Space scientists have discovered just how much they can accomplish when they work together, with incredible feats achieved this year through collaborations with commercial industry and foreign nations.
Successful partnerships in 2022 included the launch and calibration of the world’s most powerful space telescope and the photograph of the never-before-seen supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
The year has also shown what can go wrong.
See the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole in the first-ever photo
Rocket debris lost in an unpredictable orbit has collided with the moon, for example, creating a new crater. And NASA’s lunar megarocket, the Space Launch System, stumbled on its way to its first lunar mission, with the agency encountering multiple problems with the work of contractors during a critical test this spring.
Whether the rest of the year will include the inaugural Artemis mission to the moon, the United States’ return to human exploration of deep space, remains to be seen. Read more about the biggest moments of the year in space so far.
James Webb Space Telescope opens for business
The James Webb Space Telescope will deliver its first color images on July 12.
The most powerful observatory in space hit its mark on a destination 1 million miles from Earth in late January and unfurled its complicated tennis-court-sized solar shield. Since then, engineers have calibrated the Webb telescope’s science instruments, exceeding expectations for its level of accuracy.
Astronomers anticipate that the telescope will fuel a golden age in our understanding of the cosmos, providing snapshots of space billions of light-years away.
On July 12, the James Webb Space Telescope, a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, will deliver its first color images. What these first cosmic targets will be is a closely guarded secret.
Webb is expected to observe some of the oldest and faintest lights in the universe. The telescope will focus on a period of less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born.
Scientists will also use the telescope to observe the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets. Discoveries of water and methane, for example, could be signs of potential habitability or biological activity.
NASA’s lunar megarocket crawls out of storage
NASA has taken out of storage the Space Launch System, or SLS, which will send a spacecraft to the moon, for a critical refueling test and countdown.
A rocket as tall as the Statue of Liberty came out of hiding in March when the US space agency took it to a launch pad in Florida for a crucial test.
The Space Launch System, or SLS, is an imposing £5.75 million behemoth built to launch a spacecraft to the moon for the Artemis missions, NASA’s human space exploration campaign. The program will eventually send people to the Moon and Mars.
Originally, NASA believed that the first unmanned flight could happen as early as May. But several issues arose during the test, creating further delays. It is unclear when the rocket will be ready to take off.
The rocket is believed to be the most expensive ever built, with each launch estimated at more than $4 billion. For perspective, that’s about a fifth of NASA’s entire budget.
NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, an agency watchdog, warned a US House committee in March that the rocket, a government-mandated project with a bloated budget, “will inhibit, if not derail, NASA’s ability to sustain its long-term human exploration goals.”
Saturn’s moon could be an ocean world
Scientists have found evidence that Saturn’s moon Mimas may have an ocean locked under an ice shell.
Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
Saturn’s moon Mimas is known for its striking resemblance to Star Wars’ Death Star, a killing machine that looks like a planet.
It wasn’t known for its resemblance to a place that could harbor life – until now.
New research published in the planetary science journal icaro described how scientists unexpectedly found signs of an ocean beneath the moon’s icy shell. While the study did not find definitive evidence, there is now compelling evidence. Water is an important ingredient for habitability, creating environments where life can potentially thrive.
After all, Mimas might not be a frozen chunk of ice.
Peculiar Martian Aurora Discovery
Scientists believe that a newly discovered Martian aurora puts green streaks in the sky over Mars.
Credit: Emirates Mars Mission
New general images of Mars have revealed a stunning show of green lights in the planet’s sky.
Much of Mars’ atmosphere apparently has a worm-like streak, an aurora similar to the aurora borealis sometimes visible on Earth. The Martian aurora is a bright, twisted band of ultraviolet light, stretching thousands of kilometers from the day side, facing the sun, all the way to the back of the planet.
A UAE Space Agency probe orbiting Mars, known as Hope, took the pictures.
No one knows how this is happening, as scientists believe that Mars’ magnetic field largely deteriorated billions of years ago. Magnetic fields guide flows of high-energy electrons from the sun into a planet’s atmosphere.
Oops! Rocket trash hits the moon
A rocket booster crashed into the moon involuntarily in March, leaving a new crater, reminiscent of the iconic scene from a 1902 silent film, ‘A Trip to the Moon’.
Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images
A rocket believed to be left over from a Chinese lunar mission collided with the moon in March, making the hunk of metal the first known space junk to unintentionally collide with our natural satellite.
Scientists expected the rocket to leave a crater about 20 meters long. China has denied that the wreckage is from its space program.
The rocket was one of many left in a “chaotic” orbit, meaning its cosmic path could change in mathematically unpredictable ways. When rockets are in low Earth orbit, not far above many satellites, they stay there with the possibility of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. If a rocket is sent into a spacious orbit around the sun, on the other hand, it is essentially lost forever.
But if it lands in this intermediate zone between the two, still orbiting Earth but far enough away to receive an occasional tug from the moon’s gravity, it can lead to several possible outcomes: Debris can fall back to Earth, be spewed into a orbit around the sun, or hit the moon.
Based on outer space policies and agreements, leaving a rocket in this chaotic state – and not keeping an eye on its whereabouts – is not a crime.
Astronomers Take First Picture of Milky Way’s Huge Black Hole
Scientists from around the world worked together to take the first photo of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
Credit: Event Horizon Telescope
At the center of the Milky Way is a giant black hole, and for the first time astronomers have been able to see it.
Black holes don’t have surfaces like planets or stars. Instead, these mysterious cosmic objects have a boundary called the “event horizon,” a point of no return. If something gets too close to that point, it will fall in, never to escape the hole’s gravity.
With the power of eight connected radio antennas from around the world, the Event Horizon Telescope snapped a picture of the shadow of the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*. Hundreds of scientists from 80 institutions around the world worked together to collect, process and piece together pieces of data to form the image.
Until three years ago, any depiction of a black hole was merely an artist’s interpretation or a computer model. Now scientists have a snapshot of the real deal, which spans 27 million miles.
With financial support from the National Science Foundation and other groups, the scientists plan to improve their technology to sharpen the image dramatically.
Hubble confirms comet as largest on record
Scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm that Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is the largest comet ever observed.
Credit: Alyssa Pagan (STScI) / Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope has determined that a recently discovered comet has a core that spans 85 miles, making it the largest space snowball ever observed.
This glowing ball of ice, dust and rock, Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, is twice the width of Rhode Island and likely weighs 500 trillion tons. The researchers say the scale of this comet is significant because it provides a clue about the size range of comets orbiting in the distant outskirts of our solar system.
Comets, known for their million-kilometer tails, are among the oldest objects in the solar system. These icy bodies are remnants of the early days of planet formation.
Bernardinelli-Bernstein is approaching the sun from the edge of the solar system at 22,000 mph. While the towering boulder has often been described as “headed this way,” space is a big place. Saturn is closer to Earth than the comet will ever get.