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Big rockets, massive asteroids and more space highlights for 2022

At times, it was overwhelming. Two new rovers
landed on Mars, one of them shadowed by an experimental helicopter. Two
billionaires launched themselves to the edge of space, and a third billionaire
flew himself higher up into orbit. Then William Shatner flew to space, and a
fourth billionaire enjoyed a stay aboard the International Space Station.

It didn’t end there. China started building a
fully operational space station but relied on a large rocket that reached orbit
and then could not be controlled when part of it reentered the atmosphere.
Aboard the International Space Station, a pair of mishaps sent the outpost into
unplanned flips in orbit. NASA said goodbye to one asteroid and headed back to
Earth carrying samples of it. But NASA also launched a new mission to crash
into another asteroid to study defending humanity from a future space-rock
strike.

Much more happened throughout the year, and
2022 is looking just as busy.

Here’s what may happen in spaceflight in 2022.

MASSIVE ROCKETS WILL ROAR

Sometime this coming year, two rockets that
have never been to space — the NASA Space Launch System and the SpaceX Starship
— are expected to lift off.

They’re both very big and about as different
as two rockets can be.

The Space Launch System, or SLS, is NASA’s
interplanetary launch vehicle. It is years behind schedule and billions of
dollars over budget. Built by traditional aerospace contractors, each launch
costs about $2 billion, and each rocket can be used only once. NASA says its
Artemis program can’t get astronauts back to the moon without the giant rocket.
Its first test flight, with no people aboard, will lift a capsule called Orion
around the moon and back to Earth. The launch, known as Artemis 1, is scheduled
for March or April.

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Starship, by contrast, is being built by
SpaceX alone. The fully reusable rocket is central to the vision of Elon Musk,
the company’s founder, for sending humans to Mars. A version of Starship is
also planned for landing NASA’s astronauts on the lunar surface. The silvery
spacecraft’s top half has completed multiple high-altitude test flights that
ended in spectacular explosions. It completed a successful landing in one test.
Sometime during the year, a Starship prototype with no crew aboard is set to
pair with a large reusable booster stage. When the rocket lifts off from a
SpaceX launch site in Texas, it will then head to orbit before splashing down
off the coast of a Hawaiian island.

THE MOON MAY GREET A LOT OF VISITORS

If 2021 was the year of missions to Mars, the
next year could be dominated by trips to the moon. As many as nine missions
from an assortment of countries and private companies could try to orbit or
land on the moon.

Five are sponsored by NASA, and some have
clearer prospects of occurring on time than others. In addition to the Orion
capsule circling the moon and heading back to Earth, a CubeSat, a miniature
satellite, called CAPSTONE could be lifted by Rocket Lab from its New Zealand
launch site in March. It would study a lunar orbit that could be used by a
future NASA and European moon base. Three more missions headed toward the lunar
surface are the work of private companies sponsored under NASA’s Commercial
Lunar Payload Services program. That effort aims to repeat NASA’s success of
relying on companies such as SpaceX to carry cargo, and later astronauts, to
the space station. Intuitive Machines, a Houston company, may be the first
company to attempt the trip.

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The rest of the moon’s robotic visitors in
2022 come from other countries. India may try to redo its unsuccessful 2019
lunar landing in the summer. And Russia says it aims to land on the moon for
the first time since 1976. A South Korean moon orbiter could lift off on a
SpaceX rocket as soon as August. And a Japanese company, ispace, is working on
a landing craft for carrying a variety of cargo, including a rover from the
United Arab Emirates, to the moon’s surface. Which of these missions sticks to
its schedule is up in the very thin lunar air.

COMPLETING CHINA’S SPACE STATION

Lately, China has kept its word when it says
its space program will achieve a certain timeline. So, if it says it will
finish building the Tiangong space station in orbit in 2022, there’s a good
chance that it will.

In 2021, China added its Tianhe space module
to low-Earth orbit and sent two different crews of astronauts to live there.
The second crew will come home sometime in 2022, and perhaps by the middle of
the year, a laboratory module, Wentian, may launch to orbit and dock with the
Tianhe module. Later in the year, a third piece, the Mengtian lab, could
complete the Tiangong space station.

Both Wentian and Mengtian would launch atop
China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5B.

In May, that rocket startled many people when
it began an out of control reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, raising the
unlikely but not impossible prospect of causing damage and injury when it
landed. Even though the rocket splashed down without incident in the Indian
Ocean, it remains unclear whether China will change how it is managed. That
means twice more in 2022, Earthlings could play the game of “Where will it come
down?”

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ENCOUNTERS WITH ASTEROIDS

NASA has studied numerous asteroids up close,
but now it plans to deliberately crash into one. In September, the Double
Asteroid Redirection Test is expected to slam into Dimorphos, a small rock that
orbits a bigger asteroid, Didymos. Colliding with an asteroid is a potential
tactic for planetary defense — if a giant space rock is heading toward Earth,
some scientists say that humanity’s best bet is to divert its path so it misses
our world. The DART mission would provide data on the effectiveness of this
approach.

Other asteroids beckon. Psyche, a large object
in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, appears to be made mostly of
iron and other metals. That suggests that in the early history of the solar
system, Psyche was the core of an object that failed to form into a planet. A
NASA science mission named after the object is planned for launch in the
summertime atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Scheduled for arrival in 2026,
the spacecraft would provide scientists their first up-close look at this
strange metallic world.

©2021 The New York Times Company

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