Last was a big year for space exploration, with the arrival of 2020’s Mars launches in February followed by an exciting summer of commercial human spaceflight firsts– bringing the space industry to the attention of the general public (and provoking some much needed conversation about the ethics of spaceflight). Let’s take a look at what 2022 could bring- from new rockets to missions to the moon and beyond (click the links to skip to specific sections!).
2021 was brought to close with (or rather, thankfully without) a bang, with the launch of JWST on Christmas Day! The first month since launch has been tense, but it has now completed the deployment and tensioning of the 5 layers of tennis court sized sunshield, and all its mirrors, which had been folded up like origami to fit in the Ariane 5 rocket fairing. It has now finished deployment with all the mirrors unfolded safely, so as of 10/1/21 it had successfully passed 85% of its single-point failures (where something could likely go wrong). It will arrive at its destination, L2, by the end of January, after which it will undergo a few months of testing and configuration. If all goes to plan, the first teams to use the telescope should have their data by the end of summer!
If all goes to plan, the first scientists with time on the telescope should have their results by the end of summer!
Ready for Liftoff
There were many reasons behind the delayed launch of JWST, and the pandemic was one of them. It wasn’t the only project hit by the pandemic, meaning 2022 will be something of a catch up year for many postponed launches. If all goes to plan, the year will see many maiden flights for a new generation of rocket vehicles:
- SpaceX is planning the first orbital test of Starship for March
- ULA will be launching the Vulcan-Centaur, taking over from the iconic Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V!
- The first launch of the space shuttle-esque Dream Chaser spaceplane by the Sierra Nevada Corp, a potential new commercial resupply partner for the ISS, on a ULA Vulcan-Centaur
- On the European side, Arianespace will be launching their long awaited Ariane 6, which, although not reusable, will be able to compete directly with SpaceX Falcon 9 in terms of cost.
- As well as this, countless ‘Newspace’ companies across the world, from Australia to China to Germany, are planning to launch new rockets, including the UK based Skyrora XL and Orbex Prime.
The Orbex testing will actually take place here in the UK at the end of the year, from the new Sutherland launch site! This will be Scotland’s first launch site, and the UK’s first vertical launch site, after the opening of Cornwall Spaceport as a horizontal launch site, which expects its first launch in Summer.
To the Moon!
The biggest project, at least for the large space powers that are NASA and co, is the return to the moon, with Artemis 1 finally set to launch in March or April. It’s an uncrewed launch, in which the new SLS rocket will send the Orion spacecraft on its 4 day journey to the moon, where it will spend about a week in a retrograde orbit 70,000km from its surface after conducting a flyby bringing it just 100km above its surface. It will then fly back to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, about 3 weeks after launch.
It acts primarily as a technology demonstration of SLS and Orion, in preparation for the crewed launch of Artemis 2 in 2024, but it will also transport 10 cubesats to the moon to learn more about it!
SLS is currently standing in the VAB, fully assembled since the Orion module was stacked in October 2021, undergoing integration and functionality testing, ready for a launch simulation, rollout to launch pad, and fuelling demonstration before it eventually launches, hopefully, in Spring 2022!
Artemis 1 isn’t the only mission visiting the moon this year. NASA remains one of the leading agencies in terms of moon missions, and is partnering with commercial companies on both CAPSTONE and the CLPS. The latter stands for Commercial Lunar Payload Services: like how NASA currently uses the SpaceX CargoDragon to resupply the ISS, CLPS aims to establish those commercial resupply capabilities for its future lunar missions. SpaceX has already won the contract to supply cargo to lunar orbit with its future DragonXL through the GLS (Gateway Logistics Services) program, but NASA still needs a way to get cargo onto the lunar surface!
One of the potential vendors is Intuitive Machines, a Texas based company who aim to launch their first lunar lander, Nova C, on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in March. It will carry 5 NASA payloads, as well as some commercial ones, including a space ‘time capsule’ from Galactic Legacy Labs/ Lunaprise/ Space Archivists, where people can pay to have their photo and story sent to the moon. Nova C will also have opportunities for marketing partnerships with other businesses, marking another step into integration of business in space. Neither of these are entirely new concepts, but its interesting to see the new ways these companies are using the space environment that goes beyond research and exploration, and definitely opens up debate around how the commercialisation of space should be approached. As well as innovative payloads, the actual lander is also pretty cool, with an engine that could allow it to hop around the lunar surface, testing a precision landing and hazard avoidance system, which could improve crewed and robotic exploration of the lunar surface!
Another company taking part in the CLPS is Astrobotic, also launching later this year, who’s Peregrine lander will be capable of taking a similar mass payload to Nova C. Although they are also offering purely commercial opportunities like brand promotion, moonboxes (in which anyone can send something to the moon from the small price of $460) and are even working with Elysium to send the first human remains to the moon… they seem to also have a focus on the deployment of lunar rovers.
Their first mission will deliver 3 rovers to the lunar surface, including Asagumo, a spider-like rover made by UK based company SpaceBit. The first mission will be a technology demonstration, but eventually the project aims to explore lunar lava tubes. I love how they’ve taken inspiration from the natural world to investigate the suitability of these cave-like systems for future lunar habitats, as well as learn more about the moon’s geology! They also have a wheeled rover which will launch on Intuitive Machines Nova C, so it’s a very exciting year for Spacebit! Astrobotic also have their own cubesat-esque rovers- will the new generation of small rovers revolutionize lunar exploration in the same way cubesats opened up low earth orbit?
While we’re on the topic, CubeSats are also more frequently being used beyond LEO, which brings us back to CAPSTONE! It’s a cubesat, set to launch in March on Rocket Lab’s Electron, and will analyse a potentially very fuel efficient, elliptical orbit called a Near rectilinear halo orbit. This orbit uses the balance between the gravity of the Earth and Moon in its trajectory, which takes it within 1000 miles from the Pole (perfect for landing craft) before travelling to its furthest distance of 43,500 miles, great for any craft meeting it after launching from earth.
Closer to Home (Low Earth Orbit)
As NASA moves its focus from Low Earth Orbit to Lunar Orbit and beyond, 2022 also marks the beginnings of the transition of the ISS to a more commercial setting, with Axiom Space planning to launch their first 2 fully private missions to the ISS on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets this year.
In other space station news, the Chinese space station, Tiangong, aims to have finished its initial phase of construction by the end of the year. The CNSA space program has accelerated at an incredible pace over the past few years- Tiangong was first approved all the way back in 1992, but they were essentially starting from scratch having to develop spacecraft, rockets and launch sites capable of safely launching astronauts, eventually resulting in the manufacture of the Long March rocket and Shenzhou spacecraft which took their first astronaut to space in 2003.
After 2 temporary spacelabs launched in 2011 and 2016 to test technology, the first module, Tianhe, launched in April 2021, and is the central module for further modules and spacecraft to dock to, as well as being where astronauts sleep.
Amongst the 8 (!) planned launches to the station this year are the 2 experimental modules, where the bulk of the science will be done. It’s much smaller than the ISS, but the speed at which it has launched (it took 4 years for the first 3 ISS modules to launch) goes to show just how far the space industry has come, and makes this an important play in the modern day space race.
Elsewhere in the world…
- Russia plans to return to the lunar surface for the first time in 45 years with an uncrewed mission to the South Pole
- India will conduct two uncrewed test missions of the rocket and spacecraft for its upcoming human spaceflight program
- JAXA’s tiny robot (Hakuto-R) made in partnership with ispace will launch to the moon
- SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch to the moon will also be used by South Korea to launch their first mission to lunar orbit.
Out of Earth’s Gravity Well
Although I’ve focussed more on spaceflight within our local area, there are also plenty of planetary science missions launching this year, including ESA’s much awaited Rosalind Franklin Rover (primarily built and tested by Airbus UK) to Mars at the end of 2022! Jupiter will also be in the press a lot, with another ESA mission, JUICE (the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer), launching in April, and NASA’s current orbiter Juno closing in on Europa for an exciting flyby.
But the star of the show will be the solar system’s asteroids, with the arrival of DART to the Didymos system (and subsequent impact onto the Dimorphos (aka Didymoon) moon as part of the assessment of potential asteroid deflection techniques), and the launch of Psyche to -you guessed it- Psyche (a metal rich asteroid thought to be the exposed core of a failed planet) and Janus (2 identical spacecraft which will visit binary asteroid systems in 2026).
I’m pretty sure I say this every year, but 2022 is set to be a really exciting year for the space industry, with so many missions with a huge range of purposes from an ever more diverse group of countries and businesses!
What missions are you most excited for? Leave a comment below or head to my instagram!