Astronomers wrapped up 2021 on a climax with the Dec. 25 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a joint mission of ESA, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. It’s relieved to hear that the precision drives that open the intricate sun hood work perfectly. It is reported that the sun cover is about the size of a tennis court.
The telescope is now on its way to its destination 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, and a series of tests will begin once it arrives in late January. If the mission goes as planned, we can expect to begin receiving images from the telescope in mid-2022.
But what else is in space science this year? Here are some tasks worth keeping an eye on.
NASA’s Artemis program to return human astronauts to the moon in 2024 should begin in 2022. In 1972, the last astronaut to set foot on the moon arrived on a Saturn V rocket. Now NASA has created a new generation of rockets, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will conduct its first tests when it launches the Artemis 1 mission in March. It will be a three-week uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft, including a flyby of 100 kilometers on the lunar surface.
Ultimately, SLS will transport astronauts to the Lunar Gateway, the next-generation International Space Station that will be placed in orbit around the moon and used as a staging point for missions to the lunar surface.
In 2022, the moon will also be targeted by other space agencies. South Korea hopes to launch its first lunar mission, the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, from Cape Canaveral in August. Roscosmos plans to launch Luna 25 to the moon’s south pole in July — 45 years have passed since Luna 24 returned nearly 200 grams of lunar soil in August 1976.
Mid-2022 will be a busy time for space exploration, as NASA also launches its Psyche asteroid mission. Psyche orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter, an M-class asteroid made of metal, so it resembles Earth’s core.
We, humans, have never approached an M-class asteroid before, nor can we study Earth’s core because it’s too deep, so once this mission arrives in 2026, it should give us a whole new perspective on an asteroid and planetary processes understanding.
The Dart mission, scheduled to launch in November 2021, should arrive at its destination in late September, shortly after Psyche’s journey begins.
Dart — full name double asteroid redirection test — is on its way to the asteroid Didymos and its small moon Dimorphos. The aim is to test what technology will be needed in the future to save Earth from asteroids. Dart will deliberately crash into the smaller of the two objects, Dimorphos, to orbit slightly closer to the larger Didymos. This could provide valuable insights into how any asteroids that collide with Earth might be diverted in the future.
2021 has been a busy year for missions to Mars, with NASA’s Perseverance and China’s Zhurong both continuing to send back incredible images and data from the Red Planet’s surface.
In September 2022, ESA will partner with Roscosmos, and they will launch the next part of their ExoMars mission. The first part of the mission, ExoMars 2016, sent a Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars in late 2016.
ExoMars 2022 plans to send a rover — Rosalind Franklin — to the Martian surface to search for signs of past life. If the launch goes according to plan, we’ll have to wait until 2023 when ExoMars arrives and the rover begins roaming the Martian surface.
All in all, 2022 looks like a very exciting and should be a fruitful time for space exploration.