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This year has turned out to be pretty remarkable for the space industry.
NASA’s plans to return to the moon after a 50-year absence were finally set in motion. New insights were unlocked by the James Webb Space Telescope. Commercial and private astronaut missions blasted off to the International Space Station, and a Russian war created lasting impacts industry-wide.
Records were broken, milestones were achieved, new precedents were set, and FLORIDA TODAY covered everything. Here’s a list of the year’s top five biggest space stories, with a few honorable mentions:
Artemis I: NASA’s Moonshot
After enduring months of delays, leaks and repairs, and even a hurricane, the Space Launch System, NASA’s massive 322-foot moon rocket, and an uncrewed Orion capsule, blasted off from Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16 for the very first time.
Sights set on the moon:NASA launches historic Artemis I mission from Florida
The Space Launch System provided 8.8 million pounds of thrust to propel an Orion capsule farther from the Earth than any other human-rated spacecraft had ever traveled. The liftoff of the first mission to the moon in nearly half a century was just the beginning. During its 25-and-a-half-day mission, the spacecraft performed two powered flybys skirting the lunar surface at a distance of less than 70 miles, flying over landing sites of the Apollo program in the process.
Orion punctured back into the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 25,000 mph on Sunday, Dec. 11. The Artemis I mission came to a successful close when the spacecraft deployed its parachutes and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
Splashdown: Moon mission wraps up with Orion’s return
Artemis moon missions: What’s Next?
James Webb Space Telescope: Stellar first images
The first images captured by the new $10 billion observatory designed to peer further into the universe’s past than ever before were revealed during a White House press event hosted by President Biden in July.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope: First images from $10 billion observatory revealed
In the first image, similar to the now-famous “Hubble Deep Field” that showed off an unparalleled view of galaxies in the 1990s, thousands of galaxies are seen crowding a tiny portion of our night sky – some so distant that distortion caused by other objects’ gravity, known as “gravitational lensing,” warps their shapes.
To general audiences or members of the public, images from the telescope that will need an additional $1 billion a year to operate are, at least on the surface, familiar. But Hubble’s later images were collected after decades of expertise – that these first slate of results from Webb are exponentially more detailed and take less time to capture are significant strides. And they likely mean even more impressive results moving forward.
Space Station: Commercial and private astronaut missions
In the midst of a record-crushing year for rocket launches from Florida’s Space Coast — now standing at 56 — SpaceX launched three astronaut missions, all destined for the International Space Station.
Axiom-1, the first entirely private astronaut mission to the space station, was carried out by SpaceX and its customer, Axiom Space. On April 8, a Falcon 9 rocket launched Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, Larry Connor of Ohio, Mark Pathy of Canada, and Eytan Stibbe of Israel aboard a Dragon capsule.
The crew stayed aboard the station for about two weeks. The departure was delayed by poor weather at landing zones which impacted the launch date of NASA’s first crewed mission of the year, Crew-4.
SpaceX eventually launched NASA’s Crew-4 mission on April 27. NASA’s Bob Hines, Kjell Lindgren, Jessica Watkins, and the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti made it to the orbiting laboratory for a 6-month stay about a day later.
On Wednesday, October 5, at pad 39A, NASA’s Crew-5 mission blasted off on a 230-foot Falcon 9 rocket at noon sharp. NASA’s Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann, Japan’s Koichi Wakata, and Russia’s Anna Kikina flew to orbit in a Crew Dragon capsule.
Crew-5 marked the first time a Russian cosmonaut flew on an American-made vehicle since the space shuttle program. NASA agreed to swap assignments with one of its crew, leading to Astronaut Frank Rubio’s launch to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket in late September. Kikina’s flight on Crew Dragon completed the swap. Crew-5 is expected to return for a splashdown landing sometime in February.
Planetary Defense: NASA’s mission to impact an asteroid
In September, NASA successfully conducted the world’s first mission dedicated to planetary defense and mitigation, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). It was a simple box-shaped spacecraft about the size of a refrigerator with two large solar arrays that unfurled to extend about 25 feet on either side.
Planetary defense: NASA slammed a spacecraft into a harmless asteroid for the first time
The experimental spacecraft was designed as a kinetic impactor, a fancy term for a space battering ram intended to alter a space rock’s speed and orbit. It hit a completely harmless-to-Earth moonlet asteroid named Dimorphos, which orbits around a larger parent asteroid named Didymos. The impact shortened the smaller asteroid’s orbit by about 32 minutes.
“DART’s success provides a significant addition to the essential toolbox NASA and humanity should have to protect Earth from a devastating impact by an asteroid,” wrote NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a USA Today column.
Russian Ukrainian War: Space industry impacts
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe raised concerns about the country’s relationship with the United States in space. But NASA and Russia’s space programs are entwined in ways that won’t be easily unwound. The conflict also impacted the commercial space industry.
In March, OneWeb, the parent company of the Space Coast-based OneWeb Satellites, confirmed it would pause launches of its satellites from Kazakhstan, where Russia operates the Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport for its Soyuz rockets. Instead, the company transitioned to launch its internet-beaming satellites on SpaceX rockets. The first mission took off from Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 8.
Launch partnership:OneWeb signs launch services agreement with competitor SpaceX
In July, Russia’s surprise announcement that it planned to leave the International Space Station after 2024 meant major changes could be in store for the decades-old laboratory. It’s a serious threat considering the interwoven nature of the program: for nearly three decades, Russia has built and launched its own ISS segments, contributed resources, and sent cosmonauts to the outpost some 250 miles above Earth.
ISS pullout: Russia threatens to leave the ISS after 2024
Florida’s Space Coast: Honorable mentions
In June, Kennedy Space Center celebrated its 60th anniversary.
Sixty years after the purchase of a 200-square-mile section of Florida swamp, John F. Kennedy Space Center remains a hub of launch activity and America’s only portal for launching humans into orbit around the Earth. It is also prominently adorned with mementos of a time long since passed.
Today, KSC remains an optimal location for launching rockets because of the clear flight path over the open ocean and a slight gravity assist that is provided by the spin of the planet when rockets are launched near the Earth’s equator.
In June, Nearby Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opened its newest attraction, Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex.
The 50,000-square-foot, multi-level attraction covered in futuristic color-shifting metal panels boasts multiple flight-proven human spaceflight hardware and many one-of-a-kind interactive, multi-sensory exhibits. There is even a brand-new cafe to allow weary space travelers to refuel their energy.
Included is a new two-story motion theater that utilizes a spaceflight simulation ride to hang guests over an enormous domed projection screen creating an immersive virtual reality deep space exploration experience.
One more launch this year
As for 2022’s record-setting launch cadence, the Space Coast has one more on the books before the end of the year. SpaceX will fly another Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 no earlier than Dec. 28, though schedules are prone to shift around the holidays. That will include the 67th batch of Starlink satellites.
For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.
Jamie Groh is a space reporter for Florida Today. You can contact her at JGroh@floridatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlteredJamie.