2022: A Space Yearbook – Acutely

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It was a good year for space travel. NASA finally got its long-awaited lunar rocket off the ground, SpaceX broke its annual space launch record in July, and JWST continued to bring us picture after picture of the wonders of the cosmos.

That’s not to say that everything went smoothly – there were certainly some major bumps in the road – but space exploration, observation and industry have all had huge years nonetheless. And even in a year full of progress and innovation like this year, some projects really stand out.

Here are some of the biggest, best and weirdest moments of the year in space.

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Artemis 1 will launch on November 16, 2022
Image: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Most Anticipated Launch: Artemis 1

It’s hardly worth compiling a list of space superlatives for 2022 without mentioning Artemis 1. This mission was both eagerly awaited and highly anticipated, and it was a huge relief to all parties involved when it finally got off the ground on November 16.

It took years to get this mission from concept to launch – much longer than expected. On its way to the launch pad, Artemis 1 encountered everything from scheduling problems to hydrogen leaks to hurricanes. Plural.

And even when it was ready for takeoff, there was a last-minute repair of a leaking valve that saw a “red team” climb the launch tower. But once it was airborne, the mission went smoothly, beginning our drive to get humans back on the moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

The DART mission wasn’t just a big deal in the astronomical community – it was literal impactful. In an effort to test how well we can protect ourselves from asteroids that could be on a collision course with Earth, NASA slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid.

The mission aimed to change the orbit of Dimorphos – the asteroid in question – by 73 seconds. While Dimorphos wasn’t headed our way, the goal was to show that we can change an asteroid’s orbit if we need to. And despite the fact that the mission consisted of a small spacecraft flying at 14,000 mph to an asteroid 6.8 million miles from Earth, the whole thing was a success! DART succeeded in slowing the asteroid’s orbit by about 32 minutes.

There is still a lot of work to be done before we have a fully functioning asteroid defense system. But not bad for the first impact.

A rocket rises from the earth, a plume of smoke covers the ground

A Starlink launch on December 17, 2022
Image: SpaceX

A new record in launches: SpaceX

SpaceX certainly had a benchmark year in 2022. The company beat its own annual record for most launches in a year, with 32 launches in July. At the time of writing this article, the company has completed 59 launches in the past 12 months.

The bar will be set even higher next year. CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the company hopes to hit 100 launches next year, most of which are expected to be payloads of Starlink satellites.

Bright white streaks across a glorious night sky.  A domed telescope and rock dominate the bottom of the photo.

This image shows traces left in the sky by BlueWalker 3 with a telescope from the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the foreground.
Image: KPNO/NOIRLab/IAU/SKAO/NSF/AURA/R

Largest satellite: BlueWalker 3

BlueWalker 3 broke the record for the largest commercial communications array in orbit when it rolled out to a size of 200 meters on Nov. 14. The megasatellite serves as a pathfinder mission for even more AST SpaceMobile satellites. AST SpaceMObile is one of many companies with ambitions to bring accessible internet to every corner of the world using satellites, much like SpaceX’s Starlink constellations.

However, there are concerns about this satellite in particular. As it unfolded, it became one of the brightest objects in the sky. Astronomers have long been concerned about the light-polluting effects of communications satellite constellations interfering with scientific observations, and while bigger can be better, it brings its own set of potential problems that need to be managed.

Carina Nebula

The Carina Nebula, as imaged by JWST
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Best New Space Telescope: JWST

Handily at the top of this year’s list of most talked about space missions is the James Webb Space Telescope. Although it launched in December 2021, Hubble’s successor has done most of its much-discussed work this year, starting by sending back its first images in July 2022.

The pictures were everything we hoped they would be. The increased resolution and wide infrared bandwidth made it possible to capture some truly remarkable sights. You’ve almost certainly seen a few, from the high-def Pillars of Creation to the fully colored Deep Field to our solar system’s own Jupiter – up close and personal.

But it’s not just about the images. JWST has also yielded some incredibly valuable data. For example, this month the telescope showed us the earliest galaxies ever discovered. It is also already in the process of spotting undiscovered exoplanets. Next year will almost certainly bring even more discoveries our way.

Most likely to catch a missile with a helicopter: RocketLab

Rocket Lab, a smaller private space company, took to the skies this year not only in a rocket but also in a helicopter. The company first tried a maneuver: trying to catch a rocket booster with a helicopter as it falls back to Earth.

The company accomplished this feat on May 2 by taking its Electron booster off the air. However, they dropped it into the ocean almost immediately, and a second attempt at the feat was called off in November after the company said it lost telemetry from the rocket during reentry.

The company has yet to achieve a complete success: capturing a missile and returning it to land. Their goal is to partner with SpaceX in the search for reusable rocket boosters, as a large portion of each launch’s budget goes to the booster. We’ll have to see if 2023 brings more unconditional success.

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