Space fans had much to celebrate in 2022.
The year was jam-packed with new missions, intriguing science and stunning images beamed back from the cosmos. From the first batch of photos from the world’s most powerful space telescope to the long-awaited debut launch of NASA’s next-generation moon rocket to a first-of-its-kind test to redirect an asteroid, this year was full of important milestones.
And it wasn’t just NASA and other government space agencies with memorable missions in 2022. The year also included significant gains for the commercial space industry, with private companies launching to the space station and the moon, and setting their sights beyond.
Here are the biggest space stories from 2022.
The universe comes into focus
It’s difficult to imagine a more hyped-up moment for NASA in recent years than the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope. Billed as the successor to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, the $10 billion observatory, which launched into space on Dec. 25, 2021, was designed to study the early days of the universe, when the first stars flickered on in the cosmos.
The Webb telescope did not disappoint.
NASA released the first batch of images from the tennis court-sized observatory to much fanfare in July. Among them was a spectacular, full-color “deep field” image showing stars and galaxies as they appeared 13 billion years ago. The Webb telescope also captured towering “cliffs” of gas and other never-before-seen features of a star-forming region known as the Carina Nebula, and a huge expanding shell of gas around a dying star.
Months later, the Webb observatory snapped its first direct images of a planet beyond our solar system. Though the gas giant, located around 355 light-years away from Earth, likely cannot support alien life, the observations demonstrated how the telescope could be used to search for potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe.
A new era of astronomy has indeed begun.
A nudge in the right direction
Humanity doesn’t often have the opportunity to conduct real-world tests of how to avert a potential apocalypse, but NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test gave the agency just that chance.
In September, a NASA spacecraft intentionally slammed into an asteroid in a historic test of humanity’s ability to protect Earth from a potentially catastrophic collision with a space rock. The $325 million DART mission was designed to see whether “nudging” an asteroid can alter its trajectory, in a first-of-its-kind test of planetary defense technologies.
The cosmic smash-up was carried out on a small and harmless space rock known as Dimorphos, which is about 6.8 million miles from Earth. Weeks later, the agency confirmed that the DART probe did successfully change the asteroid’s orbit, shortening Dimorphos’ orbit by 32 minutes.
Back to the moon
Fifty years after the final Apollo moon mission, NASA took key steps toward returning astronauts to the lunar surface. Though the agency had to contend with several delays, NASA finally launched its uncrewed Orion space capsule and Space Launch System megarocket on their inaugural flights Nov. 16.
The much-anticipated test expedition, known as Artemis I, was designed to test the next-generation rocket and spacecraft before NASA conducts missions with humans onboard. NASA has called the SLS booster the “most powerful rocket in the world” — more powerful even than the retired Saturn V rockets that the agency used during the Apollo program.
Over the course of the 26-day Artemis I mission, the spacecraft orbited the moon and snapped detailed images of the lunar surface. The capsule also carried a set of mannequins equipped with sensors to gather data about radiation exposure and other conditions of deep space travel.
During the mission, NASA officials repeatedly said the test flight exceeded their expectations, and the Orion capsule completed a “picture perfect splashdown” in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.
Earlier in the year, the agency’s robotic CAPSTONE spacecraft also launched on a lunar mission to test an orbit that could be used for future Artemis missions and to demonstrate new technologies for spacecraft operating near the moon. The probe launched in late June and entered orbit around the moon in November.
NASA wasn’t the only space agency eyeing the moon in 2022. The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter launched Aug. 4 as South Korea’s first exploratory space mission beyond Earth’s orbit. The spacecraft, dubbed Danuri, arrived at the moon in December and is designed to remain in orbit there for a year to map and photograph the lunar surface, including areas near the moon’s poles that are permanently in shadow. Data gathered by the Danuri probe will be shared with NASA to help the agency plan future missions as part of the Artemis program.
A spacecraft built by a private Japanese company called ispace also launched into space on Dec. 11 on a mission to become the first commercial venture to land on the lunar surface. The so-called Hakuto-R mission is now on a monthslong journey to the moon, and it's expected to arrive in the spring. Ispace is attempting to make history by landing the first privately funded craft on the moon. So far, only the government-run space agencies of the United States, China and the former Soviet Union have accomplished the feat.
Much ado about Mars
While the moon was a major focus for space missions in 2022, there was also plenty of activity on Mars.
This year, NASA celebrated 25 years of continuous robotic exploration of the red planet, paying tribute to the agency’s entire lineage of past and present Mars orbiters, landers and rovers.
NASA currently has two rovers, Curiosity and Perseverance, and one small helicopter exploring the Martian surface, along with three orbiters around Mars. On Feb. 18, the six-wheeled Perseverance rover and small Ingenuity helicopter celebrated their one-year anniversaries on the Martian surface, while Curiosity has been operating there since 2012.
Recently, NASA bid farewell to its InSight lander, which spent more than four years conducting science on Mars. The lander’s last communication with Earth was on Dec. 15, and NASA officials think the spacecraft’s solar-powered batteries have run out of energy.
A better understanding of the cosmos
In May, scientists revealed the first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, providing the first direct visual evidence of the immense feature known as Sagittarius A*. The photo showed an oval-shaped void surrounded by a bright ring of glowing gas. Sagittarius A* is about 27,000 light-years away and is 4 million times more massive than the sun.
The photo, published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, was only the second image captured of a black hole. It’s thought that almost all galaxies contain a black hole at their center, but these behemoths do not emit light, which makes it challenging for astronomers to capture direct views of them.
Space station happenings
2022 was a busy year for the International Space Station.
In April, NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins made history by becoming the first Black woman to serve a long-duration mission at the ISS. Watkins launched aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and was a member of the space station’s Expedition 67 and Expedition 68 crews. She returned to Earth in October, after logging a total of 170 days in space.
The space station also played host to two important milestones for the commercial space industry this year.
In May, Boeing launched its Starliner space capsule on an uncrewed test flight to the ISS. The much-delayed mission was Boeing’s third attempt to complete a crucial test of its ability to safely fly to and from the orbiting outpost. The expedition was an important step in certifying the Starliner capsule to eventually carry NASA astronauts into space. Boeing is already significantly behind its competitor SpaceX, which is similarly under contract with NASA to ferry astronauts to the ISS.
The ISS was also visited by four private citizens who made up the first all-civilian crew to launch to the orbiting outpost. The flight, known as Ax-1, was organized by the Houston-based company Axiom Space.
Meanwhile, China completed construction of its own space station in 2022. The third and final module of the country’s Tiangong space station was launched into orbit Oct. 31. The T-shaped outpost, which is smaller than the ISS, is expected to be continuously occupied for a decade. Chinese officials have also said they intend to use the space station for space tourism and commercial space initiatives.
Studying Earth from above
Space science also focused closer to home this year. A new instrument known as the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation launched to the International Space Station on July 14 and was installed outside of the orbiting outpost. The instrument is designed to study the role that dust plays in Earth’s weather and climate systems and can also map emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
NASA in 2022 also celebrated 50 years of its Landsat program, an Earth observation initiative jointly operated with the U.S. Geological Survey. Landsat satellites have spent five decades monitoring Earth’s land surfaces and gathering valuable data and images from orbit about how the planet has changed from urbanization, agriculture, coastal erosion, war, famine, wildfires, earthquakes and climate change.
New tech for space exploration
This year also saw its share of technology demonstrations that could revolutionize future space missions.
In early November, NASA conducted a key test of a new inflatable heat shield technology that could be used to one day land humans on Mars. On Nov. 10, the heat shield was launched into orbit and was inflated and deployed about an hour later. The huge device then plunged through Earth’s atmosphere at more than 18,000 mph to test its effectiveness. NASA officials said early results indicated that the test was a success but added that a full analysis of the maneuver will take about a year.
The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft also ended its mission in November, after spending more than three years investigating how a spacecraft equipped with solar sails could use momentum from sunlight, rather than traditional propulsion systems, to travel through space. Solar sails essentially use energy from the sun to steer and power vehicles in space, offering a way to power future probes with a resource that is both abundant and virtually inexhaustible. The LightSail 2 spacecraft purposefully re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and was destroyed in November, ending its mission.
“When the spacecraft reentered, for me it was a bittersweet moment of great sadness mixed with a positive reflection on the success of the mission,” Bruce Betts, chief scientist at The Planetary Society, told NBC News in an email. “Similar feelings were experienced by our team and many of the 50,000 individual donors who completely funded the LightSail program.”