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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 kick off a trek to a metal world, a spacecraft will drop off unprecedented asteroid samples on Earth, a historic moon mission will get its crew, and several new commercial rockets could make their launch debut.
There’s so much to look forward to, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“More stunning discoveries from Webb telescope, climate missions that will tell us more about how our Earth is changing, continued science on the International Space Station, groundbreaking aeronautics developments with the X-59 and X-57 experimental aircraft, the selection of the first astronauts to go to the Moon in more than 50 years, and more,” 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 newest astronaut class, which includes an astronaut with a physical disability.
Here are some of the space headlines 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 though the first crewed flight of the program, the Artemis II mission, isn’t expected to take off until spring of 2024, the public could soon learn the names of the lucky astronauts that will be on board.
The space agency has already narrowed down its astronaut corps to a field of 18 hopefuls that are eligible for Artemis crew assignments. And last month, NASA officials said they would announce the Artemis II crew in early 2023 — so the news could come any day now.
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.
Though there may not be any crewed Artemis flights to look forward to this year, NASA does have plans to put robotic landers on the moon as part of its effort to further study the lunar terrain and radiation environment, and search for resources that could potentially be mined from the moon and used to power exploration deeper into space.
That program is called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, and it relies on partnerships with more than a dozen companies that are privately developing their own lunar landers.
The first lander to fly under the program could be one built by Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic, which is slated to use its Peregrine lunar lander to get 11 science and exploration instruments to the lunar surface in the first few months of 2023. It’ll land at Lacus Mortis, a larger crater on the near side of the moon.
As many as three other CLPS program missions could also take off in 2023, according to NASA’s website.
The highly anticipated Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission, known as JUICE, is set to launch between April 5 and 25.
The European Space Agency mission, lifting 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.
Once it reaches Jupiter in July 2031, the spacecraft and its suite of 10 instruments will conduct 35 flybys of the gas giant and its moons. Some of the mission’s goals include investigating whether life ever existed in the Jupiter 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 carrying astronauts to and from the ISS, and 2023 is expected to be the year that this new space taxi is finally up and running.
After years of delays and development hangups, 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 round out NASA’s plans to hand over the task of transporting astronauts to the ISS to the private sector. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is already taking up that task, and the company aims to launch its seventh routine astronaut mission next month. When Starliner enters operations, SpaceX and Boeing are expected to divvy up the missions, with the hope of keeping as much staff on the ISS as possible before NASA retires the aging space station in the next decade.
Continuing one of the most notable trends in spaceflight of the 2020s, some new commercial rocket companies are expected to debut brand-new launch vehicles that are entirely owned and operated by the private sector.
SpaceX is expected 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 is also hoping 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 expected to take off in early 2023, while New Glenn could make its flight debut sometime thereafter. (Note, however, that new rockets are notorious for schedule slips.)
Several new smaller rockets, specifically designed to haul lightweight satellites into Earth’s 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 from Florida and Alaska, respectively.
A collection of rocks and soil from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu will finally reach their destination this year when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft drops them off on 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 swing by Earth on September 24 and drop the sample, containing 2.1 ounces of material from the surface of Bennu, at the Utah Test and Training Range. If the spacecraft is still in good health, it will then start on 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 may be on an eventual 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 set off on a four-year journey to an unexplored 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-based telescopes.
The unusual object may be a leftover 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 truly is a core, studying it would be like peering inside the very heart of a planet like Earth.
The mission missed its original launch window in 2022 due to delays in testing software and equipment. The mission team has increased their staffing to finish testing ahead of launch.
A variety of other missions are expected to launch in 2023. NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions Monitoring of Pollution mission, or TEMPO, will measure pollution hourly over North America.
The agency will partner with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency on the XRISM mission, or the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, to investigate cosmic X-ray objects.
The European Space Agency and NASA will also team up on the Euclid mission to explore dark energy, a mysterious and invisible form of energy that drives the accelerated expansion of the universe.
The Astrophysics Stratospheric 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 star formation to end in some galaxies.
And NASA’s small satellite called the Lunar Trailblazer will use innovative instruments to gather data on the amount of water on the moon.