What’s Happening in Space in 2022?
At the start of 2022, we look ahead at what's happening in space and the most exciting adventures that await.
Following our round-up of the past year’s space news, it’s time for us to look ahead to the next 12 months. Here are all the exciting space stories that will keep us hooked throughout 2022.
- NASA’s first Artemis mission
- The launch of ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover
- James Webb Space Telescope’s discoveries
- A Spaceport in Scotland
- New ISS crews and Space Tourism
2022 will mark 50 years since the last footsteps were taken on the Moon. This year we take a big leap forward to going back with NASA’s first Artemis mission.
Artemis 1 will see an uncrewed Orion spacecraft spend 25 days in space, including six days in a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. This mission will also see the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS), the largest rocket ever made. Currently scheduled to launch in March, though this is expected to slip back to the summer months, Artemis 1 will certify both the SLS and Orion spacecraft for a crewed lunar flyby mission. Artemis 2 is expected to launch in 2024 before landing the next humans on the Moon the following year.
Another NASA mission that will launch in the summer is Psyche. This orbiter spacecraft will study its namesake asteroid, thought to be the exposed iron core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its mantle and crust by a collision billions of years ago. NASA are hoping the mission will tell us more information about the origin of planetary cores. Psyche is scheduled to launch on 01 August. As with all launches this is subject to change.
Arguably most exciting is the expected launch of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosalind Franklin rover, the second part of the space agency’s ExoMars mission following the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) in 2016. Originally meant to launch in the same window as fellow Martian missions by America, China and the UAE in 2020, the wait will be worth it as Rosalind Franklin looks for evidence of past life on Mars using state of the art equipment, including a two-metre drill to hunt under the surface. The rover will send its findings back to Earth by using the TGO as a data-relay satellite. With a planned lift-off in September and arrival at the Red Planet in June 2023, Rosalind Franklin could transform our knowledge of alien life and perhaps help us understand if there really is anything else out there.
Following fourteen years of delays, the James Webb Space Telescope finally launched on Christmas Day. This year is where we see the payoff to two decades of hard work.
Webb will take a month to reach its destination of Lagrange Point 2 (L2), a distance of 1.5m km from the Earth, and another five months for operators to collaborate its instruments. Following this, the spacecraft will start to look out into space, further and in more detail than any space telescope before. It will send its readings to experts back on Earth. In addition to studying the formation of galaxies and helping in our hunt for extra-terrestrial life, Webb will revolutionise our understanding of the start of the Universe by peering back in time 13.5 billion years and viewing the first stars ever created.
NASA’s long-serving Juno probe will start the next phase of its mission this year. Launched over a decade ago and having spent five years studying Jupiter in the planet’s orbit, the spacecraft’s prime phase ended last year and now begins an extended mission of an additional forty-two orbits. This additional phase will last until 2025 and expand on discoveries made already, including exploration of Jupiter’s faint rings, close passes of Jupiter’s north polar cyclones and flybys of the moons Io, Ganymede and Europa. A close encounter on 29 September with the latter will reduce the orbital period from 43 to 38 days, giving an additional one to two orbits of the planet per year.
Scotland Ready to Launch
Move over Orlando and Baikonur, soon there’ll be a new location to launch rockets from…. Sutherland in Scotland!
A test site is already under construction in Moray, the first launchpad to be built in the UK in fifty years, to support testing of Orbex’s low-carbon launch vehicles that come complete with 3D printed engines. These test launches should begin in the early part of the year, the same time as construction of the main Space Hub Sutherland is expected to start. Full launches from the Space Hub are scheduled to be taking place by the end of the year.
Whilst crewed spaceflights are not expected anytime soon, the ability to launch domestically will allow many small and private firms to launch their own payloads into orbits, in particular CubeSats. As small as 10cm³, these nanosatellites can be used for a variety of reasons including Earth observation and experiments. Their tiny size makes them more cost effective than a regular satellite, as well as only contributing a miniscule amount to space debris.
Space Hub Sutherland is the first of several planned launching stations around the UK, with more vertical rocket launchpads proposed to be built near the top of Scotland over the coming years as well as sites for horizontal launch vehicles expected along the UK’s west coast.
2021 was a big year for human spaceflight, in particular the space tourism sector and 2022 shows no signs of slowing down as some exciting projects near competition.
Several companies plan on showing off their shiny new launch vehicles, including SpaceX with the first orbital test flight of Starship and Blue Origin with the maiden launch of New Glenn. This rocket will include a reusable first stage, whilst Starship will be entirely reusable.
Arianespace is also targeting a 2022 launch of its new Ariane 6 launch vehicle, whilst the ULA designed Vulcan Centaur is also expected to take flight as it looks to gradually replace Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets for use by U.S. intelligence agencies and space force.
China’s Tiangong space station should be completed by the end of the year following the launches of its second and third modules, the Wentian and Mengtian Laboratory Cabin modules. Once completed it will have a mass similar to the Mir space station and roughly a fifth of the ISS. The station is the final part of the three-step China Manned Space Program, with Chinese leaders hoping it will improve the capability to conduct experiments in space beyond what is currently available. Crewed missions to the core module, Tianhe, have already commenced with the current crew the first to spend 180 days on the station, which will be the norm moving forward.
Speaking of astronauts on a space station, the ISS will see several new members in its usual changes in crew throughout the year, as well as welcoming back old faces. Amongst them will be Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian woman in space who was recently named by Politico Europe as one of the twenty-eight most influential people on the continent, and Peggy Whitson, a retired NASA astronaut who will be the mission commander of Axiom Mission 2. Both astronauts have previously held the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman, with Cristoforetti still the recordholder for longest uninterrupted spaceflight by a European woman (199 days) and Whitson still holding the titles of NASA’s most experienced astronaut, most time in space by an American, most time in space by a woman and most spacewalks by a woman amongst many others.
Potentially joining Cristoforetti and Whitson on the ISS at some point this year may be Tom Cruise, as rumours continue to go around that he is planning on shooting a film in space, though talk has cooled in the past few months. Wishful thinking?
As always, the unexpected news is often the most spectacular, and we look forward to sharing them with you all.
About the author: Alex Thompson is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.