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2022: a year of space odysseys

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Photo: NASA


  • In total, in 2021, there were 134 launches that put humans or satellites into orbit – the highest number in spaceflight history.
  • in 2022. The Moon will receive more attention than it has had in decades, as will Jupiter. The biggest rocket ever built will make its first flight.
  • And of course, the James Webb Space Telescope will start sending back its first images.

Space travel is all about momentum.

Rockets turn their fuel into the momentum that carries people, satellites and science itself to space. 2021 has been a record-breaking year for space programs around the world, and that momentum continues in 2022.

Last year, the race for commercial space really took off. Richard Branson and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have both been on suborbital launches – and brought friends including actor William Shatner. SpaceX sent eight astronauts and a ton of supplies to the International Space Station for NASA. The six tourist spaceflights in 2021 were a record. There was also a save 19 people weightless in space for a short time in December, including eight private citizens. Finally, Mars has also been busier than ever thanks to missions from the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates sending rovers, probes or orbiters to the Red Planet.

In total, in 2021, there were 134 launches that put humans or satellites into orbit – the highest number in the history of spaceflight. Nearly 200 orbital launches are planned for 2022. If all goes well, this will smash last year’s record.

I am an astronomer who studies supermassive black holes and distant galaxies. I also wrote a book on the future of humanity in space. There is a lot to look forward to in 2022. The Moon will receive more attention than it has had in decades, as will Jupiter. The biggest rocket ever built will make its first flight. And of course, the James Webb Space Telescope will start sending back its first images.

For me, I can’t wait.

Everybody goes to the moon

Putting a rocket into orbit around the Earth is a technical feat, but it only takes half a day’s journey. Fifty years after the last person was on Earth’s nearest neighbor, 2022 will see a crowded list of lunar missions.

NASA will finally launch its much-delayed space launch system. This rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty and produces more thrust than the mighty Saturn V. The Artemis I mission will leave this spring for a flyby of the Moon. It’s a proof of concept for a rocket system that will one day allow people to live and work off Earth. The immediate goal is to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2025.

NASA is also working to develop the infrastructure of a lunar base and partners with private companies for scientific missions to the Moon. A company called Astrobotic will transport 11 payloads to a large crater on the near side of the Moon, including two mini-rovers and a set of personal memorabilia collected from the general public by a Germany-based company. The Astrobotic lander will also carry the cremated remains of science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke – like Shatner’s spaceflight, it’s an example of science fiction turned into reality. Another company, Intuitive Machines, is planning two trips to the Moon in 2022, carrying 10 payloads including a lunar hopper and an ice mining experiment.

Russia also participates in the Lunar Act. The Soviet Union accomplished many lunar firsts – the first spacecraft to touch the surface in 1959, the first spacecraft to land in 1966 and the first lunar rover in 1970 – but Russia has not returned for more than 45 year. In 2022, he plans to send the Luna 25 lander to the Moon’s south pole to drill ice. Frozen water is an essential requirement for any moon base.

All aboard the Starship

While NASA’s Space Launch System will be a big step forward for the agency, Elon Musk’s new rocket promises to be queen of the skies in 2022.

The SpaceX Starship — the most powerful rocket ever launched — will get its first orbital launch in 2022. It’s fully reusable, has more than twice the thrust of the Saturn V rocket, and can carry 100 tons into orbit. The massive rocket is central to Musk’s aspirations to create a self-sustaining base on the Moon and, eventually, a city on Mars.

Part of what makes Starship so important is how cheap it will make things in space. If successful, the prize for each flight will be $2 million. In contrast, the price for NASA to launch the Space Launch System is expected to be over $2 billion. Reducing costs by a factor of a mile will be a game-changer for the economics of space travel.

Jupiter beckons

The Moon and Mars aren’t the only celestial bodies to grab attention next year. After decades of neglect, Jupiter will finally get some love too.

The European Space Agency’s Icy Moons Explorer is expected to visit the gas giant mid-year. Once there, he will spend three years studying three of Jupiter’s moons – Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. These moons are all thought to have liquid water underground, making them potentially habitable environments.

Additionally, in September 2022, NASA’s Juno spacecraft – which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 – will dive less than 350 km from Europa, the closest look ever at this fascinating moon. Its instruments will measure the thickness of the shell of ice covering an ocean of liquid water.

See the first light

All of this action in the solar system is exciting, but 2022 will also see new information from the far reaches of space and the dawn of time.

After successfully reaching its final destination, deploying its solar arrays and deploying its mirrors in January, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will undergo extensive testing and return its first data around the middle of the year. The 6.5-meter telescope has seven times the collecting area of ​​the Hubble Space Telescope. It also works at longer wavelengths of light than Hubble, so it can see distant galaxies whose light has been redshifted – stretched to longer wavelengths – by expansion. of the universe.

By the end of the year, scientists should have the results of a project to map the first structures in the universe and see the dawn of galaxy formation. The light emitted by these structures was one of the very first lights in history and was emitted when the universe was only 5% of its current age.

When astronomers look into space, they are looking into time. The first light marks the limit of what humanity can see of the universe. Get ready to time travel to 2022.

Chris Impey is Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona.

This article was first published by The conversation and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license.