Space Exploration Timeline Title

2011 - 2020


MESSENGER spacecraft image of the planet Mercury
NASA Public Domain Image

March 18, 2011

First Spacecraft to Orbit Mercury

NASA's MESSENGER probe becomes the first man made craft to orbit the closest planet to the Sun. The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft begins its mission to map and photograph the planet's surface in high resolution. It will also study Mercury's thin atmosphere and search for signs of water that could lie frozen beneath the surface in areas protected from the Sun.

Image of Space Shuttle Atlantis landing after its final mission
NASA Public Domain Image

July 8, 2011

Final Flight of the Space Shuttle Program

The space shuttle Atlantis becomes the last American space shuttle to be launched into space. Mission STS-135 and its 4-member crew bring much-needed supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS). This is the 135th flight of the space shuttle and the 33rd flight for Atlantis. On July 21, at 5:57 AM eastern daylight time, Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the last time and officially ends the 30-year space shuttle program. Atlantis will be cleaned up and placed on display at the Kennedy Space center starting in 2013. NASA will now look to private companies to provide transportation to low Earth orbit for the ISS and future projects.

Image of the Russian Spektr-R telescope being assembled
RIA Novosti archive, image #930415 /
Oleg Urusov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

July 18, 2011

Largest Space Telescope Launched

Russia launches the Spektr-R which becomes largest space telescope to be placed into orbit. Spektr-R is a radio telescope designed to study astronomical objects with an angular resolution up to a few millionths of an arcsecond. The telescope is intended for radio-astrophysical observations of extragalactic objects with ultra-high resolution. At launch, the giant telescope weighed 11,000 pounds (5,000 kilograms).

Dawn spacecraft image of the asteroid Vesta
NASA Public Domain Image

July 16, 2011

First Spacecraft to Orbit an Asteroid

NASA's Dawn spacecraft becomes the first man made craft to orbit an asteroid. Launched in 2007, Dawn enters orbit around the asteroid Vesta on July 16, 2011. Vesta is one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System with a diameter of 300 miles (530 kilometers). It is roughly the size of the state of Arizona and is located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn will remain in orbit around Vesta for about a year, studying and photographing its rocky surface. Dawn will then continue on to study another asteroid called Ceres.


Image of the SpaceX C2 capsule, first commercial mission to the ISS
Wikipedia Public Domain Image

May 22, 2012

First ISS Commercial Supply Mission

SpaceX, a commercial space company, launched its Dragon C2+ mission to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The capsule was captured using the space station's robotic arm and was docked successfully. It remained docked for nearly six days while astronauts unloaded cargo for the space station and loaded Earthbound cargo onto the capsule. The capsule successfully returned to Earth, marking an important milestone for the commercial space program.

Image of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover
NASA Public Domain Image

August 6, 2012

Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover successfully lands on Mars. It is the largest and most advanced rover ever to land on the red planet. Curiosity's mission is to investigate the climate and geology of Mars and to search the planet for signs of life. As large as a car, it carries an array of advanced new instruments and experiments. The rover will also examine sites on the planet and evaluate them for possible future human missions.

Artist illustration of the Voyager 1 spacecraft
NASA Public Domain Image

August 25, 2012

First Man-made Spacecraft in Interstellar Space

NASA's Voyager 1 probe becomes the first man-made spacecraft to cross into interstellar space. Data received from the probe indicate that it has passed a barrier known as the heliosphere, which marks the extreme outer edge of the Sun's influence. Originally launched in 1977 to study the Solar System, Voyager 1 is now drifting in the space between the stars and is headed for parts unknown.

Image of Felix Baumgartner starting his historic jump
Image © Red Bull

October 14, 2012

First Skydive Jump to Break the Sound Barrier

Australian skydiver Felix Baumgartner becomes the first human being to break the sound barrier without a jet or spacecraft as he jumps from the edge of space. A capsule attached to a helium balloon takes him 24 miles up and he sets a new record, breaking the previous record for highest jump set by Joe Kittinger at 19.5 miles (31.4 kilometers) in 1960. During his descent, he reaches a top speed of 833 mph (1,340 kph).


Rosetta spacecraft image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

August 6, 2014

First Spacecraft to Orbit a Comet

The European Space Agency's Rosetta space probe becomes the first spacecraft to enter orbit around a comet. After a 10-year, 4 billion-mile journey, Rosetta enters orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The spacecraft sends back amazing high-resolution images of the comet's surface showing steep 490-foot (150-meter) cliffs and boulders the size of houses. Rosetta will follow the comet as it approaches the Sun and will provide the first close-up images of as it heats heats up and changes to form the classic coma and tail.

Artist illustration of the Philae lander on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
DLR, CC-BY 3.0 / CC BY 3.0 DE

November 12, 2014

First Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

The European Space Agency's Philae lander becomes the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on a comet. Philae is released from the Rosetta space probe and makes a perilous seven hour descent to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Harpoons designed to attach the lander to the comet fail to operate, and Philae bounces twice before finally coming to rest on the comet's surface. The spacecraft sends back valuable information about the composition of the comet.


Dawn spacecraft image of dwarf planet Ceres
NASA Public Domain Image

March 6, 2015

First Spacecraft to Orbit a Dwarf Planet

NASA's Dawn spacecraft enters orbit around dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. At 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter, it contains 25% of the entire mass of the asteroid belt. Ceres is the only object in the asteroid belt massive enough to have a round shape due to gravity. This classifies it as a dwarf planet instead of an asteroid. Dawn will spend the next year in orbit around Ceres studying its composition and features.

New Horizons Image of the dwarf planet Pluto
NASA Public Domain Image

July 14, 2015

First Spacecraft to Reach Pluto

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto after a journey of more than 9 years and 4.6 billion miles. As the spacecraft makes its closest approach, it passes only 7,750 miles (12,472 km) from the surface of the dwarf planet and captures amazing high-resolution images of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. New data shows that Pluto is about 50 miles (80 km) larger than previously thought and that it has a nitrogen atmosphere extending tens of thousands of miles out into space.

Image of first food grown and eaten in space
NASA Public Domain Image

August 10, 2015

First Food Grown in Space and Eaten

The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) become the first astronauts to eat food grown in space. The crew of ISS Expedition 44 enjoy some red romaine lettuce that was grown for 15 months on board the space station using a system called Veg-01, which uses red, blue, and green LED lights to grow plants in a small space. This artificial garden is is part of NASA's research into food provision for a manned mission to Mars.

Image of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket landing vertically on Landing Zone 1
SpaceX Photos / CC0

December 21, 2015

First Propulsive Landing of an Orbital Rocket

Private space company SpaceX makes the first successful vertical landing of an orbital booster rocket. The rocket booster was successfully returned to its landing zone near the launch site after placing 11 Orbcomm-OG2 satellites into orbit. This successful landing was the result of a five-year technology development program by SpaceX to develop a reusable rocket system that would significantly reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit.


Image of MINERVA rover model showing internal components
User: Norimaki / CC BY 3.0

September 21, 2018

First Operational Rover on an Asteroid

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) becomes the first to land moving rovers on the surface of an asteroid. The Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully deploys two rovers called MINERVA-II 1A and 1B to the surface of an asteroid known as Ryugu. The rovers use rotating motors to make jumps, each lasting about 15 minutes due to the asteroid's’s low gravity. The probes send back a series of color photographs before losing contact with Earth as they pass around to the far side of the asteroid.


Artist Illustration of the Chang'e Lander on the Moon
Image © China National
Space Administration (CNSA)

January 3, 2018

First Soft Landing on the Far Side of the Moon

China's robotic Chang'e 4 spacecraft touches down on the floor of the 115-mile-wide (186 kilometers) Von Kármán Crater, making the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the Moon. The spacecraft deploys a lunar rover to explore this mysterious part of the Moon that has never been seen from the surface. To communicate with the rover, China launches a relay satellite called Queqiao a few months later in May. This satellite is positioned at the Earth-moon Lagrange point 2, a gravitationally stable spot beyond the moon where the satellite can communicate with both Chang'e 4 and the Earth.

Image of a black hole in galaxy M87
Event Horizon Telescope / CC BY 4.0

April 10, 2019

First Image of a Black Hole

Astronomers release the first ever image of a black hole. The image was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of eight linked telescopes around the world. It shows a black hole in a galaxy known as M87. The black hole is believed to have a mass more than 6.5 billion times that of the Sun and is among the most massive black holes ever discovered. The image clearly shows a ring of super heated gas falling into the hole's event horizon, which is visible as the black region in the center.

Image of cotton seeds sprouting on the Moon in the Chang'e lander
Image © Chongqing University

January 3, 2018

First Seeds Germinated on Another Celestial Body

After successfully landing on the far side of the Moon, China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander reveals a secret payload consisting of a sealed biosphere cylinder containing plant seeds. After watering the seeds and adjusting the temperature in the cylinder, the cottonseeds, rapeseeds and potato seeds sprouted and began to grow. The experiment was supposed to run for 100 days but was terminated after only nine days due to an unexpected temperature drop in the biosphere. In spite of this failure, valuable information was obtained.


Image of the first cookies baked in space
NASA Public Domain Image

January 7, 2020

First Food Baked in Space

Chocolate chip cookies become the first food to be baked in space in a first-of-its-kind experiment. The 5 cookies are baked one at a time in a special zero gravity oven by the crew of the International Space Station (ISS). The cookies take a little over two hours to cook thoroughly in the microgravity environment aboard the space station. This is much longer than anyone expected. The cookies are returned to Earth on January 7 for research. One of these space cookies will be on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Image of stronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on the SpaceX Crew Demo 2 mission
NASA / SpaceX / CC0

May 30, 2020

First Commercial Manned Space Mission

SpaceX makes history as the first private company to launch astronauts into space. The Crew Demo 2 test flight successfully launches two astronauts into orbit on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Spacecraft commander Douglas Hurley and joint-operations commander Robert Behnken become the first astronauts to be launched into space by a private company. This mission marks the return of America's manned space program since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.