Spaceflight offered incessant glasses in 2021.
Sometimes it was overwhelming. Two new rovers landed on Mars, one of them overshadowed by an experimental helicopter. Two billionaires launched themselves to the edge of space, and a third billionaire flew himself higher into orbit. Then William Shatner flew into space, and a fourth billionaire enjoyed a stay aboard the International Space Station.
It didn’t end there. China began building a fully operational space station, but relied on a large rocket that went into orbit and could not be steered when part of it reentered the atmosphere. Two accidents aboard the International Space Station sent the outpost into orbit. NASA said goodbye to one asteroid and returned to Earth with samples of it. But NASA also launched another mission to crash into another asteroid to study humanity’s defenses against a future space rock attack.
Much more has happened throughout the year and 2022 looks just as busy. You can follow these and more important moments by subscribing to The Times Space and Astronomy Calendar at this link.
Here’s what could happen in spaceflight in 2022.
Huge missiles will roar
Sometime next year, two rockets that have never been to space – the NASA Space Launch System and the SpaceX Starship – are expected to take off.
They are both very large and about as different as two rockets can be.
The Space Launch System, or SLS, is NASA’s interplanetary launch vehicle. It is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Built by traditional aerospace contractors, each launch costs about $2 billion and each rocket can only be used once. NASA says the Artemis program can’t get astronauts back to the moon without the giant rocket. The first test flight, with no people on board, will lift a capsule called Orion around the moon and back to Earth. The launch, known as Artemis 1, is scheduled for March or April.
The spaceship, on the other hand, is only built by SpaceX. The fully reusable rocket is central to the company founder Elon Musk’s vision of sending humans to Mars. A version of Starship is also planned to allow NASA astronauts to land on the lunar surface. The top half of the silver-colored spacecraft completed multiple high-altitude test flights that ended in spectacular explosions. It completed a successful landing in one test. Sometime during the year, a Starship prototype with no crew onboard will be mated to a large reusable booster stage. When the rocket takes off from a SpaceX launch site in Texas, it will enter orbit before crashing off the coast of a Hawaiian island.
The moon can greet many visitors
If 2021 was the year of missions to Mars, the next year could be dominated by moon travel. As many as nine missions from an assortment of countries and private companies could attempt to orbit or land on the moon.
Five are sponsored by NASA, and some have a clearer prospect of getting there on time than others. In addition to the Orion capsule orbiting the moon and returning to Earth, a CubeSat, a miniature satellite called CAPSTONE, could be lifted by Rocket Lab from its launch site in New Zealand in March. It would study a lunar orbit that could be used by a future NASA and European lunar base. Three more missions to the lunar surface are the work of private companies sponsored under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. That effort aims to replicate NASA’s success by relying on companies like SpaceX to transport cargo, and later astronauts, to the International Space Station. Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company, may be the first company to attempt the journey.
The rest of the robot visitors to the moon in 2022 will come from other countries. India could try to redo the failed moon landing of 2019 in the summer. And Russia says it wants to land on the moon for the first time since 1976. A South Korean lunar orbiter could take off on a SpaceX rocket as early as August. And a Japanese company, ispace, is working on a landing craft to carry all kinds of cargo, including a United Arab Emirates rover, to the lunar surface. Which of these missions sticks to its schedule hangs in the very thin moon sky.
Completing China’s Space Station
Recently, China has kept its word when it said its space program will meet a certain timeline. So if it says it will finish building the Tiangong space station in orbit by 2022, there’s a good chance it will.
In 2021, China added its Tianhe space module to low Earth orbit and sent two different crews of astronauts to live there. The second crew will arrive home sometime in 2022, and perhaps by mid-year, a lab module, Wentian, could be launched to orbit and dock the Tianhe module. Later in the year, a third piece, the Mengtian lab, could complete the Tiangong space station.
Both Wentian and Mengtian would launch atop China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5B. Last May, that rocket startled many people when it began an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, creating the unlikely but not impossible prospect of causing damage and injury when it landed. Although the missile crashed into the Indian Ocean without incident, it remains unclear whether China will change the way it is managed. That means Earthlings could play the “where will it come down” game two more times in 2022.
Encounters with asteroids
NASA has studied numerous asteroids closely, but now plans to deliberately collide with them. In September, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test is expected to impact Dimorphos, a small rock orbiting a larger asteroid, Didymos. Colliding with an asteroid is one possible tactic for planetary defense – if a giant space rock is on its way to Earth, some scientists say humanity can do the best it can to divert its path so it misses our world. The DART mission would provide data on the effectiveness of this approach.
Other asteroids beckon. Psyche, a large object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, appears to be made largely of iron and other metals. That suggests that in the early history of the solar system, Psyche was the nucleus of an object that could not form into a planet. A NASA science mission named after the object is scheduled to launch this summer atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Scheduled to arrive in 2026, the spacecraft would give scientists their first close-up view of this strange metallic world.