Find out about the biggest space missions and rocket launches scheduled for this year, with details of upcoming missions from NASA, the European Space Agency, SpaceX and more.
Space travel in 2020
This page will be regularly updated with information about space missions taking place in 2020, from NASA's Mars mission to ambitious plans to return to the surface of the Moon.
Many of these missions will be streamed live. Where possible, we will include details on how to watch the key events online.
To find out about general night sky events and highlights, check out our monthly stargazing blog from astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
What is the NASA Artemis Program? NASA aims to land the first woman on the Moon and the next man on the Moon by 2024. This mission is known as the Artemis Program (Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology).
The timeframe is ambitious, and there will be a number of stages before that final mission in 2024. Artemis 1 is the first milestone: the mission is designed to test the crew spacecraft Orion and NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built.
The three-week-long Artemis 1 spaceflight aims to travel 280,000 miles from the Earth and thousands of miles beyond the Moon before returning home. Crewed Artemis missions will follow, culminating in humans returning to the Moon’s surface by 2024.
NASA had been aiming for a launch date in late 2020 for Artemis 1. However, Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested in December 2019 that the launch might not take place until 2021.
Artemis NASA launch dates
- Artemis 1: November 2020-early 2021 (TBC)
- Artemis 2: 2022-2023 (TBC)
- Artemis 3: 2024
What is Mars 2020? This is NASA’s latest mission to explore Mars, and one of four potential journeys to the Red Planet in summer 2020. The new NASA Mars rover will search for signs of life, collect rock samples, and test a new technique for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere which could pave the way for future human missions to Mars. This experiment is called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE for short.
The rover features a number of new scientific instruments, including a drilling tool designed to extract and ‘cache’ rock samples that could be brought back to Earth by future missions. It also includes a tiny ‘helicopter’, designed to explore Mars from the skies.
NASA Mars 2020 launch dates: 17 July-5 August 2020
Landing date: 18 February 2021
What is ExoMars 2020? The favourable alignment of Mars and Earth makes 2020 a major year for Mars exploration. As well as the NASA Mars mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to send its own rover - Europe’s first - to the planet. The rover is called Rosalind Franklin after the British DNA pioneer, and is designed to extract and analyse rock samples and search for traces of life on Mars.
The project however is facing a 'race against time' to be ready for the 2020 launch window. During testing the parachutes designed to safely land the rover on Mars failed. ESA is now seeking assistance from NASA, with further tests planned for February 2020.
However, if these also prove unsuccessful, ExoMars could be delayed until the next favourable launch window in 2022.
ExoMars 2020 launch dates: 26 July-11 August 2020
Landing date: 19 March 2021
China Mars probe and Hope Mars mission
Two further Mars missions are planned for 2020. China aims to launch what would become the country’s first successful Mars mission, with the project combining a Martian orbiter and a planetary rover in one.
The Hope Mars mission meanwhile is an orbiter project run by the United Arab Emirates, and is set to be the nation’s first mission beyond Earth’s orbit.
Launch dates: July-August 2020
Starlink - SpaceX
What is Starlink? Commercial space company SpaceX plans to launch a pioneering new satellite system, with the aim of providing global high speed internet connection from space.
According to the plan, thousands of communication satellites will be launched in the 2020s. The first 60 satellites launched in May 2019, but the company has permission to launch a total of at least 12,000 in order to build its global network.
The project has been criticised by some astronomers worried about the satellites’ impact on night sky observation, while others have highlighted the increased risk of mid-orbit collisions.
In October 2019, SpaceX founder Elon Musk claimed he had successfully sent the first tweet via Starlink satellite broadband.
Whoa, it worked!!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 22, 2019
Starlink SpaceX launch dates SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell confirmed that the company is planning up to 24 separate satellite launches in 2020, with each launch delivering batches of 60 satellites into orbit.
What is Solar Orbiter? The European Space Agency and NASA's new probe is designed to study our Sun close up. Launching in 2020, the mission will help us analyse the ‘heliosphere’, the vast bubble of charged particles that surrounds the whole Solar System, and examine the Sun in greater detail than ever before. The seven-year mission will perform numerous fly-bys of both the Earth and Mercury before it reaches its eventual destination.
Solar Orbiter launch date: 6 February 2020 at 4.27am GMT (5 February at 11.27pm EST)
What is Chang’e 5? The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is planning to launch a mission to the Moon, reportedly in late 2020. The mission will consist of both a lunar rover and a system designed to land on the Moon, collect samples, take off again and return the samples to Earth.
If successful, China will become only the third country in the world to collect lunar samples after the USA and the Soviet Union. China’s previous mission Chang’e 4 landed a lunar rover on the far side of the Moon in January 2019.
China's timeframe is dependent however on its new 'Long March 5' rocket system successfully completing its first mission in December 2019.
Chang’e 5 launch date: late 2020 (TBC)
SpaceX Crew Dragon
What is the SpaceX Crew Dragon? Commercial space companies and national bodies are working closer together in an effort to reduce the costs of space travel. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is just one example.
Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the only way that astronauts have been able to travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) has been via Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA has therefore commissioned private companies SpaceX and Boeing to deliver new spacecraft designed to ferry astronauts to the ISS and back.
In March 2019 the SpaceX-designed ‘Crew Dragon’ became the first privately owned spacecraft to successfully dock with the ISS. That mission was known as Demo-1; Demo-2 will be the first crewed test flight of the spacecraft.
Crew Dragon suffered an explosion during engine testing in April 2019. The first crewed test flight is currently scheduled for the first quarter of 2020. However, first the Crew Dragon has to pass an in-flight abort test, currently scheduled for no earlier than 4 January 2020.
Crew Dragon Demo-2 launch date: Early 2020 TBC (abort test due from 4 January)
Boeing CST-100 Starliner
What is Starliner? SpaceX is not the only company working to transport astronauts to the ISS. Boeing’s spacecraft, known as CST-100 Starliner, is also designed to carry both crew and cargo to the space station. Both companies are aiming to be the first to send astronauts into space from American soil since 2011. However, like SpaceX, Starliner has faced launch delays.
In December 2019, Starliner was meant to complete a full uncrewed test flight to the ISS and back. However, an issue with the craft's onboard timing system meant that the capsule found itself in the wrong orbit, and could not complete its docking with the space station.
The capsule did later successfully return to Earth and land safely in New Mexico, but it is unclear whether Boeing will have to complete another uncrewed test before astronauts are able to travel to the ISS in Starliner.
Boeing CST-100 Starliner launch dates: 2020 (TBC following unsuccessful uncrewed test in December 2019)
Dates are subject to change, and will be updated throughout the year as launch schedules are confirmed
4 January 2020 (earliest possible date) SpaceX Crew Dragon in-flight abort test
6 February 2020 Solar Orbiter (European Space Agency/NASA) - 4.27am GMT / 11.27pm 5 February EST
Early 2020 International Space Station Expedition 62 (Russian and US astronauts to form part of the new ISS crew)
Early 2020 SpaceX Crew Dragon Demonstration Mission 2
Early 2020 OneWeb satellite launch (OneWeb/Roscosmos)
Mid 2020 China Space Station first module launch
June 2020 New International Space Station module 'Nauka' launched (Roscosmos)
July 2020 Mars 2020 Rover (NASA)
July 2020 ExoMars 2020 Rover and surface platform (European Space Agency and Roscosmos)
July 2020 Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover (China National Space Administration)
July 2020 Hope Mars Mission (United Arab Emirates)
December 2020 Gaganyaan orbital spacecraft test flight (Indian Space Research Organisation)
December 2020 Hayabusa2 (Japanese asteroid sample return mission due to land back on Earth)
Late 2020 Chang'e 5 (China National Space Administration)
2020 Boeing CST-100 Starliner Crew Flight Test
Throughout 2020 Starlink (SpaceX)
Main image courtesy of NASA