The unforgettable moments of 2022 in space exploration
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This year, humanity has glimpsed the universe in ways never before possible, and space missions have taken unprecedented leaps forward in unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos.
We witnessed the first mission to the International Space Station fully funded by space tourists. A new space-based internet service played a key role in the war in Ukraine. And there were historic launches of spacecraft and technology by NASA and its international partners that could one day be used to land humans on Mars.
“There’s no question that 2022 was out of this world,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “2022 will go down in history as one of the most successful years of all NASA missions.”
Here are some of the unforgettable space discoveries and moments from 2022.
After years of preparation, NASA finally got its target latest lunar exploration program from the ground with an unmanned test flight that carried an astronaut-worthy spacecraft around the moon.
The mission was packed with big moments. The rocket that got the mission off the ground, the Space Launch System, or SLS, became the most powerful rocket ever to reach orbit—with 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets behind the Apollo program.
Upon reaching space, the Orion capsule, which flew empty except for a few test mannequins, captured stunning images of the Earth and Moon. And Orion’s orbital path swung farther beyond the far side of the moon than any spacecraft designed to carry humans.
The trial run has set the stage for future Artemis missions, with the goal of returning humans to the lunar surface before charting a path for the first manned spaceflight to Mars.
In collaboration with international space agencies, NASA has not only made progress in its human exploration program, but also made strides in scientific endeavors. After decades of anticipation, the James Webb Space Telescope finally began observing the universe in July.
The telescope has spied unseen aspects of the universe and previously hidden features, including the most distant galaxies ever observed. Webb has also shared new perspectives on some of astronomy’s favorite cosmic features and captured them in a new light, such as the Pillars of Creation.
The telescope’s images have already gone beyond what astronomers expected — and the best news: Webb is just getting started.
However, the Webb telescope wasn’t the only space observatory to expand our understanding of deep space. The Hubble Space Telescope spotted the most distant single star ever observed, shining faintly 28 billion light-years away. The star existed just 900 million years after the Big Bang created the universe, and its light has traveled nearly 13 billion years to reach Earth.
Astronomers nicknamed the star Earendel, derived from an Old English word meaning “morning star” or “rising light.”
Meanwhile, astronomers used the Event Horizon Telescope to first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. This first direct observation confirmed the presence of the black hole known as Sagittarius A* as the beating heart of the Milky Way.
While black holes don’t emit light, the cosmic object’s shadow was surrounded by a bright ring — slightly bent by the black hole’s gravity.
At the end of September, NASA successfully completed the first planetary defense test mission. The space agency slammed a spacecraft into Dimorphosa small asteroid orbiting a larger space rock called Didymos – and yes, the collision was intentional. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, was a large-scale demonstration of deflection technology.
Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos pose a threat to Earth, but the system was a perfect target to test a technique that could one day be used to protect the planet from an asteroid strike.
The DART mission marked the first time humanity deliberately altered the motion of a celestial body in space. The spacecraft changed the moonlet asteroid’s orbit by 32 minutes.
And that’s not all 2022 offered when it came to the study of unusual objects in the sky. In June, NASA announced it would delve into the mysteries surrounding unidentified aerial phenomena, commonly known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. The space agency later selected by a team of experts several disciplines – including astrobiology, data science, oceanography, genetics, policy and planetary science – for the task.
Officials at NASA are not suggesting that aliens could be responsible for such phenomena. Its purpose is only to take a serious look at the as yet unexplained – but widely discussed publicly – topic of UAPs and how they can be studied through a scientific lens.
“Without access to a comprehensive set of data, it is nearly impossible to verify or explain sightings, so the focus of the study is to inform NASA what possible data can be collected in the future to scientifically discern the nature of UAP,” according to a NASA press release.
Meanwhile on the red planet, the mission of the InSight lander came to an end by a excess dust on its solar panels (and no whirlwinds to vacuum them clean), but the stationary spacecraft made history in 2022. InSight detected the largest earthquake on Mars and captured the sound of space rocks crashing into each other the planet – which one created craters that revealed treasure troves of underground ice.
As InSight winds down, the Perseverance rover sidekick has progressed to the Martian skies, beyond its original five-flight mission. The Ingenuity helicopter broke its own altitude record and has made 37 flights on the red planet since April 2021. The tiny helicopter has served as an aerial reconnaissance for Perseverance, which has collected an incredible diversity of Martian rock and sediment samples.
Now the rover is setting up a depot of samples that will be stored on the surface of Mars. The samples will be retrieved and returned to Earth in 2033 through the ambitious Mars Sample Return program send a lander and a duo of pick-up helicopters to the red planet later this decade.
Speaking of space rocks, in 2014 a rare specimen traveled to Earth. But scientists this year put the puzzle pieces together, and the discovery was announced in a US Space Command document.
The first known interstellar meteor to strike Earth emergency landing off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea in January 2014.
Interstellar meteors originate from space rocks from beyond our solar system, such as ʻOumuamua, the first known interstellar object in our solar system discovered in 2017.
To be sure, NASA has had many successes this year, but also faced memories of tragedies and disasters. Investigators in March began looking for suspected shipwrecks in the Bermuda Triangle, a stretch of the northern Atlantic Ocean said to be the site of dozens of shipwrecks and plane crashes. docuseries. But the crew came across something unexpected in another location off Florida’s east coast: a 20-foot-long (6-meter-long) piece of debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger, which broke apart shortly after takeoff in 1986 and killed all seven crew members on board.
It was the first wreck to be discovered since pieces of the shuttle washed ashore in 1996.
“This discovery gives us an opportunity to pause again, to lift the legacy of the seven pioneers we lost, and to reflect on how this tragedy has changed us,” said NASA administrator Nelson. said in a statement. “At NASA, the core value of safety is – and must always be – our top priority, especially as our missions explore more of the cosmos than ever before.”
When Russia launched its invasion in February and some parts of Ukraine lost internet access, a space-based internet system that barely existed a few years ago began to provide crucial connectivity.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX designed and launched the system, called Starlink. It uses thousands of tiny satellites that orbit a few hundred miles above the Earth. The satellites work together to provide internet connectivity to the entire world, and all it takes to get online is an easy-to-use Starlink satellite dish.
Musk and SpaceX sent thousands of those dishes to Ukraine. Although one funding controversy later ensuedwas the use of Starlink in the Eastern European country greeted as a game changer in strategic communication for its army, enabling Ukraine to fight effectively even as the ongoing war disrupted mobile phone and internet networks.
However, Starlink is only a small part of SpaceX’s thriving business. The company routinely launches not only satellites, but also astronauts on behalf of NASA. And this year, SpaceX even flew a few wealthy thrill seekers to the International Space Station on a mission brokered by Axiom. The event marked the first space station mission in existence paid for in full by paying customers and included individuals only.
There were four crew members. Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut turned Axiom employee, was mission commander. And the three paying clients were Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe, Canadian investor Mark Pathy and Ohio-based real estate mogul Larry Connor.
The mission, dubbed AX-1, launched on April 8 and was originally announced as a 10-day journey. However, delays extended the mission by about a week.
Allowing private missions to the space station is part of NASA’s plan for more commercial activity in orbit as it focuses on deep space exploration.
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