This year will see major milestones in the space industry, as American companies prepare for the first private launches of people into outer space and possibly the first space tourism flights.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is leading the way toward a private ferry service to the International Space Station, while recently public Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (NYSE: SPCE) continues to envision a 2020 tourist launch.
Here's a look at what's ahead in 2020.
Private American Ships To Take Astronauts To ISS
NASA has a couple things on the calendar, including an unmanned Mars launch. But the big thing for the United States this year is to start sending astronauts to the space station on American spacecraft again, something not done since the Shuttle program was retired in 2011. And private ships will provide the ride.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon is the most likely vehicle for the first private U.S. manned launch to the station, though Boeing Co.'s (NYSE: BA) Starliner is also working on getting a crewed vehicle ready. Both are still in testing, but launches of crews to the station this year are likely, with SpaceX expected to be first this summer.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 30, 2019
"Crew Dragon should be physically ready & at the Cape in Feb, but completing all safety reviews will probably take a few more months," Musk tweeted last weekend.
For Virgin Galactic, the timeline is murky, but it continues to shoot for a 2020 launch into suborbital space for the first space tourists. It should be noted, however, that it's been a stop-and-go timeline for Virgin and founder Richard Branson thought he would be flying customers into space years ago.
Following on from becoming the first publicly listed human spaceflight company, we continue the process of getting all systems in place to begin commercial service. pic.twitter.com/ZDE34a7bF0
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) November 13, 2019
But after successful test flights, the company has been sending some paying customers to training programs, and is aiming for launch later this year. It has about 600 customers signed up.
One of the more immediately practical aims for space companies in 2020 is being able to dramatically boost internet coverage on Earth with the use of a constellation of satellites.
SpaceX is also among the leaders in this effort, and the company said last month it is nearly ready to begin offering broadband service - this year - though with an acknowledgement that the ramp up may be "bumpy," at first.
SpaceX isn't the only company working on this idea: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) are involved in a similar plan. Another competitor called One Web is also working on satellite internet.
There are four planned unmanned Mars exploration launches set for 2020.
— NASA (@NASA) December 31, 2019
The trip to Mars is popular this year because the planet will be particularly close to Earth in July, when all of the launches are planned. NASA will launch its Mars 2020 rover July 17. The joint Russian-European Space Agency launch of ExoMars Rosalind Franklin is planned for later that month. Also launching for Mars in July: the Emirates Hope Mars Mission, which will be the United Arab Emirates’ first-ever space launch, and China plans to send a rover to the Red Planet.
Other 2020 Space Events
A NASA-European Space Agency partnership will send the Solar Orbiter on a trip around the sun. Liftoff is scheduled for Feb. 5, from Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX also will continue work this year on its Starship vehicle, part of the company's reusable launch system it hopes will be a key step toward taking people back to the Moon, or to Mars, one of SpaceX's main goals.
China's space agency plans to launch its next un-manned moon mission to collect and bring back new moon samples.
Blue Origin is expected to make its first manned space flight. It has sent its New Shepard space capsule up 12 times and says it is nearly ready for crewed missions.