This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine. It was updated Feb. 26 to reflect OneWeb and SpaceX launches that have happened since.
In 2019, the U.S. Space Force was formally established, NASA received a 2024 deadline for returning Americans to the moon, and private companies the world over raised billions of dollars for everything from rockets to antennas. This year shows no signs of a let up in space-sector momentum. Here are 20 predictions for 2020 as seen by SpaceNews reporters and correspondents.
1. Suborbital space tourism finally arrives
After years of delays, the two leading companies in suborbital human spaceflight may finally enter commercial operations. Virgin Galactic plans to move VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, to Spaceport America in New Mexico early in the year for a final series of test flights. The company, which became publicly traded in October, said in filings it expects to begin tourism flights by June. Blue Origin said in early 2019 it expected to start crewed test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle by the end of the year, but executives later said it wanted to perform a few more test flights without people on board first. The company has yet to disclose details regarding when people will start flying commercially on the vehicle, and for what price.
2. A flotilla of Mars missions takes off
As many as four Mars missions are scheduled to launch this year. The most ambitious mission is NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which will collect samples for return to Earth on a pair of missions in the latter half of the 2020s in cooperation with ESA. The biggest questions, though, surround ESA’s own ExoMars 2020 mission, which has suffered problems with its parachutes. A key set of tests early in the year will determine if the mission can launch on a Russian Proton rocket this summer or if it will have to wait until 2022. China is planning its first Mars mission that will include an orbiter as well as a lander and rover. The United Arab Emirates will launch its first planetary mission, a Mars orbiter called Hope, on a Japanese H-2A rocket. Assuming they launch on schedule, all the spacecraft will reach Mars in early 2021.
3. Angara 5 returns
After a five-year gap, Russia’s Angara 5 rocket is scheduled to resume flights in 2020. Russia launched the first and so far only Angara 5 mission in December 2014 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. ILS Chief Technology Officer Jim Kramer said in December that two Angara 5 missions are planned for this year. Both are Russian government missions. Angara 5 is Russia’s successor to Proton, the country’s flagship heavy lift vehicle. A launchpad for Angara 5 at Russia’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome is expected to be ready in 2023.
4. FCC prepares to run public C-band auction
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission decided in November to run its own auction of satellite C-band spectrum instead of letting satellite operators handle it. Giulia McHenry, the acting chief of the FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics, said days later that the commission was “confident we can commence this auction before the end of 2020.” The FCC has emphasized a desire for speed in transferring 280 megahertz of C-band spectrum for use in 5G cellular networks. How satellite operators currently using American C-band, notably Intelsat, SES, Telesat and Eutelsat, will transition out of the spectrum is not yet clear.
5. Winners get picked for U.S. National Security Space Launch program
The big four in the U.S. launch industry — United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — hope to be one of two providers that will receive five-year contracts later this year to launch national security payloads starting in 2022. ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are pitching newly designed vehicles for the competition, all projected to fly for the first time in 2021. “That means we’ll be doing final development and production of first-flight hardware in 2020,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s launch enterprise, said in December.
6. Satellite servicing and debris retrieval missions move forward
Spacecraft will demonstrate their ability to move satellites to new orbits and clean up orbital debris. Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1, launched in October, is scheduled to dock with Intelsat-901 in early 2020 to extend the life of the communications satellite. Also in 2020, Swiss startup ClearSpace plans to begin leading a European consortium focused on capturing a Vespa payload adapter in 2025 and dragging it into Earth’s atmosphere.
7. OneWeb and SpaceX begin major constellation deployments
The two leading megaconstellation companies project a rapid increase in launches, enough to begin partial service offering internet access from low Earth orbit later this year. OneWeb launched 34 small broadband satellites on a Soyuz rocket in February, kicking off regular launch campaigns as it builds toward an initial constellation of 650 satellites. SpaceX, having conducted five dedicated Starlink launches so far, projects two dozen such launches this year. If each mission carries 60 satellites, SpaceX could have well over 1,000 satellites in orbit by year’s end.
8. NRO commercial imagery buys accelerate
The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office in 2019 awarded contracts to multiple commercial imagery providers as it seeks to bring new geospatial data suppliers into the national security overhead architecture. NRO officials said 2020 could be a pivotal year as the agency considers awarding larger procurement contracts to commercial players like Planet and BlackSky that are seeking a piece of the market now dominated by Maxar Technologies, which owns DigitalGlobe.
9. SpaceX will more than double its launch pace
The Dec. 16 launch of the JCSAT-18/Kacific-1 communications satellite was SpaceX’s last mission of 2019, a slower than expected year with 13 launches — 11 fewer than the company had projected. SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said the forecast for 2020 is 35 to 38 launches. That includes 15 to 24 Starlink missions as the company grows its broadband constellation. Shotwell told reporters Dec. 6, “you should see a mission every two to three weeks.”
10. China’s launch rate stays high
China expects to conduct more than 40 launches this year, including flights of its most powerful rocket, the Long March 5. Missions on China’s manifest include launching Beidou navigation satellites, a mission to Mars and a lunar sample return mission. China completed 34 orbital launches last year, and 37 in 2018 — the first year it surpassed the U.S. and Russia in launches.
11. Telesat to choose LEO constellation builder
Telesat Canada was planning to pick a manufacturing partner to build some or all of its 300-satellite constellation last year, but that was before a competing team split up. Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space were vying together for the $3 billion contract until late last year, when the two parted ways, citing disagreement over the size, scope and financial metrics of their partnership. Those companies are now competing separately against Airbus Defence and Space to build Telesat LEO, a constellation Telesat hopes to have fully in orbit in 2023.
12. New small launch vehicles enter the market
Several companies working on small launch vehicles will likely attempt their first launches in 2020. Virgin Orbit announced in December its first orbital launch attempt was “imminent” and would take place after a final series of tests of its converted Boeing 747 with the LauncherOne rocket attached. Firefly Aerospace will soon begin static-fire tests of the first stage of its Alpha rocket, with a first launch later this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Other companies, like ABL Space Systems, Relativity Space and Stealth Space Company (aka Astra Space) will at least make progress toward a first launch, as the industry awaits a long-anticipated shakeout among the dozens of companies that have announced plans to build small launchers.
13. Data Fusion becomes the norm for Earth observation
Electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar and radiofrequency data will be combined with information drawn from airborne and terrestrial sensors as well as social network feeds to create new data products for customers. During the 2010s, companies proved they could capture data with increasing frequency and spatial resolution. Data fusion will be a watchword of the 2020s.
14. Space startups find it harder to raise money
Recent space startup failures, including Vector Space Systems, Audacy and LeoSat, will make investors more cautious in their approach to space sector investment in 2020. That is not to say that private capital will dry up. Far from it. Many investors will continue to seek space-related investment. However, companies in some of the overcrowded sectors, like small satellite launch, may find it harder to raise additional funding.
15. Maiden flights of Ariane 6 and Vega C
Both of Europe’s next-generation launch vehicles, the heavy lift Ariane 6 and lightlift Vega C, are scheduled for first flight in 2020. Arianespace is conducting both missions, Ariane 6 with 30 small broadband satellites for OneWeb, and Vega C with the Italian Space Agency’s Lares-2 science mission. Ariane 6 is designed to cost 40% to 50% less than the Ariane 5, and Vega C is designed to lift around 700 kilograms more than Vega to low Earth orbit. Exact launch dates for the new launchers have not yet been announced.
16. Flexible communications satellites reign supreme
Satellite manufacturers have used the past few years of slow sales to invest in high-throughput technologies that offer more capacity and the ability to better control where that capacity goes. Manufacturers say the ability to offer “flexible” communications satellites that can adjust the power, shape and position of their beams is now the de facto standard to do business. Airbus, Thales Alenia Space and Boeing all rolled out new flexible satellite lines last year. Satellite operators discussing their future satellite plans now stress the importance of flexibility, as evidenced by Inmarsat’s purchase of three OneSat satellites from Airbus last year, and SES’s purchase of seven O3b mPower satellites from Boeing in 2018.
17. Artemis makes progress
NASA ended 2019 getting most, but not all, of what it asked for in additional funding for the Artemis program to return humans to the moon by 2024. The agency will likely award initial contracts for lunar lander development early in the year, but the funding shortfall that effort received — $600 million versus a request of $1 billion for fiscal year 2020 — could mean fewer companies will win contracts. Other major milestones for Artemis include completion of environmental testing of the Orion spacecraft at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in the spring and a “Green Run” static-fire test of the Space Launch System core stage at the Stennis Space Center later in the year. However, a first flight of the SLS, an uncrewed mission called Artemis-1, is unlikely to take place before early 2021. In Washington, NASA is expected to reveal just how much that first phase of the Artemis program, through a 2024 landing, will cost, a figure that could cause sticker shock among some in Congress.
18. Signals intelligence from space takes off
Companies planning constellations to detect radiofrequency signals from space all have important launches in 2020. HawkEye 360, which has three satellites in orbit, plans to launch another trio later this year on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. France-based UnseenLabs said in September it anticipates launching six more satellites in 2020 following the successful launch of its first satellite on a Rocket Lab Electron in August. And Luxembourg-based Kleos Space, having last year traded Rocket Lab’s Electron for a rideshare on an Indian PSLV, anticipates launching its “Scouting Mission” on the Indian space agency ISRO’s next mission with the rocket.
19. Commercial crew test flights take place
Both Boeing and SpaceX performed uncrewed test flights of their commercial crew vehicles in 2019, setting the stage for crewed test flights in the coming year. NASA has yet to set dates for either SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 or Boeing’s CST100 Starliner Crew Test Flight missions, although SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested in late December his company’s flight might take place around the middle of the year, after an inflight abort test in January and final NASA safety reviews. NASA is counting on at least one company being able to enter service this year, but is negotiating with the Russian space agency Roscosmos for additional Soyuz seats, just in case.
20. Commercial alternatives surface to NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System
The increasing human and robotic space activity in low Earth orbit will prompt government agencies and commercial firms to invest in networks to relay communications to and from the ground. In 2020, Solstar Space Co. plans to upgrade transceivers to offer Wi-Fi to people and machines in orbit. Addvalue Innovation, a subsidiary of Addvalue Technologies, plans to expand production and delivery of Inter-satellite Data Relay System terminals, which it developed with satellite fleet operator Inmarsat. In addition, NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program office will work to establish public-private partnerships aimed at creating resilient communications and navigation networks.