji Kuramura, Gerald Eichstädt, Mike Stetson Music: Vangelis Producer: Scott J. Bolton Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
  • NASA’s Juno spacecraft came within 645 miles (1,038 kilometers) of the surface of Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede. It was the closest a spacecraft had passed by the solar system’s largest natural satellite since the Galileo mission in 2000. Along with striking imagery, Juno’s flyby yielded insights into the moon’s composition, ionosphere, magnetosphere, and ice shell. Ganymede is bigger than the planet Mercury and is the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetosphere, a bubble-shaped region of charged particles surrounding the celestial body.

August 11, 2021: OSIRIS-REx Provides Insight into Asteroid Bennu’s Future Orbit

Real-time data visualization of asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA/JPL

September 1, 2021: Perseverance Collects a Sample

Animated GIF showing camera zooming in on small Martian sample
The first cored sample of Mars rock is visible (at center) inside a titanium sample collection tube in this from the Sampling and Caching System Camera (known as CacheCam) of NASA’s Perseverance rover. The image was taken on Sept. 6, 2021 (the 194th sol, or Martian day, of the mission), prior to the system attaching and sealing a metal cap onto the tube. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | > Full image and caption
  • On Sept. 1, NASA’s Perseverance rover unfurled its arm, placed a drill bit at the Martian surface, and drilled about 2 inches, or 6 centimeters, down to extract a rock core. The rover later sealed the rock core in an airtight titanium tube, making it available for future retrieval. This historic event marked the first time a spacecraft packed up a rock sample from another planet that could be returned to Earth by future spacecraft. Mars Sample Return is a multi-mission campaign designed to retrieve the cores Perseverance will collect over the next several years. Currently, in the concept design and technology development phase, the campaign is one of the most ambitious endeavors in spaceflight history, involving multiple spacecraft, multiple launches, and dozens of government agencies.

September 15, 2021: NASA Confirms Thousands of Ancient, Martian Volcanic Eruptions

Orbital image of an ancient Martian volcano surrounded by sand dunes.
Several craters in Arabia Terra are filled with layered rock, often exposed in rounded mounds. The bright layers are roughly the same thickness, giving a stair-step appearance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona | > Full image and caption

October 16, 2021: Lucy Mission Launches to the Trojan Asteroids

  • A rocket leaves an arching trail of light at it launches into space from the Florida coast.
    A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is seen in this 2 minute and 30 second exposure photograph as it launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls | > Full image and caption
  • On October 16, the Lucy mission launched from Kennedy Space Center. Lucy will travel for six years before it reaches its destination: Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. These planetary building blocks have been trapped within Jupiter’s orbit for 4.5 billion years and can reveal important information about the beginnings of our solar system. But that’s looking ahead. This year, we watched in awe as Lucy soared into space, and then we marked the moment in our #LucyTimeCapsules.

November 24, 2021: The First Planetary Defense Mission, DART, Launches

A real-time data visualization of the last 10 seconds of the DART mission before it impacts Dimorphos, a small moon of Near-Earth asteroid Didymos. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Watch the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope—the most powerful space telescope ever made. This mission launched at 7:20 a.m. EST (12:20 UTC), Dec. 25, 2021, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

December 25, 2021: Webb Space Telescope Launch

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launched at 7:20 a.m. EST Saturday on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

A joint effort with ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency, the Webb observatory is NASA’s revolutionary flagship mission to seek the light from the first galaxies in the early universe and to explore our own solar system, as well as planets orbiting other stars, called exoplanets.

“The James Webb Space Telescope represents the ambition that NASA and our partners maintain to propel us forward into the future,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe. I can’t wait to see what it uncovers!”

Ground teams began receiving telemetry data from Webb about five minutes after launch. The Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket performed as expected, separating from the observatory 27 minutes into the flight. The observatory was released at an altitude of approximately 870 miles (1,400 kilometers). Approximately 30 minutes after launch, Webb unfolded its solar array, and mission managers confirmed that the solar array was providing power to the observatory.