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Rocket Launches, Trips to Mars and More 2020 Space and Astronomy Events

If you follow space news and astronomy, the past year offered no shortage of highlights. Astronomers provided humanity’s first glimpse of a black hole. China landed on the moon’s far side. And the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing inspired us to look ahead to our future in space.

The year to come will be no less eventful:

  • No fewer than four missions to Mars could leave Earth this summer.

  • NASA may finally launch astronauts into orbit aboard capsules built by SpaceX and Boeing.

  • We expect to learn more secrets about the interstellar comet Borisov.

  • And private companies are working to demonstrate new abilities in space.

However much you love space and astronomy, it can be challenging to keep up with the latest news in orbit and beyond. That’s why we’ve put dates for some of these events on The Times’s Astronomy and Space Calendar, which has been updated for 2020. Subscribe on your personal digital calendar to be automatically synced with our updates all year long. (We promise not to collect any personal information from your private calendar when you sign up.)

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Below are some of the launches, space science and other events to look forward to.

Roughly every two years, the orbits of Earth and Mars come closer than usual. Space agencies on Earth often send missions to the red planet during that window, and in 2020 four such launches are scheduled.

Three of the missions will carry rovers. The United States is launching the soon-to-be-renamed Mars 2020 rover, which also carries a small helicopter. It will try to land in Jezero Crater, which once contained a lake and could preserve evidence of life, if life ever existed there.

Neither China, Europe nor Russia has deployed a rover on the Martian surface. But they will try, in a pair of missions. China’s mission, its first on its own to the red planet, includes an orbiter in addition to a rover. The European Space Agency and Russia cooperated to build Rosalind Franklin, a rover named for the English chemist whose work was essential to finding the structure of DNA.

The rovers could be joined on Mars by Hope, an orbiter commissioned by the United Arab Emirates. It is being built in Colorado, and is to be launched on a Japanese rocket. If it succeeds, it could represent a new model for space programs, in which small, wealthy countries pay for off-the-shelf spacecraft to get themselves into orbit and beyond.

Since the space shuttle’s last flight, in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for trips to and from the International Space Station. In 2019, NASA hoped to begin flying astronauts aboard capsules built by two private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, but persistent delays knocked back the timeline another year.

NASA’s commercial crew program could finally achieve its goal in 2020. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is scheduled to conduct an uncrewed test of its in-flight abort system on Jan. 11. If the test succeeds, the capsule could carry astronauts to the space station not long after.

Boeing’s Starliner experienced problems during its first uncrewed test flight in December and was unable to dock with the space station. An upcoming review of that test will determine whether Starliner might still be able to fly into orbit with astronauts in the first half of this year.

Virgin Galactic, the space-plane company run by Richard Branson, conducted two successful test flights with crew aboard in the past 13 months. In the year to come, the company could carry its first passengers to the edge of space. Blue Origin, the company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, may follow suit; it has conducted 12 crewless tests of its capsule for short tourist jumps to suborbital space. For now, only the very wealthy will be able to afford such jaunts.

Other private companies are looking to Earth orbit for the future of internet service. SpaceX launched 120 Starlink satellites in 2019 and could launch many more in 2020. A competitor, OneWeb, could send more of its satellites to orbit in the coming year, too. These companies are blazing the trail for orbital internet — a business that Amazon and Apple are also pursuing — and upsetting astronomers, who fear that large constellations of internet satellites will imperil scientific study of the solar system and stars.

In September, a comet called Borisov 2I was spotted in our solar system, only the second ever confirmed interstellar object. Unlike Oumuamua, which was spotted in 2017 only as it was leaving the solar system, astronomers caught sight of Borisov and its 100,000-mile-long tail as it flew toward the sun, before it turned and began its exit.

In 2020, scientists will continue to point ground and orbiting telescopes at Borisov as it speeds back toward the stars beyond — unless, as some astronomers hope, it explodes into fragments after being heated by the sun. Whatever happens, other interstellar visitors are sure to follow, and professional sky gazers hope to find them with powerful new telescopes in the years ahead.

Before the end of 2020, the moon could see one more visitor from Earth. Chang’e-5, a robotic probe built by China, aims to collect moon rock and soil samples and send them back to Earth. The last set of lunar samples was gathered in 1976 by a Soviet spacecraft.

The year to come may also bring greater clarity about American designs for returning to the moon. NASA is aiming to put the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, with a program called Artemis. A wide range of political, budgetary and technological hurdles stand in the way of meeting that ambitious timeline.

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Europe Postpones Launch of Cheops Satellite That Will Scour Space for Habitable Planets

European space officials, citing a software error, postponed the launch on Tuesday less than an hour before it was scheduled to take place. They said it would be delayed at least a day.

The European Space Agency is continuing the search for new Earths this week with the launch of Cheops, a new telescope whose name stands for CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite.

Cheops is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 3:54 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, Dec. 17. You can watch it live on the E.S.A. website.

The satellite will be launched into an unusual pole-to-pole orbit about 500 miles above Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope, by comparison, orbits about 350 miles above the surface, moving from west to east.

In a clever bit of celestial engineering, Cheops will circle Earth just along the terminator, the division between day and night down below, with its camera permanently pointed away from the sun, toward the dark.

Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the last three decades by ground-based astronomers like Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, of the University of Geneva, who were awarded the Nobel Prize this year, and by planet-hunting satellites like NASA’s Kepler and TESS, as well as E.S.A.’s Corot. Dr. Queloz will be in attendance at the launch.

Rather than look for more planets, Cheops will study some that have already been discovered in order to understand them better.

Many of the exoplanets already spotted by astronomers were discovered by observing the gravitational tug — or “wobble” — that they exert on their home stars as they go around. This method allows astronomers to calculate the masses of the planets, but nothing else about their nature or composition.

Cheops will make precise measurements of the sizes of these planets by observing small dips in the brightness of their home stars as the planets pass in front of them — the so-called blink method. Along with the wobble, this data will allow astronomers to calculate the densities of these planets and determine whether they are rocky, like Earth, or fluffy, like gas clouds.

The goal is to find habitable planets. That means Cheops will focus on stars with exoplanets that range between Earth’s mass and Neptune’s.

Not all of those systems will be aligned so that the planets actually cross in front of their stars and produce a transit blip. But at least a dozen should meet this criterion, yielding information on the dividing line between so-called super-Earths — rocky planets that are much larger than ours — and worlds with large envelopes of gas, referred to as mini-Neptunes.

A new program looking for exoplanet transits with telescopes on Earth should also provide additional targets that will use Cheops to make precise follow-up observations.

The first known exoplanets were in fact discovered from Earth by the team of Dr. Mayor and Dr. Queloz, using the wobble method. And while spacecraft like Kepler and TESS make giant contributions to the search for distant worlds, ground-based observations continue to play an important role in following up on old discoveries and making new ones. That work goes on, providing more fodder for Cheops and its successors.

In Chile, special spectroscopes named HARPS and ESPRESSO were built to detect stellar wobbles around distant stars. And the Automated Planet Finder at the Lick Observatory in California performs similar work.

At the same time, the stellar blink method is used by ground-based telescopes such as the Next Generation Transit Survey, at Paranal Observatory in Chile.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, designed to record infrared radiation from the universe’s earliest days and heat from exoplanets, is on track after many mishaps, the space agency says, for a launch on March 30, 2021.

Another mission, the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), designed to investigate dark energy and prospect for distant exoplanets, continues to survive the political vicissitudes of NASA’s budget process. It would launch in the mid-2020s.

The European Space Agency’s Euclid, which has the same mission as NASA’s WFIRST, is scheduled to be launched in 2022.