What’s up? (In space!) Winter 2021

Welcome to the winter installment of What’s up? (In space!), a seasonal look at upcoming events in the world of space developments, projects, and people.

Now that we’ve recovered from the excitement of seeing James T. Kirk launching into space, what’s in store for space fans this season? Let’s take a look!

100 things in 12 days
Why should US billionaires get all the fun? Japanese businessman Yusaku Mawzawa heads to the ISS on December 8th along with film producer Yozo Hirano and a list of 100 things to do during their 12-day stay. The plan is to capture the daily tasks and activities that are part of life as an astronaut. The flight has been organized by a US company called Space Adventures, in conjunction with the Russians.

With the first fully private mission to the ISS going ahead in January (a NASA and Axiom collaboration), it should be interesting times ahead as space tourism becomes more commonplace. I may have to wait for the price to drop a little before booking my seat though. Axiom’s passengers have reportedly paid in the tens of millions for the experience!

Three small telescopes…
The following day–December 9th–sees a less splashy, but arguably most important, event with the launch of NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). This sounds like something you might find in a medbay in the north or south pole, but it’s actually a small space observatory equipped with three telescopes that will measure the polarization of cosmic X-rays. Find out more at NASA’s official project site.

…and one giant one!
Back in September, I was eagerly awaiting the imminent launch of the monstrous (in a good way) James Webb telescope, but after a few hiccups, it’s now scheduled to be an early Christmas gift with a planned launch date of December 22nd. In fact, the launch is not the tricky bit: it’s what follows. BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos has a great article detailing the different stages of the nail-biting 14-day deployment as pieces of the telescope unfold and layers separate. It’s a complex procedure, but the engineers at NASA and Northrop Gunnman sound quietly confident and ultra-prepared.

Artemis 3 in 2025?
I’m sure none of us were too surprised to hear NASA’s proclamation that the 2024 date for the return of astronauts to the moon was unrealistic–due to various factors such as covid and lawsuits. However, it’s good to report that Artemis-1 is still scheduled for February 2022. This will see the launch of the uncrewed Orion spacecraft from a Space Launch System rocket for a three-week test flight around the Moon. Let’s hope this is the start of something big. For those of us who watched wide-eyed back in 1969 (yes, I’m that old :-)), it would be an emotional moment to see a crewed moon landing over fifty years later.

That wraps things up (you can’t beat a good seasonal pun!) for this year. Thanks for reading and for your support this year. Have a wonderful holiday season and a happy solstice!

If you could spend Christmas day in space, where would you be, and how would you celebrate? Let me know in the comments!

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