With three missions to Mars, new views of Ganymede, and the launch of the largest and most powerful space telescope, 2021 had a lot of exciting moments in space exploration. And 2022 will be equally exciting. Here’s a selection of what to look out for.
January – A New Eye On The Sky
The star of this month will continue to be the JWST. The brand-new space telescope could complete its careful deployment as it moves to its operational orbit 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth. The telescope's structures are getting unfolded as we speak, with the instruments reaching optimal temperature once covered by the large sun shields. Once there, the telescope will be ready to be calibrated and aligned, a task that will take several months.
March – A Giant Leap For The Return To The Moon
The Artemis Program will see the return of humans to the Moon and to make the journey to the Earth’s natural satellite there’s the need for a powerful rocket. Enter the Space Launch System, which is expected to be tested this year, no sooner than March (but it might slip into the boreal Summer).
The launch is the first Artemis mission (Artemis 1) and it will be uncrewed. It will last a little over 25 days, including a six-day long retrograde orbit around the Moon for the Orion capsule. The mission will demonstrate that the launch system and Orion capsule can safely send astronauts around the Moon. If successful, Artemis 2, with astronauts on board, is expected to launch in May 2024.
April – Japan’s turn to reach the Moon
So far only three countries have successfully landed on the Moon. The USSR, the United States, and China. India got really close but didn’t stick the landing. Now, JAXA, the Japanese space agency, is planning to become the fourth. JAXA is expected to send its Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon, or SLIM, to the moon in April.
The lander will demonstrate pinpoint lunar landing by recognizing lunar craters using technology first developed for facial recognition systems.
It is expected to land within 100 meters (330 feet) of its intended location.
May – China’s Space Station Gets Bigger
May will see the launch of a new module for the Tiangong space station, China’s "Palace in the Sky". Its first core module, Tianhe was launched last April and it has been visited by Taikonauts already. The next module will be Wentian, a laboratory expected to launch between May and June. It will also serve as a backup core module and the place where future spacewalks from the taikonauts will take place.
It will be followed by a second laboratory module, Mengtian, in August-September, which will expand the station capabilities for docking of equipment and supplies.
June – India’s Spacecraft Takes Its First Flight
ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization, has announced that Gaganyaan (which translates to Sky Craft) will have its first uncrewed flight in June. The craft is planned to be a key vehicle in the Indian Human Spaceflight Program and, all going well in this test, it will be followed by a crewed test next year
In the same announcement, the ISRO has added that its next lunar landing attempt with Chandrayaan-3 has been postponed from late 2022 to 2023.
July – Russia Eyes The Moon Again
The Moon is clearly dominating exploration this year. Russia wants to go back there too, and it has announced the continuation of its Luna program from the 1960s and 1970s.
The program had many successes with landers, rovers, and even sample returns, and Luna 25 is expected to follow in that tradition according to Russian Space Agency, Roscomos. The mission this time is just a lander expected to touch down near the Lunar South Pole with instruments designed to study the soil. The location might be a possible area of interest for a permanent base on the Moon.
August – Metal Asteroid And More Lunar Missions
In the Boreal summer, NASA is expected to launch its Psyche mission, which will travel to the Asteroid Belt to study one of the most unique objects in that area of the solar system. The asteroid is a metal-rich world with a diameter of 226 kilometers (140 miles). This asteroid might have once been the core of an ancient seed of a planet that never formed.
August will also see the launch of the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, a planned lunar orbiter by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI). This will be the first Korean Lunar Mission, a technology demonstration for KARI.
September – Rosalind Franklin Rover Flies And Two Fateful Encounters
The joint European Space Agency and Roscosmos' Rosalind Franklin Rover is scheduled to launch towards Mars on September 20, on its seven-month journey to begin exploring the red planet and hopefully provide more clues about the possibility of ancient life there.
On September 29, NASA’s Juno probe will flyby past Jupiter’s famous icy moon Europa, giving us the closest pictures of the world in decades. Just like it delivered incredible images of Ganymede, Jupiter’s other major icy moon, in 2021.
The final days of September will also see the arrival of NASA’s DART spacecraft to asteroid Didymos which is orbited by a small moon named Dimorphous. The mission will test kinetic impactor technology, as a means to redirect a potentially dangerous asteroid.
Didymos is not the dangerous one.
October – More On DART
The mission will see the spacecraft slam into Dimorphos altering its orbit on October 2, with the small LICIACube taking measurements of the event to establish if the impact was successful or not.
Throughout The Year – More First Flights
Space Exploration has a lot of uncertainties and it is common for dates to change, especially given the complexity of doing science during a global pandemic.
Among the other exciting (potential) events that might happen this year, is Boeing continuing testing of its Starliner capsule, which should, like the SpaceX crew capsule, be a way to get to the International Space Station. But so far, it has not guaranteed the high level of safety required.
Speaking of SpaceX, its Starship is also expected to make its first foray into space this year after several successful tests (including some explosive ones).
And last but not least, the Ariane 5 rocket that took JWST to orbit should finally be retired as Ariane 6 is tested in its first flight to space.