The year 2020 has been filled with many notable scientific developments. But these developments have been marred by the turmoil caused by COVID-19. Nonetheless, their impact will accelerate further innovation in the Global Aerospace industry. In this article, we will look back on the major aerospace developments of 2020 that will hugely impact the future of Aerospace.
SpaceX has come a long way in its exhibition of innovation to propel humankind in Space and make it a Multi-Planet species. From landing rockets back on earth (Re-usable rockets) to launching supplies to International Space Station and now recently sending American astronauts to the ISS, the journey of SpaceX has been phenomenal and iconic!
The Crew Dragon mission was aimed at resuming the Astronaut launch capability back from America. This will greatly help America to send indigenous missions carrying American astronauts in Space with minimum reliance on the Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) for this purpose. May 30 marked the launch of the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission, a historic lift-off—the first to launch humans into space from US soil in nine years, and the debut of just the fifth-ever US crewed spacecraft. Hurley and Behnken were flying aboard the Crew Dragon—SpaceX’s 21st-century spaceflight system, replete with expansive touch screens and the ability to reach the ISS with no input from its pilots.
NASA has spent decades studying the Red Planet’s geology and chemistry, and now with the Mars 2020 mission, it’s tackling the big biological question head on: Did the planet ever host life? On July 30, NASA launched a rocket with the one-ton nuclear-powered Perseverance rover on board. After it lands in February 2021, it will be the first rover designed specifically to look for direct evidence of past or present organisms. The machine may closely resemble its predecessor, Curiosity, but it brings new abilities to Martian exploration.
The SHERLOC spectrometer’s powerful laser will scan rocks for glints of biological molecules as scant as one part in a million. Researchers will combine that info with crisp images and other data from the PIXL imaging system to look for the holy grail—clumps of molecules, such as amino acids or lipids, that indicate life (at least as we know it). Such evidence could become hard proof if we ever got pieces of Mars back to Earth for further study. Perseverance will help there too, as it’s the first space robot designed to store samples for recovery during a future mission.
Parker Solar Probe
In February, the European Space Agency packed a solar laboratory into a rocket and flung it toward the Sun. The NASA’s Parker Solar Probe carries sun-facing cameras and other bulky, delicate equipment so that it can swing even closer to our nearest star, whereas the ESA orbiter stays farther out and bristles with instruments. As the first probe to boast cameras that stare directly at the sun up close, the craft aims to sense local breezes in the solar wind and trace them back to the surface eruptions that might cause them. The machine’s ten instruments hunker down behind a state-of-the-art heat-shield that will help them brave the blistering rays.
MISSION EXTENSION VEHICLE-1
Fuel is the lifeblood of a satellite: Its end spells a mission’s finale. Or at least it did until the first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) brought an ailing geostationary satellite back from the brink of death. In February, the MEV-1 manufactured by Northrop Grumman inched toward the Intelsat 901 communications satellite as they both whizzed through space at about 7,000 mph. A trio of sensors, including a LIDAR distance gauge, acted as MEV-1′s eyes as it caught the Intelsat 901 by the engine and clamped on with millimeter precision. With the MEV-1′s electric thruster replacing the aging satellite’s spent chemical propulsion, the hardware can add another five years to the vehicle’s lifespan. The system’s design can dock with about 80% of the 400-plus satellites in geosynchronous orbit, and a second mission, MEV-2, launched on August 15. After finishing a years-long assignment with one “zombie” orbiter, the vehicles can detach and rescue new targets.
Rewind around two decades, civilians with access to lots of money had a way to travel at supersonic speeds via the Concorde. But since that iconic aircraft stopped flying in 2003, faster-than-sound trekking has been off-limits to all but those in the military. In early October, a start-up called Boom unveiled the XB-1, a craft developed as a stepping stone toward making supersonic journeys—like traveling from New York to London in 3.5 hours—a reality. The 71-foot long XB-1 hasn’t flown yet and is much smaller than the planned passenger version of the future, called Overture. But elements of the prototype plane, like using a camera system to help the pilot see the runway when landing, should help inform Boom’s journey towards making a new Concorde-type jet in the future. The XB-1 is expected to fly for the first time in 2021.
Imagine the terror a passenger on a small plane would feel if a pilot became incapacitated from a medical emergency such as a heart attack. Now, on some general aviation aircraft, those travelers would have a new option: They could simply push a button to land the plane. Garmin Ltd. has introduced an Auto-landing feature for aircraft. “Autoland” chooses an airport, physically flying the plane, and lowering the landing gear at the right time—to bring the vehicle down safely.
It broadcasts the situation over the radio and can even kick-in automatically if the pilot doesn’t interact with the aircraft in a set amount of time. It’s now certified on three different types of planes, all of them are small passenger aircraft: the Piper M600, Daher TBM 940, and Cirrus Vision Jet. Garmin says it’s completed more than 1,000 test landings with Autoland, but it hasn’t yet been used in a real emergency—although the company estimates the system could prevent roughly three crashes per year in the US.
THE LOYAL WINGMAN
Advanced air-combat is changing rapidly. Stealthy aircraft, Modern drones, and Unmanned aircraft are the new norm for air superiority. BOEING’s Loyal Wingman is one of such high-end technology. This 38-foot long aircraft looks like a fighter jet and is designed to fly like one—but there’s no place on it for a pilot. The uncrewed vessel is meant to act as a sort of robotic team member, flying alongside a traditional aircraft. Artificial intelligence will help these machines—part of a project called the Airpower Teaming System—carry out that complex task. The concept behind the flying bots is that they could do things such as venture forward into dangerous territory or help protect the planes they accompany. Each jet features a totally removable nose, allowing teams on the ground to quickly swap out the wee craft’s payload depending on what the mission demands.
FOLDING WINGTIPS BOEING 777X
This XXL commercial aircraft made its first flight back in January. What makes it unique is a trick at the end of its wings: The tips can fold up and down. When they’re tucked up, the wingspan is just shy of 213 feet—narrow enough to fit within a gate’s allocated space. But before takeoff, they deploy downwards to create a span that’s about 235 feet long. What is the purpose of all this folding? A long wing is more efficient in flight, but space is at a premium when it comes to airport parking. The huge craft also sports the largest jet engines around, the GE9X, each of which features a fan that’s 11 feet in diameter. So these folding wingtips are the way forward to utilize the airport space efficiently.
AUTOMATIC AIR-TO-AIR RE-FUELING A3R AIRBUS
Transferring fuel from a tanker to an aircraft like a fighter jet in midair is a high-stakes operation. Both planes skim at high speed through the sky and thousands of pounds of fuel flow between them. A typical method involves a human operator lowers a long boom from the tanker to the top of the receiving plane. In April, Airbus announced they have devised a way to automate that risky business at the push of a button. The computer system named A3R utilizes cameras and other sensors beneath the tanker to monitor the receiving plane’s position and then moves the boom into position to get the kerosene flowing. The result is greater efficiency and safety along with reducing human workload.
After 40 years since the American Apollo and Soviet Luna missions brought their samples home, the Chinese Space Agency ventured towards the Moon to bring back Lunar samples. The Chang’e5 venture was launched at the end of November. A probe comprising several elements was sent into orbit around the Moon. These elements then separated, with one half going down to the lunar surface.
The lander system used a scoop and a drill to dig up samples. It’s not clear how much, but possibly in the range of 2-4kg. An ascent vehicle subsequently carried the materials back into lunar orbit, where they were transferred to an Earth-return module. This was shepherded home by a fourth element and released just before it had to make the fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere.
A capsule carrying the materials landed in Inner Mongolia at 01:59 local time on Thursday.
The Chinese mission targeted a high volcanic region called Mons Rümker in the northwest of the Moon’s nearside. Samples from this terrain may be no more than 1.2 or 1.3 billion years old and, as such, should provide additional information on how the Moon is constructed internally. The samples will also allow scientists to precisely calibrate the “chronometer” they use to age surfaces on the inner Solar System planets. The new specimens should provide fresh insight into the geology and early history of Earth’s satellite.
Tony Azzarelli, director and co-founder of the UK industry space body Access Space Alliance, said exciting times lay ahead and highlighted the startup Spacebit’s quest to put a rover on the lunar surface next year.
“It’ll be the first time that a legged robot will walk on another celestial world. Of course, all of these lunar missions are just a prelude to the return of humans to the Moon in the not-too-distant future,” he told BBC News.
For China, the successful completion of the Chang’e5 venture will also be seen as another demonstration of the nation’s increasing capability in space.
After looking back at the Aerospace developments of 2020, we can be sure that 2021 will bring more exciting advancements and innovations in Aerospace!
Muhammad Hassan Qazi is a Co-Founder of RaheQamar and an avid Space enthusiast. He is a Post-Graduate in Aerospace Engineering & has researched numerous Space technology projects. Hassan believes Pakistan has the talent and resources to actively contribute to the Global Space Industry. He is working in STEM and striving to promote Space science & tech. in Pakistan