2021, A New Space Odyssey

25 Jan. 2021

X File Space

Space missions will accelerate in 2021, pushing back the limits of this new frontier and our knowledge of the cosmos, but potentially opening up a new front by replicating geopolitical tensions and rivalries in the stars.

Science will benefit from new discoveries and from new, sometimes spectacular, equipments such as the new James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most expensive ever launched; technological. But, strategic and even ethical challenges will also be on the agenda, with sovereignty issues for the States involved in this space race ranging from intelligence, research, economy and indeed security issues.

Without going as far as to talk of Star Wars, the launch of the American mission DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) planned in July 2021 with the objective of diverting the trajectory of the asteroid Didymos, which does not threaten the Earth any more than its Dimorphos satellite, could give a foretaste of it.

The investments required as well as the risks involved has for a long time made space exploration an excluvive pretence of States. But space presence is more and ore critical to many economic activities and the rush to space is growingly involvong private businesses which are now contributing half of the funds devoded to space conquest, the amount of which has almost tripled in ten years. And emblematic entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos the owner of Amazon or Elon Musk of Tesla should still be in the news this year with the space companies they have created, Blue Origin for the first and Space X for the second.

Nearly 2,800 operational satellites were orbiting around the Earth at the end of 2020, three-quarters of them in low orbit - between 500 and 2,000 km in altitude - used for telecommunications, terrestrial imaging or meteorological systems with multiple economic applications.

A small step to the Moon, a big leap to Mars

Two major goals stand out in the busy space news of the coming year: lunar missions with the long-term objective of installing a human presence on the Earth's satellite and Martian explorations with the goal of discovering whether the Red Planet, which we know to have been livable, has nurtured forms of life.

Three Martian missions will reach destination in the first months of 2021. The landing of the NSA's Perseverance Rover - equipped with the SuperCam instrument suite, the French part of which was developed under the responsibility of the National Center for Space Studies (Centre National des Etudes Spatiales, CNES)- is scheduled for February 18. The Chinese Tianwen-1 mission, whose goal is to study the geology of Mars and in particular the distribution of water ice in the subsoil, is scheduled to land in April 2021. The Mars Hope probe, launched by the United Arab Emirates to study the Martian atmosphere, will have arrived first, on February 9.

Moon travel will also intensify in 2021 with two missions funded by private businesses : Peregrine One launched by Astrobotic Technology on behalf of NASA and the summer launch of Intuitive Machines' NOVA-C commercial lunar lander.

Russia will return to the Moon for the first time since 1976 with its exploration mission Luna 25, while India plans to send a lander and a small astromobile as part of its Chandrayaan-3 mission at the end of 2021 after two unsuccessful attempts.

NASA plans the first flight of its Space Launch System (SLS) in November. SLS is designed to send the next crews to the Moon and eventually to Mars but its objective will be for this first one to place in orbit around the Moon an unmanned Orion capsule within the framework of the Artemis I mission.

BOX 1 2021, A New Space Odyssey – Chronology

BOX 2 2021, A New Space Odyssey and entrepreneurship at l'X

Several laboratories of Ecole Polytechnique are directly involved in research on the cosmos while a sponsorship agreement with Thales Alenia Space and Ariane Group started in July 2019 aims to develop space education and support the projects of the Student Space Center. The entrepreneurial ecosystem at l’X has also enables the development and success of several start-ups dedicated to space.

Many X laboratories are contributing to space exploration in different ways :

Reaching space first of all thanks to plasma propulsion. Much more fuel-efficient, this propulsion method gave rise to the ThrustMe startup at the Plasma Physics Laboratory, and continues to interest its researchers, who are studying in detail the instabilities at the heart of plasma reactors with the support of the ANR industrial POSEIDON chair, co-funded by the French National Research Agency (ANR) and Safran Aircraft Engines.

Observing the Earth from space is also a major challenge, particularly for researchers at the Dynamic Meteorology Laboratory which contributes to ESA and CNES missions to send greenhouse gas and climate observation satellites into space. Observing, to adjust models and better anticipate climate change, is one of the missions of the LMD which is in charge of the scientific direction of the next CNES climate-related missions.

Cleaning up space: this is one of the projects of Nobel Prize winner Gérard Mourou and the XCAN laser prototype, which aims to produce a melting point on satellite debris, triggering its de-orbiting. More than 20,000 objects less than 10cm in size are orbiting our planet and threaten future space missions. To avoid a Gravity-like scenario, the cleanup of near-Earth space is a crucial issue for the coming years.

Understanding the solar system: in-depth analysis of the atmospheres of the planets, or the solar corona, helps to a better understanding of  the mechanisms at work within our neighboring stars. The researchers of the Plasma Physics Laboratory are involved in several space missions for which they bring their expertise in particular in spectroscopy instruments. Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe are studying the sun, while Bepi Columbo is targeting Mercury, the Sun’s closest planet.

Understanding deep space through its messages arriving in the vincinity of Earth is one of the objectives of the Leprince Ringuet Laboratory for Particle Physics. One of its reserchers teams is working on the HESS experiment, a network of satellites installed in the Namibian desert that detects the traces produced by the most energetic phenomena in the universe when particles they produced are reaching our atmosphere.

Reproducing astrophysical phenomena in the laboratory: because some astrophysical phenomena are too far away, too large, or because they develop over a too long period of time (several decades if not hundreds of years), researchers at the Laboratory for the use of intense lasers try to reproduce these phenomena in a shortened version in the laboratory. By concentrating the light of lasers, they are able to reproduce extreme conditions of pressure and temperature, to better

understand the origin of gamma-ray bursts, the shape of supernovae, or the magnetic field of gaseous planets such as Uranus and Neptune.

Integrated Circuits for the ISS: OMEGA's service unit designs specific integrated circuits with low power consumption and radiation resistance for particle physics detectors. Their specific features have made them a component of choice for the International Space Station ISS 2019 mission to contribute to the Earth's first ultraviolet light emission map.

Most recent X research papers related to space exploration :

*July 6th, 2020. Supernovae and Magnetic Fields in the Lab. Read more

*July 1st, 2020. Understanding plasma thrusters instabilities. Read more

*June 17th, 2020. Quasars jets : cosmic particles accelerator. Read more

*June 15th, 2020. Lasers for understanding magnetic instabilities in astrophysics. Read more

*February 17th, 2020. Supernova reproduction in Lab. Read more

*February 10th, 2020. Launch of the Solar Orbiter satellite. Read more

*December 6th, 2020. Sun exposed in Nature. Read more

A sponsorship to promote academic activities in the space field. The École polytechnique, Thales Alenia Space and ArianeGroup inaugurated on October 13 the « Espace: Sciences et Défis du Spatial » sponsorship. Together, they promote academic activities in the space field at École polytechnique and support the projects of the Student Space Center. Read more

The Student Space Centre. Created to develop space research at the institution, the École Polytechnique Student Space Center brings together students of École Polytechnique, engineers, professors-researchers, and individuals from space agencies and industry. The Center’s main objectives are to promote work related to space on the École Polytechnique campus, respond to space agencies offering calls for tender for student projects, and to coordinate and monitor student space projects.

AstronautiX is the student association of amateur astronomy at the Ecole Polytechnique. In partnership with the Student Space Centre, AstronautiX oversees the students' space projects.