The sheer number of space missions launched in 2021 guarantees a year filled with new finds from across the solar system and beyond.
Several countries plan to make 2022 the year they send robotic explorers to the moon, while planning ahead for the return of humans to the lunar surface in the future.
This is what we can expect from our exploration of space in 2022.
Mars was a hotspot in 2021, with three missions from separate countries reaching the red planet earlier in the year, and interest in the fourth planet from the sun is only heating up.
Get ready to inspire new flights of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, which is still beyond its lifespan, and the start of the Perseverance rover’s investigation of the intriguing remains of an ancient river delta on Mars starting this summer. Samples collected there could reveal whether there are organic molecules associated with signs of life, or even microfossils, on Mars.
Another robotic explorer will also land on the red planet. Europe’s first planetary rover is ready for launch.
The ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover, a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, is expected to lift off in September. It was initially scheduled for launch in July 2020, but the agencies cited concerns about the coronavirus and the readiness of spacecraft components.
The largest ExoMars program includes the Trace Gas Orbiter, which launched to Mars in 2016 and has been sending back science data. The Trace Gas Orbiter will also transmit information collected by the rover after it lands on Mars.
Once the ExoMars rover launches in September from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, it will spend nine months cruising through space before reaching Mars on June 10, 2023. The rover will land in Oxia Planum, an area north of the Martian equator. Oxia Planum is an area containing layers of clay-rich minerals formed under humid conditions 4 billion years ago.
The mission aims to search for life on Mars and investigate its water history. The rover has the ability to drill below the surface of Mars to a depth of 6.5 feet (2 meters), where scientists hope to find signs of life.
Across the solar system
Get ready for more stunning images from NASA’s Juno mission, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016. During its extended mission, the spacecraft is moving to observe some of Jupiter’s 79 moons. It will do a close sweep of one of its most captivating moons, Europa, in September.
Europa intrigues scientists because a global ocean lies beneath its ice cap and could support life. From time to time, the plumes come out of the holes in the ice and into space. Juno can watch those feathers in action.
Expect the first images and science data from the James Webb Space Telescope in June and July. The telescope is on a quest to peer inside the atmospheres of exoplanets and peer deeper into the universe than ever before.
NASA will launch a mission to an uncharted world in 2022
NASA will launch the Psyche spacecraft in August, sending it on a four-year journey to an uncharted, potato-shaped world in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The mission will study a metal-rich asteroid that only appears as a fuzzy blur to ground-based 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 can help astronomers learn more about the formation of our solar system.
In September, prepare for another first when NASA deliberately crashes the DART spacecraft into an asteroid’s moon to alter the motion of a near-Earth asteroid.
The double asteroid redirect test will target Dimorphos, a small moon orbiting the near-Earth asteroid Didymos. This will be the agency’s first large-scale demonstration of this type of technology in the name of planetary defense. Although this asteroid and its moon pose no threat to Earth, it is a good way to test asteroid deflection technology.
The collision will be recorded by LICIACube, or Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. Three minutes after impact, the CubeSat will fly over Dimorphos to capture images and video.
Video of the impact will be broadcast back to Earth, which should be “pretty exciting,” said Elena Adams, a DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
In 2022, everyone is looking to send robots to the moon.
The Indian Space Research Organization will send its Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft on a lunar mission in 2022.
The first Chandrayaan mission was launched in October 2008 as India’s first uncrewed lunar spacecraft. The orbiter “played a crucial role in the discovery of water molecules” on the moon, according to NASA. Although it went silent in 2009, NASA was able to detect the location of the spacecraft in 2017.
In 2019, ISRO attempted to land Chandrayaan-2 near the lunar south pole but crashed shortly after crews lost contact with the lander. NASA later found the impact site and the debris field created by the accident.
However, that mission’s orbiter has remained safe as it continues to circle the moon, and will be used as a communications relay for Chandrayaan-3. The mission will include a lunar lander and a rover similar to Chandrayaan-2.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is expected to launch SLIM, or the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon mission, in 2022.
The small spacecraft will be used to demonstrate precise lunar landing techniques to lay the groundwork for future lunar exploration missions, according to the agency. It will also return a lunar sample to Earth.
Russia is also moving forward with its Luna-25 mission in 2022, which will be the first Russian lunar mission since 1976. It will land near the lunar south pole in Boguslavsky crater, carrying scientific instruments and cameras to study its surroundings.
Preparing for a manned space flight
In 2022, China will put the finishing touches on its space station, and crews from NASA and Roscosmos will continue to enter and exit the International Space Station. The European Space Agency will also announce its new class of astronauts in November.
India is preparing to launch the country’s first astronauts into space in 2023, so this year the Indian Space Research Organization will launch the first two uncrewed Gaganyaan missions to test the capabilities of the vehicle.
Meanwhile, 2022 is expected to be a stress test for NASA’s Artemis program, which will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon in 2025.
NASA will launch a mission to an uncharted world in 2022
In January, the stacked spacecraft and rocket will go through their final test, called a wet dress rehearsal, which includes running the full set of operations to load propellant into fuel tanks and a launch countdown — basically everything needed for a launch without actually launching.