The year 2021 was a big one as far as stories from space are concerned! From start to finish, 2021 witnessed innumerable milestones and groundbreaking missions mounted by space agencies and the commercial space industry. Among them, the long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the arrival of the Perseverance mission, the launch of Double-Asteroid Redirect Test (DART), multiple test flights with the Starship, and the inauguration of space tourism. There was something for everyone!
However, looking at what’s planned for the year ahead, one might get the impression that 2021 was the appetizer and 2022 is the main course! That may sound like an idle boast, but not when you consider all of the ambitious missions, programs, and developments that are scheduled and anticipated for the next twelve months! So exactly what’s in store for space in 2022? We’ve provided a helpful list below:
Building on their success with the Ariane 5 heavy launch vehicle, the European Space Agency and their primary contractor (Arianespace) plan to unveil its successor in 2022. The Ariane 6, which has been in development since 2010, is a two-stage heavy launch vehicle that measures over 60 meters (197 ft) tall and will weigh up to 900 metric tons (992 US tons) with a full payload.
Depending on the payload, the rocket will come in two variants: the Ariane 62, with two strap-on boosters, and the Ariane, 64 with four. The Ariane 62 will be capable of launching payloads of approx. 4500 kg (9920 lbs) into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) or 10,300 kg (22,700 lbs) into a Low Earth orbit. (LEO). The Ariane 64 will be able to launch payloads of approx. 11,500 kg (25,350 lbs) to GTO and 20,600 kg (45,415 lbs) into low Earth orbit.
Led by ArianeGroup, 600 companies in 13 European countries have been involved in the development of the Ariane 6. Meanwhile, France’s space agency (CNES) is busy preparing the Ariane 6 launch facilities at Europe’s Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana. The ESA hopes to conduct the first flight of the Ariane 6 during the second quarter (between April and June) of 2022.
The NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is a demonstrator that will evaluate planetary-defense technologies. DART will test the kinetic impact technique, where a spacecraft intentionally collides with a potentially-hazardous asteroid to change its course and divert it from hitting Earth. The target for this mission is the binary near-Earth asteroid (65804) Didymos, which consists of a primary measuring 780-meter (2,560 ft) and a small “moonlet” 160-meters (525 ft) in size.
While this asteroid does not pose a threat to Earth, it is an ideal testing ground to evaluate the technology and technique involved. Once the DART spacecraft reaches Didymos, it will rely on an onboard camera (named DRACO) and sophisticated autonomous navigation software to collide with the moonlet at a speed of approximately 6.6 km/s (4 mi/s). The collision will cause a change in the speed of the moonlet’s orbit, which telescopes on Earth will then measure.
The DART spacecraft launched on November 24th, 2021, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, in California and will intercept Didymos’ moonlet in late September 2022. The mission is led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) and managed by the NASA Solar System Exploration Program (SSEP) as part of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).
James Webb Space Telescope
On December 25th, 2021, fans of astronomy and cosmology received what was arguably the best Christmas present possible! After years of delays, cost overruns, and additional testing, the James Webb Space Telescope finally launched to space. In the early weeks of January, NASA provided a regular stream of updates, keeping the world appraised of the telescope’s successful pre-mission deployments. This included the extension of its heat shield, secondary mirror, primary mirror, and other crucial mission hardware.
Once operational, Webb will address some of the most fundamental questions about astronomy, physics, and the origins and evolution of the Universe. This will include observing the first stars that formed 200 – 400 million years after the Big Bang, followed by the first galaxies and how they evolved. These observations will allow astronomers to measure the influence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in cosmic evolution.
Webb’s advanced infrared imaging will allow it to observe star systems that are still in the process of forming, which will answer unresolved questions about how stars seed the Universe with building materials to make planets and how planets can give rise to life. It will also greatly expand the census of extrasolar planets and help to characterize their atmospheres, allowing astronomers to determine which planets are truly “habitable.”
At present, the JWST is busy testing the individual segments of its primary mirror, a process that is expected to last for another week (January 22nd). On the following day, the James Webb will conduct its L2-Insertion Burn, a course correction that will place it into the L2 Lagrange Point, where it will stay for the duration of its ten-year mission. By this summer, six months after launch, Webb will be collecting its first light and should have some stunning first images for the public!
In August 2011, NASA’s Juno probe launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (since renamed Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.) By July 2016, it established orbit around Jupiter and became the second mission dedicated to studying Jupiter’s atmosphere, composition, magnetic field, and gravitational field. Starting in September 2022, during its 45th polar orbit of Jupiter (perijove 45), it will shorten its orbit from 43 to 38 days. This will allow it to conduct multiple flybys of Europa.
The data Juno obtains about Jupiter’s largest moons (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io) will help inform future missions to study these satellites. For example, the ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) will launch in 2023 and arrive at Jupiter by 2031. By 2032, it will assume orbit around Ganymede to conduct surveys of the surface, followed by a series of flybys of Europa. There’s also NASA’s Europa Clipper Mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024 and arrive at Jupiter by 2030.
These two missions will examine Jupiter’s moons to learn more about the composition of their surface ice, investigate water plume activity, learn more about their interior oceans, and scan for potential biosignatures. The data they obtain will also inform future missions to Jupiter’s icy moons, like the Europa Lander.
Blue Origin made some significant strides in 2021 with their New Shepard reusable launch vehicle. After a series of uncrewed test flights, including one loaded with science experiments and a “crew rehearsal,” the company conducted three high-profile flights to the edge of space with at least one celebrity aboard. On the inaugural flight, the crew included Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, commercial astronaut Wally Funk, and 18-year old physics student Oliver Daemen, the oldest and youngest people to go to space (respectively).
On the second flight, famed actor William Shatner was the headliner, with Laura Shepard Churchley (Alan Shepard’s daughter) and two-time Superbowl Champion and Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan headlining the third. In 2022, Blue Origin is expected to press on with developing their New Glenn launch vehicle, a two-stage reusable launch vehicle named in honor of astronaut John Glenn. If all goes well, they may attempt the first launch sometime between October and December 2022.
Work on the rocket’s design began in 2012, and the first detailed specifications were unveiled in September 2016. While Bezos’ hoped that the rocket would be ready in time for a 2020 launch, by February 2021, the company announced that the target launch date would be “no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2022.” Once complete, the New Glenn will measure over 98 m (322 ft) tall, slightly less than the 110.6 m (363 ft) Saturn V launch vehicle that flew the Apollo astronauts to the Moon.
With its massive 7 meter-wide (22 ft) fairing, seven BE-4 primary engines, and three BE-3U secondary engines, the rocket will be able to lift 45 metric tons (49.6 U.S. tons) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the 13 metric tons (14.33 U.S. tons) to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The ability to conduct orbital launches with these types of payloads means that Blue Origin will finally be competitive with other launch providers, like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA).
This will be the first mission to explore a metallic (M-type) asteroid, but the significance of this mission goes far beyond this. Psyche II is believed to be the core remnant of a protoplanet that formed in the early Solar System and experienced a massive impact that removed its outer layers. As a result, only the protoplanet’s iron-nickel core was behind as the largest known M-type asteroid in the Solar System. In addition to these metals, the mission team also anticipates that there will be large quantities of gold, platinum, and other precious metals.
Some estimates place the value of this metallic body at $10 quintillion (10 x 1018), which is significantly more than the entire global economy – over $80 trillion annually. (World Bank, 2017). However, the true value in this asteroid (for the time being) lies in the scientific returns it promises. By studying this planetoid remnant, astronomers expect to learn a great deal about the early Solar System, its formation, and evolution.
The Psyche mission will launch on August 1st, 2022, and will arrive around Psyche by January 31st, 2026.
Rosalind Franklin Rover (ExoMars 2022)
This year, the ESA will send the second installment in their ExoMars program to Mars. This will consist of the Roscosmos-designed Kazachok Lander and the ESA-designed Rosalind Franklin Rover. Building on the work of its predecessors, the ExoMars 2016 mission (which consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli Lander), Kazachok and Rosalind Franklin will study the Martian surface to determine if life ever existed on Mars (and could today).
This mission is scheduled to launch between August and October of 2022 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and land on Mars roughly nine months later. Once there, the rover will join its peers, like the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, in the ongoing search for potential biosignatures. These could indicate the existence of life on Mars billions of years ago when the planet had a thicker atmosphere and still had flowing water on its surface.
Space Launch System (SLS)
As NASA’s next-generation super-heavy launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS) is the successor to the Saturn V rocket that transported the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Development began on the rocket in 2011 and has endured multiple delays and cost overruns since. However, NASA made significant strides towards getting the SLS ready in 2020 and 2021. This included the completion of the Green Run with the Core Stage of the rocket, an 8-step evaluation that culminated with the “Hot Fire Test” in March of 2021.
Since then, the Core Stage has been moved to NASA’s Launch Control Center (LCC) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it was integrated with its solid rocket boosters and stacked with the Orion Spacecraft. While NASA was hoping to conduct the inaugural launch of the SLS with an Orion spacecraft (Artemis I) by November 2021, that flight is now scheduled to launch by March 20th, 2022.
As part of the Artemis Program, this flight will see an uncrewed Orion sent on a circumlunar flight that will last 25 days. This mission will gauge the performance of both systems and allow mission scientists to develop vital experience in preparation for crewed flights. This will include Artemis II, a crewed mission that will launch in May 2024 that will see four astronauts conduct a lunar flyby before returning to Earth.
If all goes well, Artemis III, the first crewed mission to the lunar surface since the Apollo Era, will occur sometime in 2025. This mission will consist of a crew of four flying to the Moon, and two astronauts (“The first woman and first person of color“) will land on the surface using a Human Landing System (SLS). This will be followed by several more crewed missions that will establish permanent infrastructure on the surface and in orbit – including the Artemis Base Camp and the Lunar Gateway.
In addition to the Artemis Program, the SLS is also an essential component for NASA’s long-term vision of crewed missions to Mars (their previous “Moon to Mars” mission architecture). These missions are still expected to occur early in the next decade, coinciding with launch windows of 2033, 2035, 2037 – i.e., every twenty-six months when Earth and Mars are at the closest point in their orbits to each other (aka. a “Mars Opposition“).
SpaceX will also be blazing a trail this year with the first orbital flight test of the Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicle. Development on this spacecraft officially began after Musk unveiled the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) in 2016 – though concepts for a “Mars Colonial Transporter” (MCT) and “BFR” were discussed as early as 2005. In 2017, Musk shared a detailed mission architecture and a timeline for using the ITS to establish a permanent human outpost on Mars.
By 2018, the ship’s design and the mission architecture were updated, and the launch system was renamed again – the Starship orbital spacecraft and Super Heavy booster. Shortly after that, SpaceX expedited construction of its South Texas Launch Facility, located near the town of Boca Chica on the Gulf of Mexico. This is where, for the past three years, SpaceX has progressively tested and validated the Starship through test firings, pressure tests, and test flights.
In 2021, SpaceX accomplished several milestones with the development of the Starship and the Boca Chica facility (now called the Starbase). After a series of successful flight and glide tests with Starship prototypes (two even managed to stick the landing!), SpaceX built a prototype for orbital flight (SN20) with six Raptor engines and heat shielding. They’ve also finished assembling multiple Super Heavy prototypes and built the “Mechazilla” launch and retrieval tower.
Though SpaceX had indicated that it hoped to conduct the first orbital flight test in early 2022 (January or February), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) indicated on December 28th that this must wait upon the completion of their Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) – which they are aiming to finish by February 28th. This means that SpaceX will likely have to wait until the end of the first quarter (or early Q2) to make their orbital launch test.
Based on the flight path SpaceX’s previously filed with the Federal Aviation Administration and a recent announcement by NASA, the flight will launch either from the Starbase or the newly-commissioned Launch Complex 49 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
This year will also see significant developments for the China National Space Agency (CNSA). For instance, China’s plans to complete its Tiangong space station (“Heavenly Palace”) in orbit, which is intended to rival (and possibly succeed) the International Space Station (ISS). This will be the culmination of the Tiangong program and will build on the experience gained from the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space stations.
Deployment of the Tiangong space station began with the launch of the Tianhe core module on April 29th, 2021. This year, the two other primary modules will be launched to orbit, where they will be integrated with the core module. This includes the Wentian Laboratory Cabin Module (“Quest for the Heavens”) and the Mengtian Laboratory Cabin Module (“Dreaming of the Heavens”) – which are scheduled to launch between May and June 2022 and August and September 2022 (respectively).
The CNSA also plans to conduct multiple launches to the Tiangong space station this year, including two Shenzhou crewed missions and two Tianzhou cargo missions.
ULA Vulcan Centaur
Since 2014, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has been working on a new heavy launch system known as the Vulcan Centaur. This two-stage rocket will consist of a first stage that relies on a single Blue Origin BE-4 engine and up to six GEM-63XL solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The second stage consists of the ULA’s new Centaur V vehicle powered by two Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 engines.
Since work began on the Vulcan Centaur, the ULA has indicated that they intend to upgrade the rocket to make it at least “partially reusable.” This included early plans to make the first stage BE-4 engines reusable by making them detachable and equipping them with parachutes. A more bold concept, Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology (SMART), consisted of making the first-stage booster engines, avionics, and thrust structure into a single module that would be detachable and retrievable.
After the first stage completed its booster engine burn, this module would detach from the propellant tanks and undergo mid-air retrieval with the help of parachutes and an inflatable heat shield. While there’s been no development on this front, the ULA did indicate in late 2019 that they still planned on making the Vulcan’s first-stage BE-4 engines detachable and reusable.
While ULA had intended to conduct the maiden flight in 2021, the date has since been pushed to 2022 due to delays with the development of the commercial payload, which were a result of the pandemic. For this flight, the Vulcan Centaur will launch Atrobotic Technology’s Peregrine Lunar Lander (Peregrine Mission-1) as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
Vera Rubin Observatory
In addition to the many missions destined for space, the Moon, and Mars, many developments are expected to happen here on Earth this year as well. One of them is the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is scheduled to gather its first light by October 2022. Full-survey operations are not expected until October 2023 due to COVID-related schedule delays. However, its main astronomical survey – the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) – will be worth the wait!
Using its massive 3200-Megapixel camera, the LSST will consist of four major science goals. These include probing the Universe’s large-scale structure to measure the influence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, taking an inventory of objects in the Solar System, exploring the transient optical sky, and mapping out the Milky Way Galaxy. In addition, the Observatory will be invaluable to the study of interstellar objects (ISO) and is expected to detect between five objects a year or a few a month.
While many predict that 2022 will have its share of tribulations, not the least of which is because of the ongoing pandemic, it’s also clear that it will be an exciting time characterized by multiple breakthroughs and important milestones. Perhaps the milestones and discoveries that we make in space this year will remind us that there are always reasons to be hopeful. A few gentle reminders of our place in the Universe has a way of putting things into perspective!