Space scientists accomplished incredible feats in 2022 through collaborations that brought commercial industry and foreign nations together on several history-making missions.
Successful partnerships have included the launch and calibration of the most powerful space telescope in the world, and photographing the never-before-seen supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
The year also has shown that rocket science is still notoriously hard.
It took three tries to successfully launch NASA‘s mega moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). But at the time of this report, the Orion spacecraft, which SLS blasted into space, was working exceedingly well. Whether the Artemis I mission, the United States’ return to human deep space exploration, ends its journey successfully remains to be seen. Orion must survive the scorching hot conditions of reentering Earth’s atmosphere on Dec. 11.
Read more about the year’s biggest moments in space.
James Webb Space Telescope opens for business
The most powerful observatory in space hit its mark at a destination 1 million miles from Earth in late January and unfurled its complicated, tennis court-size sun shield. Engineers have since calibrated the Webb telescope’s scientific instruments, exceeding expectations for its level of precision.
Astronomers anticipate the telescope will spark a golden age in our understanding of the cosmos, providing snapshots of space billions of light-years away.
The James Webb Space Telescope, a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, delivered its first full-color images in July. Aside from incredible, crisp images of star-forming regions, stellar death, planets, and galaxy mergers, the preeminent observatory in the sky has also returned breakthrough science on an exoplanet, revealing carbon dioxide in WASP-39b’s atmosphere and signatures of other molecules and chemicals.
Scientists want to study planets outside the solar system for a variety of reasons, but discoveries of water and methane, for example, could be signs of potential habitability or biological activity.
NASA’s mega moon rocket embarks on historic spaceflight
Credit: NASA / Chris Coleman / Kevin Davis
A rocket as tall as the Statue of Liberty finally began its maiden voyage in space, leading the U.S. back to the moon.
The Space Launch System, or SLS, is an imposing 5.75 million-pound behemoth. It blasted the Orion spacecraft on a whirling journey around the moon on Nov. 16. The mission, aka Artemis I, is a flight test and the beginning of NASA’s return to astronaut-led deep space exploration. The campaign will eventually send people to the moon and, perhaps one day, even Mars.
Originally, NASA believed this first uncrewed flight could happen as early as May. But several problems arose, creating delays. Throughout the fall, the mission continued to be pushed back, plagued by mechanical issues, liquid hydrogen fuel leaks, and hurricanes.
But the enormous rocket indeed lifted off, with Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first female launch director in NASA history, at the helm.
On Nov. 26, Orion broke the record for the farthest passenger spacecraft in deep space. Up until Artemis I, Apollo 13 held that record, with the Odyssey spacecraft traveling about 248,000 miles from Earth. Orion clocked its maximum distance at 270,000 miles.
The real test, however, is whether the spacecraft survives reentry and landing. It’s expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.
Saturn moon could be an ocean world
Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
Saturn moon Mimas has been known for its striking resemblance to Star Wars’ Death Star, a killing machine that looks like a planet.
It has not been known for its resemblance to a place that could potentially support life — until now.
New research published in the planetary science journal Icarus described how scientists unexpectedly found signs of an ocean beneath the moon’s icy shell. Though the study didn’t find definitive proof, there’s now compelling evidence. Water is an important ingredient for habitability, creating environments where life can potentially thrive.
Mimas may not be a frozen chunk of ice, after all.
NASA intentionally moves an asteroid for first time
Credit: NASA / JHUAPL
NASA’s first attempt at changing the path of an asteroid succeeded, proving humans have the tools and know-how to thwart a hazardous space rock, should one ever be on a collision course with Earth.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, better known as DART, took a spacecraft and crashed it into Dimorphos, an asteroid the size of a football stadium about 6.8 million miles away, on Sept. 26. A couple of weeks later, astronomers used ground telescopes to study its orbit. The asteroid’s loop had been shortened 32 minutes, far more than their 10-minute goal.
The $330 million, carefully orchestrated collision was broadcast live from the mission operations center at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. The nameless spacecraft, about 1,300 pounds, carried no explosives. Its “weapon” was its own body and the sheer force of plowing into an asteroid at 14,000 mph.
NASA chose Dimorphos for target practice because it was an ideal specimen for tracking the results of DART’s hit, not because it in any way posed a danger to Earth.
There are currently no known asteroids on an impact course with our planet. Scientists are, however, keeping a vigilant eye on 30,000 large objects in our neck of the solar system. They estimate there could be around 15,000 asteroids larger than 460 feet across waiting to be discovered.
Oops! Rocket junk slams into our moon
Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images
A rocket booster thought to be left over from a Chinese lunar mission smashed into the moon in March, making the hunk of metal the first-known space junk to unintentionally crash into our natural satellite.
Scientists expected the booster would leave a crater about 65 feet long. China has denied the debris is from its space program.
The rocket was one of many left in a “chaotic” orbit, meaning its cosmic track could change in a mathematically unpredictable way. When rockets are in low-Earth orbit, not far above many satellites, they’ll stay there with a possibility to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. If a rocket is sent farther out to a roomy orbit around the sun, on the other hand, it’ll essentially be lost forever.
But if it’s dropped off in that intermediate zone between the two, still orbiting Earth but far enough to get an occasional tug from the moon’s gravity, that could lead to several possible outcomes: The debris could fall back to Earth, get spit out into an orbit around the sun, or hit the moon.
Based on outer space policies and agreements, leaving a rocket in this chaotic state — and not keeping tabs on its whereabouts — isn’t a crime.
Astronomers take first photo of massive Milky Way black hole
Credit: Event Horizon Telescope
At the center of the Milky Way is a giant black hole, and for the first time ever, astronomers were able to see it.
Black holes don’t have surfaces, like planets or stars. Instead, these mysterious cosmic objects have a boundary called an “event horizon,” a point of no return. If anything swoops too close to that point, it will fall inward, never to escape the hole’s gravity.
With the power of eight linked radio dishes from around the world, the Event Horizon Telescope took a picture of the shadow of the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*. Hundreds of scientists from 80 institutions around the globe worked together to collect, process, and piece together fragments of data to make the picture.
Up until three years ago, any depiction of a black hole was merely an artist’s interpretation or a computer model. Now scientists have a snapshot of the real deal, which spans 27 million miles.
With financial support from the National Science Foundation and other groups, scientists plan to enhance their technology to make the image drastically sharper.
Hubble confirms comet as biggest on record
Credit: Alyssa Pagan (STScI) / Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope revealed a recently discovered comet has a nucleus spanning 85 miles, making it the largest space snowball ever observed.
This bright ball of ice, dust, and rock, Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, is twice the width of Rhode Island and probably weighs 500 trillion tons. Researchers say the scale of this comet is significant because it provides a clue about the size range of comets orbiting in the distant outskirts of our solar system.
Bernardinelli-Bernstein is approaching the sun from the edge of the solar system at 22,000 mph. Though the imposing boulder has often been described as “headed this way,” space is a big place. Saturn is closer to Earth than the comet will ever come.
China finishes building new space station
Credit: Guo Zhongzheng / Xinhua via Getty Images
China launched the last piece of its space station in October to finish its low-Earth orbiting laboratory, where scientists will conduct research in microgravity, much like astronauts at the International Space Station.
Called Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace,” the space station is another big step for the China Manned Space Program, a military-led outfit that wants to compete with the United States in space exploration and an eventual lunar economy. Its spacefarers are known as taikonauts.
But with China’s exceptional achievements in space has come criticism [See above section on accidental lunar whacking]. This November marked the fourth time China has allowed its biggest rocket, the Long March 5B, to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere without having any control over where it fell. Booster pieces crashed over the south-central and northeast Pacific Ocean.
Observatory finds huge hidden asteroids
Credit: DOE / FNAL / DECam / CTIO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / J. Da Silva / Spaceengine
A new sky survey has revealed giant space rocks on the scale of so-called “planet killers” previously hidden within the inner solar system.
In orbits between Venus and Mercury, scientists detected the colossal asteroids — leftover rubble from the solar system’s formation some 4.6 billion years ago — once unseen because of the blinding glare of the sun. One is nearly a mile wide, big enough to cause a massive extinction if it were to strike Earth.
The Dark Energy Camera, mounted on a powerful telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, discovered these space rocks. Scientists say the asteroids don’t pose any danger to this planet, nor will they for the foreseeable future.
This story has been updated with significant space events from the latter half of 2022.