Space in 2020: Many reasons to celebrate in an otherwise terrible year

Comets and planets and (Crew) Dragons. Oh my!

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
5 min read

SpaceX sent NASA astronauts to space from US soil in 2020 for the first time in nearly a decade.


Life on the surface of planet Earth in 2020 was troubling, to say the least, but above and beyond this rock lies a whole lot of outer space where quite a few interesting and exciting things took place.

While humanity hunkered down to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic and endured a steady stream of economic, political, environmental and social strife, SpaceX , NASA and a host of others were sending all kinds of stuff to space, including astronauts.

In late May, NASA's Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken became the first humans to lift off to orbit from US soil in almost a decade when they rode a SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 mission. The fully modern spacecraft, complete with touchscreens, was also the first new vehicle certified by NASA for transporting astronauts since the space shuttle was introduced almost four decades ago.

The mission was technically a demonstration, but its success was followed in November by the first operational Crew Dragon flight, carrying four astronauts to the ISS.

Robotic space explorers also had a busy year. July represented the best time to set a course for Mars for the next few years, so NASA took advantage of the opportunity, sending the Perseverance rover on its way to the red planet, where it will look for signs of potential life and also deploy a tiny helicopter to explore a little further afield. The UAE launched its Hope probe toward Mars, and China's Tianwen-1 is carrying an orbiter, lander and rover in the same direction.

Space souvenirs

In addition to new missions heading to space as emissaries from a world in lockdown, a few older ones brought samples to us from beyond Earth. Japan's Hayabusa2 air-dropped bits it had collected after shooting a special copper bullet at the asteroid Ryugu. A capsule carrying the resulting dust and pebbles landed in Australia in December, after which the sample was transported to Japan. 

NASA accosted an asteroid as well this year when the Osiris-Rex spacecraft performed a sort of cosmic pickpocketing of the potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu. That sample is expected to make it to Earth in 2023. 

Watch this: NASA successfully lands Osiris-Rex spacecraft on an asteroid in deep space

China's Chang'e 5 mission snagged its own space swag by launching, landing on the moon, collecting a sample and returning some lunar rocks and soil, all over the course of less than a month in November and December. 

These missions were all set in motion years ago and saw success in 2020. Others were stymied by the pandemic.

The launch of NASA's next-generation James Webb Space Telescope was pushed back yet again, to 2021. Commercial space companies like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin continued to make progress, but didn't manage to start sending tourists on microgravity joyrides just yet. 

OneWeb, which aims to provide broadband access from low Earth orbit, felt the bite of the economic recession and filed for bankruptcy as the pandemic was going global. The company emerged in the second half of the year with the British government as new part owner and resumed launching satellites to catch up to SpaceX, which has already started beta testing its broadband constellation, Starlink

SpaceX and Elon Musk set more milestones in 2020 beyond achieving human spaceflight and deploying hundreds of orbiting routers. The company launched 26 Falcon 9 rockets, a few of which have now made seven flights each. On the side, its latest Starship prototype finally made a high-altitude flight, which ended with a spectacular and explosive hard landing. 

A Starship prototype comes in for a hard landing.

SpaceX video capture

Not to be forgotten, Starman, the dummy piloting Musk's red Telsa since being blasted off atop Falcon Heavy in early 2018, this year finally made a close pass by Mars.

Eyes on the skies

When humans and our robots weren't actually traveling to space, we were plenty busy keeping an eye on it with far more fervor than we could muster for yet another Zoom meeting or webinar.

It's hard to believe that at the start of 2020, the unusual behavior of the giant star Betelgeuse and the possibility it might go supernova made our list of things to be concerned about. It later turned out that Betelgeuse is doing just fine -- and was easily forgotten as we turned our attention to sanitizing groceries and searching the planet for toilet paper. 

But while our dreaded and much derided new normal dragged on, the heavens became a popular distraction as multiple new comets were discovered and promised to put on a show. A few fizzled, but Comet Neowise delivered the goods in July, making itself visible even to naked-eye skywatchers in a display that was the best in decades. Annual meteor showers such as the Perseids, Taurids and Leonids also impressed in 2020. Lucky folks in parts of Africa and Asia had the opportunity to take in a "ring of fire" solar eclipse in June, and others, in a relatively small slice of South America, got a glimpse of a total solar eclipse in December.

2020 Perseid meteor shower photos shine bright in a dark year

See all photos

But perhaps the biggest display was the winter solstice Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that made itself easily visible for the first time in eight centuries to close out the year. The two largest planets in the solar system appeared as nearly conjoined twins for a night, and even amateurs with basic backyard telescopes could make out Saturn's rings and several moons of the gas giants. 

Peeping at planets

Professional astronomers peered into deep space as they always do, and made more exciting discoveries. They spotted evidence of water in new locations on Mars, and our other next-door neighbor, Venus, made a surprising move up in the rankings of worlds worth searching for signs of life. 

In what has since become a controversial claim, a team of scientists reported sighting phosphine, a by-product of living organisms, in the surprisingly pleasant cloud decks above the uninhabitable hellscape that is the surface of Venus.

Astronomers continued to show that our galaxy and the realms beyond are full of planets, including some potentially habitable Earth-like worlds. There also looks to be a second planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. New for 2020 was the normalization of citizen scientists and even artificial intelligence making such discoveries. 

In true 2020 style, however, it wasn't all charismatic comets and newfound Earth cousins. In an awesome but sort of disturbing reminder of the violence present in the universe, scientists captured the process of a distant black hole absolutely eviscerating a star that got too close through a slightly comic but mostly terrifying process called spaghettification

Yes, Virginia, this universe has no problem turning you into pasta and eating you for lunch.

Watch this: The Arecibo radio telescope's collapse was caught close-up by a drone

And on a truly sad note, December began with some wild footage of Puerto Rico's iconic Arecibo radio observatory collapsing. For decades, the huge dish in the jungle helped us better understand and explore the universe. 

Sorry to end on a downer. It just seems appropriate for the year we've had. But space as seen through the eyes of astronauts, scientists and just plain fans like me remains one of the brightest silver linings of a year that most would otherwise hope to forget. 

I wouldn't dare tempt fate by saying 2021 will be even better, but I will note that the next meteor shower is already here, with the Quadrantids set to peak on Jan. 2, while February will see Perseverance make its landing on Mars

Keep looking forward and skyward, and Happy New Year.