The Planetary Report

December Solstice 2021

From Our Member Magazine

The year in pictures: Planetary exploration in 2021

It was a big year for planetary exploration — especially for Mars. Three new spacecraft arrived at the red planet in February: NASA’s Perseverance rover, China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter and rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter. This brought the number of active spacecraft there to 11, setting a new record. Perseverance is collecting samples that will eventually be returned to Earth, Hope is collecting data to form a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and Tianwen-1 is exploring the surface, equipped with radar to search for subsurface pockets of liquid water.

Elsewhere in the solar system, the joint European and Japanese BepiColombo mission made its first Mercury flyby. The spacecraft will pass the innermost planet five more times before entering orbit in 2025.

Japan’s Akatsuki orbiter continues to study the atmosphere of Venus. The cloud-shrouded world will soon get a lot more attention thanks to this year’s announcement of three new missions heading there: NASA’s DAVINCI and VERITAS and the European Space Agency’s EnVision.

In Earth orbit, the International Space Station received its long-delayed Russian science module Nauka, while China kicked off regular crewed visits to its new space station. The Planetary Society’s member-funded LightSail 2 spacecraft continues to circle the globe, testing technologies that will help future solar sailing missions. Shortly after The Planetary Report starts arriving in mailboxes this December, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to blast off on a mission to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft left asteroid Bennu in May, carrying samples that will be delivered to Earth in 2023 that could shed light on how ancient water and organic materials found their way to Earth. Two additional NASA asteroid missions launched in this year’s final months: Lucy embarked on a journey to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids while DART, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, was scheduled to blast off for asteroid Didymos as The Planetary Report went to press. The probe will intentionally crash into Didymos’ small moon Dimorphous next year, testing a method of deflecting dangerous asteroids.

Juno continues to unpack the secrets of mighty Jupiter. In June, the NASA probe performed the first close flyby of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in more than 20 years. Still to come are up-close looks at Europa and Io.

On the outer edges of our solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft continues to cruise along as its team searches for another potential Kuiper belt object to fly by. Farther away are NASA’s twin Voyager probes, now nearly 45 years old, still functioning and studying the properties of interstellar space.

Looking ahead, the second half of 2022 is packed with three scheduled planetary mission launches. JUICE, the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer, will blast off on a mission to study Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. NASA’s Psyche mission will begin its journey to visit what could be the exposed core of an ancient protoplanet. Finally, the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover will head to Mars equipped with a drill and miniature laboratory to search for signs of life. A Russian-built lander will deliver the rover to the Martian surface in 2023.

Elysium Planitia from Hope
Elysium Planitia from Hope This image of Elysium Planitia on Mars was taken by Hope, the United Arab Emirates’ Mars mission, on March 15, 2021 from an altitude of about 1,325 kilometers (823 miles) above the surface.Image: Emirates Mars Mission/EXI
Ganymede from Juno 2021
Ganymede from Juno 2021 An image of Ganymede obtained by the JunoCam imager during Juno’s June 7, 2021 flyby of Jupiter’s icy moon.Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
LightSail 2 image of Mediterranean and the Red Sea
LightSail 2 image of Mediterranean and the Red Sea This image taken by The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft on Feb. 27, 2021 shows the Red Sea, the Nile River, the eastern Mediterranean Sea and surrounding areas. North is approximately at top right. A piece of material similar to a fishing line called Spectraline that held the spacecraft’s solar panels closed prior to sail deployment can be seen in the upper right and left. This image has been color-adjusted, and some distortion from the camera’s 180-degree fisheye lens has been removed.Image: The Planetary Society
BepiColombo's First Mercury Flyby
BepiColombo's First Mercury Flyby The ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission captured its first views of Mercury as it swooped past in a close gravity assist flyby on Oct. 1, 2021. BepiColombo’s main science mission will begin in early 2026. It is making use of nine planetary flybys in total — one at Earth, two at Venus and six at Mercury — together with the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system to help eventually steer into Mercury orbit.Image: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM
September 2021 spacewalk
September 2021 spacewalk Thomas Pesquet (left) from ESA and Akihiko Hoshide (right) from JAXA work outside the International Space Station in September 2021 during a space-walk that lasted nearly seven hours.Image: NASA
Shenzhou 12 picture of South Africa
Shenzhou 12 picture of South Africa The crew of Shenzhou 12 captured this view of South Africa from China’s new space station in August 2021.Image: CNSA
China's Zhurong Mars Rover
China's Zhurong Mars Rover China’s first Mars rover, Zhurong, is pictured next to its landing platform on the surface of the red planet. The rover traveled approximately 10 meters (almost 33 feet) to drop off a wireless camera before backing up in order to capture this spectacular image.Image: CNSA
Perseverance's Selfie with Ingenuity
Perseverance's Selfie with Ingenuity NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter in the background on the 46th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Perseverance's Parachute
Perseverance's Parachute NASA’s Perseverance rover captured this image of its parachute during descent on Feb. 18, 2021. The parachute uses binary code to spell out the credo “Dare Mighty Things” and lists the GPS coordinates of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Perseverance's Jetpack, Color Corrected
Perseverance's Jetpack, Color Corrected Perseverance captured this image of its thruster-powered jetpack lowering the rover to the surface. Image processor Andy Saunders adjusted the image to show more accurate colors.Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Andy Saunders
Bowling Ball Jupiter
Bowling Ball Jupiter Jupiter resembles a bowling ball in this picture that was created using four images captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft during a flyby in February 2021. Each white spot is a raging storm as large as Earth.Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

Exploration Changes Everything

Keep space science going strong. Take action for space and make your voice heard by telling elected officials to make space a priority.

Take Action

The Planetary Report • December Solstice

View Table of Contents

Help advance space science and exploration! Become a member of The Planetary Society and you'll receive the full PDF and print versions of The Planetary Report.