Onward and Upward in 2021

Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division DirectorIt’s hard to believe that we have now been living in a “COVID world” for almost a whole year, but just like the turnover of any year, I have taken some time to reflect on the challenges we faced in 2020 and highlights for the coming year.

At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about how difficult 2020 would be without our usual calendar of conferences, meetings, and in-person interactions. I am so thankful for the clear and decisive action the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) leadership took last year to cancel the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) at such short notice. At the time it was disappointing, but with our 2020 hindsight, it was undoubtedly the correct call. I am also grateful that LPI again made an early decision to hold LPSC in 2021 as a virtual conference. Although we are suffering from virtual “meeting fatigue” at this point in the pandemic, it is vital for us to continue holding these gatherings online. I know LPI is exploring innovative approaches to make LPSC as engaging and useful as possible, and to mitigate fatigue in the best possible ways. Ultimately, it is essential for our community’s strength and sustained growth that we continue to “meet” in whatever ways we can.

Of course, by the time LPSC happens in March, the first major Planetary Science Division (PSD) event of 2021 will already have occurred, with Mars 2020/Perseverance Rover landing in Jezero Crater on February 18! Perseverance will explore the geologic and astrobiological history of Jezero Crater — seeking signs of past microbial life and studying Mars’ habitability. Perseverance will answer important questions about where, and how, life can form, and will help prepare for future human missions to the planet, for example, by testing oxygen production from the martian atmosphere. Perseverance will also cache soil and rock core samples on the surface so they are ready for the Mars sample return mission later this decade. But before the science can begin, Perseverance must land safely. Like Curiosity, the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) implementation for Mars 2020 will include a parachute, descent vehicle, and “skycrane maneuver.” We will also be using the new and sophisticated Terrain-Relative Navigation, which allows hazardous terrain to be detected and avoided autonomously during the descent through the atmosphere. I encourage everyone to watch this great video to get a sense of what the whole EDL sequence will look like!

A true PSD 2020 highlight was the OSIRIS-REx touch-and-go (TAG) sample collection event on October 20. The fact that the sample head touched down on Bennu’s surface less than 1 m from the targeted spot in Nightingale Crater is truly astounding. For me, it was absolutely thrilling to be at the Lockheed Martin facilities in Colorado on the day of TAG. The event could not have gone smoother and this is a testament to the entire OSIRIS-REx team’s hard work over many years. Indeed, the TAG sampling was so successful that we believe we collected far more than the required 60 grams of material — so much that the precious cargo was escaping to space. We thus decided to stow the sample safely in the sample return capsule slightly ahead of schedule. This process went well, and OSIRIS-REx is currently back orbiting Bennu. The spacecraft will start its journey back to Earth this spring, when it will be aligned for the most fuel-efficient return; it is due to land back “home” in September 2023. I cannot wait to see what mysteries the samples will allow us to reveal!

We are also eagerly awaiting the 2021 launches of several PSD missions. The launch window for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which will launch onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, opens this summer on July 31. This will be the first mission from the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) and will demonstrate the asteroid deflection technique when the spacecraft purposefully impacts the asteroid Dimorphos (a moon of Didymos). Riding along with DART will be the LICIACube smallsat contributed by our partners from the Italian Space Agency (ASI). LICIACube will be used to monitor the effects of the DART impact (e.g., the crater and evolution of the debris produced). Meanwhile, back on Earth, coordinated telescope observations will be essential for examining the change in Dimorphos’ orbit caused by the impact.

Our next Discovery mission, Lucy, is also set for launch in 2021. Just as Lucy the fossilized skeleton of an early hominid, for which the mission is named, helped unravel the origins and evolution of our species, the Lucy mission will help us investigate the early history of our solar system. Lucy will be the first mission to explore the so-called Trojan asteroids — remnants of the solar system building blocks captured along Jupiter’s orbital path. The launch window for Lucy will open in October, and the nominal mission will last for 12 years. In that time, Lucy will make seven flybys of several asteroids, with the first Trojan visit scheduled for August 2027. Mark your calendars now!

The fall will also see the first two Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) missions land on the Moon — representing the first U.S. robotic lunar landings in more than 50 years. Landers from our commercial partners Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic will land in the Mare Serenitatis and Lacus Mortis regions of the Moon, respectively, and will carry 16 NASA science and technology demonstration instruments across their two payloads. These two missions, and subsequent CLPS deliveries, are opening up a new and expanding paradigm for NASA/commercial partnerships in planetary exploration, and they are leading the way as PSD supports the Artemis program and the return of humans to the lunar surface.

Lastly, we are also anticipating the launch of two PSD CubeSats — our first SIMPLEx missions, which were selected via the SIMPLEx-1 ROSES call in 2014. At the time of writing, the CubeSat Particle Aggregation and Collision Experiment (Q-PACE) is scheduled to launch onboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne in mid-January, and the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH Map) will launch with Artemis I in late 2021. I am really excited to see what new science can be done from these small, innovative platforms.

Despite 2021 starting as 2020 ended — in the midst of this pandemic — I’m incredibly grateful for these events we have to look forward to over the next several months. They inspire me, not only with the promise of amazing new data for understanding our solar system, but even more so by the incredible teams of people who continue to persevere through the incredible challenges that 2020 put in our way. Along with the rollout of vaccines across the U.S. and around the globe, I think we have much to be hopeful about — perhaps even some of those face-to-face interactions we are craving!

— Lori S. Glaze, Director, NASA’s Planetary Science Division, January 2021