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This year promises to be out of this world when it comes to space missions, launches, and the next steps in cosmic exploration.
In 2023, NASA will begin a trek to a metallic world, a spacecraft will deliver unprecedented asteroid samples to Earth, a historic lunar mission will receive its crew, and several new commercial rockets may make their launch debut.
There’s so much to look forward to, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“Other amazing discoveries from the Webb Telescope, climate missions that will tell us more about the evolution of our Earth, the pursuit of science on the International Space Station, groundbreaking aeronautical developments with the experimental aircraft X-59 and X -57, the selection of the first astronauts to go to the Moon in over 50 years, and counting,” Nelson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency will launch a mission to Jupiter and its moons, send a satellite to create a 3D map of the universe, and begin training its new class of astronauts, which includes a physically disabled astronaut.
INTERACTIVE: The best space photos of 2022
Here are some of the space titles you can expect to see this year.
Last year, the inaugural mission of NASA’s Artemis program launched with a successful test flight that sent an uncrewed spacecraft on a historic journey around the moon. And while the program’s first crewed flight, the Artemis II mission, isn’t scheduled to lift off until spring 2024, the public may soon know the names of the lucky astronauts who will be on board.
The space agency has already whittled down its astronaut corps to a field of 18 eligible hopefuls for Artemis crew assignments. And last month NASA officials said they would announce the crew of Artemis II in early 2023 – so the news could be out any day.
The Artemis II mission is expected to send four people on a trip around the moon and back to Earth.
The next mission after that, Artemis III, will aim to land astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since the 20th century Apollo program.
While there may not be any crewed Artemis flights to expect this year, NASA intends to put robotic landers on the moon as part of its effort to further study the lunar terrain and the radiation environment, and search for resources that could potentially be mined from the moon and used to fuel exploration deeper in space.
This program is called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, and it relies on partnerships with more than a dozen companies that privately develop their own lunar landers.
The first lander to fly under the program could be one built by Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic, which is expected to use its Peregrine lunar lander to bring 11 science and exploration instruments to the lunar surface in the first months of 2023. It will land at Lacus Mortis, a larger crater on the near side of the moon.
According to the NASA website, up to three other CLPS program missions could also lift off in 2023.
The highly anticipated Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission, known as JUICE, is scheduled to launch between April 5 and April 25.
The European Space Agency mission, which lifts off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, will spend three years exploring Jupiter and three of its icy moons – Ganymede, Callisto and Europa – in depth.
All three moons are thought to have oceans beneath their ice-covered crusts, and scientists want to explore whether Ganymede’s ocean is potentially habitable.
After arriving on Jupiter in July 2031, the spacecraft and its suite of 10 instruments will perform 35 flybys of the gas giant and its moons. Some of the mission’s objectives include investigating whether life ever existed in Jupiter’s system, how the gas giant shaped its moons, and how Jupiter itself formed.
Boeing has been working for a decade to develop a spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to and from the ISS, and 2023 should be the year this new space taxi will finally be operational.
After years of development delays and blockages, the spacecraft, called Starliner, completed an uncrewed test mission to the ISS last May that was deemed a success. And NASA officials have set their sights on April 2023 for the first crewed launch.
The Starliner is expected to complement NASA’s plans to contract the private sector with the task of ferrying astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is already taking on that task, and the company aims to launch its seventh routine astronaut mission next month. When Starliner enters service, SpaceX and Boeing are expected to split the missions between them, hoping to keep as many personnel on the ISS as possible before NASA retires the aging space station over the next decade.
Continuing one of the most notable spaceflight trends of the 2020s, some new commercial rocket companies are set to launch all-new launch vehicles that are fully privately owned and operated.
SpaceX is set to attempt the first orbital launch of its gargantuan Starship spacecraft. The company wants to one day use the vehicle to put the first humans on Mars, and NASA also hopes to rely on the vehicle for its Artemis program.
Two other powerful commercial rockets are also in the works: The Vulcan Centaur, developed by United Launch Alliance, and New Glenn, which is a product of billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin. The Vulcan rocket is currently set to lift off in early 2023, while New Glenn could make its flight debut thereafter. (Note, however, that new rockets are notorious for jet lags.)
Several new smaller rockets, specially designed to carry lightweight satellites into Earth orbit, could also enter the scene. Two US-based startups – Relativity and ABL Space Systems – could kick off the year with their first launches expected in Florida and Alaska respectively.
A collection of rocks and soil from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu will finally reach its destination this year when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft delivers them to Earth.
The spacecraft, NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, made history when it successfully collected a sample from Bennu in October 2020.
OSIRIS-REx will pass by Earth on September 24 and deposit the sample, containing 2.1 ounces of material from Bennu’s surface, at the Utah Test and Training Range. If the spacecraft is still healthy, then it will leave for a new expedition to study other asteroids.
The samples will reveal information about the formation and history of our solar system, as well as asteroids that could be on a possible collision course with Earth.
After unexpected delays, NASA’s first spacecraft designed to study a metallic asteroid is set to launch in October.
The Psyche mission will begin a four-year journey to an uncharted potato-shaped world in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The mission will study a metal-rich asteroid, also named Psyche, which only appears as a fuzzy blur to ground and space telescopes.
The unusual object could be a remnant metal core from a planet or a piece of primordial material that never melted, according to NASA. Psyche could help astronomers learn more about the formation of our solar system. If Psyche is really a nucleus, to study it would be to peer into the very heart of a planet like Earth.
The mission missed its initial 2022 launch window due to delays in software and equipment testing. The mission team has increased its numbers to complete testing before launch.
Various other missions are scheduled to launch in 2023. NASA’s Tropospheric Pollution Emissions Monitoring Mission, or TEMPO, will measure pollution hourly across North America.
The agency will partner with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency on the XRISM mission, or X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, to investigate cosmic X-ray objects.
The European Space Agency and NASA will also partner with the Euclid mission to explore dark energy, a mysterious and invisible form of energy that drives the accelerated expansion of the universe.
The Stratospheric Astrophysics Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter Wavelengths, or ASTHROS mission, will launch a balloon larger than a football field from Antarctica to study what causes the formation to end of stars in some galaxies.
And NASA’s small satellite called Lunar Trailblazer will use innovative instruments to collect data on the amount of water on the moon.
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