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Out Of This World: 2020's Amazing Achievements In Space

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

2020 has been a tough year for pretty much everybody on Earth, but things have been going much better off the planet, out in space. So to take a break from our terrestrial problems, we're going to talk about some of what happened this year in our solar system. We have NPR science correspondents Nell Greenfieldboyce and Geoff Brumfiel with us. Hello to you both.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: Well, let's talk space. I guess we should start with this big milestone for NASA and the big commercial company SpaceX.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Five, four, three, two, one, zero, ignition, liftoff. The Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon. Go NASA. Go SpaceX.

GREENE: Right. So that was in May. SpaceX launched two NASA astronauts to the space station aboard their Dragon capsule. Geoff, you were watching that, right?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, I had hoped to see it down in Florida, but like almost everyone else in the country, I ended up watching it in my basement with my kids. But that was actually really fun to do. And it was exciting because we've never really had a commercial company like SpaceX with control - sort of end-to-end control of a new spaceship like this. I mean, previous spaceships have been done in partnership with commercial companies, but this is really SpaceX's baby. And at the same time, there was an element of the routine to it because it went so smoothly. So, you know, this was a capsule, kind of like the Apollo capsules that sent astronauts to the moon in the '60s and '70s. Very tried and true technology, very well-understood. And that's why it worked so well.

GREENE: Well, and, Nell, I mean, big moment for SpaceX. Also a pretty big deal for NASA, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was. It was because remember, we had been relying on Russia to get our astronauts up to the International Space Station for almost a decade. And it's not like it's every day there's a brand-new spaceship for transporting people up into orbit. I mean, for the United States, the last time that happened was the space shuttle's first flight all the way back in 1981. And this means NASA can let commercial companies handle kind of the domestic flights to low Earth orbit. You know, SpaceX can have a taxi service up and down to the station. And that frees up NASA to focus on deep space exploration, you know, getting back to the moon, for example.

GREENE: I love the idea of a taxi service to space. I guess this is also a pretty important year for bringing souvenirs back from the solar system, right? I mean, there were a couple of these missions that actually scooped up samples, brought them home. Geoff, I guess let's start with that Chinese mission to the moon.

BRUMFIEL: Yes. So this mission is called Chang'e-5. It scooped up a sample from the lunar surface. And this is the first time that's been done in over 40 years. And it basically looked like a little robotic version of the Apollo missions of the 1960s and '70s. So the spacecraft took off. It flew to the moon. It sent down a lander. The lander got that sample, rocketed back up to a service module and returned to Earth. And the fact that it went so smoothly for China is just a really big win for them geopolitically. In fact, only two other countries had brought back moon samples, the U.S. and Russia. So this now puts China in that very top tier of space-faring nations.

GREENE: Well, and now I understand asteroids were also a pretty popular destination.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. So Japan had a mission to an asteroid that launched six years ago. You know, it went out to the asteroid, got a little bit of pebbles and then came home finally just, you know, this month in December. This was the biggest sample of an asteroid ever returned. Now, you know, big is relative here. It is only about five grams of dust and rock. Meanwhile, NASA did its own asteroid sample collection, the first one for NASA, and it got so many rocks, they overstuffed their collection device. In the end, they're not sure how much they got, but it looks like hundreds of grams. And, you know, they'll find out when it returns in 2023.

GREENE: Why go through all that trouble? I mean, why do scientists so badly want these pieces of asteroids?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Asteroids are thought to be sort of, like, leftover pieces from the stuff that made our solar system. They're like these pristine, you know, sort of building blocks that have been unperturbed for billions of years. And so it'll let people learn a lot about the history of the solar system that produced planets such as us. But also, you know, asteroids might someday hit us and, like, take out a city. So scientists really want to understand more about them to essentially protect the planet.

GREENE: Yeah - whatever clues we can get to avoid that happening. Well, let's look ahead to 2021. What are both of you looking for - you know, might take place out of this world?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it's going to be a big year for Mars. There are already three missions that are set to arrive at the red planet in February, a U.S. and a Chinese rover and then a orbiter from the United Arab Emirates. So that's going to be a big deal.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The other thing I'm looking forward to is NASA is planning to launch a huge, new space telescope. It's sort of supposed to be the successor to Hubble. And it's been long delayed, really long delayed. But it should give us some great views of the universe, assuming it actually launches in October as they plan.

GREENE: All right. Sounds pretty cool. Nell Greenfieldboyce and Geoff Brumfiel from NPR's science team. Thank you both so much, and have a good new year.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.