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2022: a space yearbook

There was a lot going on in the space industry this year — here are some of the highlights.

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Illustration by Micha Huigen / The Verge

It was a good year for space. NASA finally got its long-anticipated Moon rocket off the ground, SpaceX beat its annual record for space launches in July, and JWST continued to bring us picture after picture of the wonders of the cosmos. 

That’s not to say everything ran smoothly — there were definitely some big bumps in the road — but space research, observation, and industry all had huge years nonetheless. And even in a year as full of progress and innovation as this one, some projects really set themselves apart.

Here are some of the biggest, best, and weirdest moments of the year in space.

Artemis 1 launches on November 16th, 2022
Image: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Most anticipated launch: Artemis 1

It’s almost not worth putting together a list of 2022 space superlatives without mentioning Artemis 1. This mission was both long-awaited and highly anticipated, and it was a huge relief for all parties involved when it finally got off the ground on November 16th. 

It took years to get this mission from concept to launch — far longer than expected. On its way to the launchpad, Artemis 1 had to deal with everything from scheduling issues to hydrogen leaks to hurricanes. Plural. 

And even once it was ready to take off, there was a last-minute repair of a leaky valve that involved a “red team” climbing the launch tower. But once it was finally in the air, the mission went smoothly, kickstarting our push to get humans back on the Moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Biggest impact: DART 

Not only was the DART mission a big deal in the astronomical community — it was literally impactful. In an effort to test how well we could protect ourselves from asteroids that might be on a collision course with Earth, NASA slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid.

The mission aimed to change the orbit of Dimorphos — the asteroid in question — by 73 seconds. While Dimorphos wasn’t headed our way, the goal was to show that we could alter an asteroid’s orbit if we needed to. And despite the fact that the mission consisted of a small spacecraft flying at 14,000 mph toward an asteroid 6.8 million miles from Earth, the whole thing was a success! DART managed to slow the asteroid’s orbit by about 32 minutes. 

There’s still a lot of work to be done before we have a fully functioning asteroid defense system. But not bad for first impact.

A rocket rises from the earth, a plume of smoke blanketing the ground
A Starlink launch on December 17th, 2022
Image: SpaceX

A new record in launches: SpaceX

SpaceX certainly had a benchmark year in 2022. The company beat its own annual record for most launches in a year, hitting 32 launches by July. At the time of writing this article, the company has completed 59 launches in the last 12 months. 

Next year, the bar is set even higher. CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the company is hoping to beat 100 launches next year, most of which are expected to be payloads of Starlink satellites. 

Bright white streaks across a glorious night sky. A domed telescope and rock dominate the bottom of the picture.
This image shows trails in the sky left by BlueWalker 3 with a telescope of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the foreground.

Biggest satellite: BlueWalker 3

BlueWalker 3 broke the record for the biggest commercial communications array in orbit when it unfurled to a size of 693 feet on November 14th. The mega-satellite serves as a pathfinder mission for more AST SpaceMobile satellites to come. AST SpaceMObile is one of many companies with ambitions to bring accessible internet to every corner of the globe using satellites, much like SpaceX’s Starlink constellations.

There are concerns about this satellite in particular, however. As it unfolded, it became one of the brightest objects in the sky. Astronomers have been worried about the light-polluting effects of constellations of communications satellites disrupting scientific observations for some time now, and while bigger can be better, it comes with its own set of potential issues that will need to be managed. 

Carina Nebula
The Carina Nebula, as imaged by JWST

Best new space telescope: JWST 

Handily topping the list of most-talked-about space missions this year is the James Webb Space Telescope. Though it launched in December of 2021, the successor to the Hubble did most of its much-discussed work this year, starting with sending back its first pictures in July of 2022. 

The photos were everything we hoped they’d be. The increased resolution and broad infrared bandwidth allowed for the capture of some truly remarkable sights. You’ve almost certainly seen a few, from the high-def Pillars of Creation to the fully colorized Deep Field to our Solar System’s very own Jupiter — up close and personal.

But it’s not just about the images. JWST has produced some incredibly valuable data as well. Just this month, for example, the telescope showed us the earliest galaxies ever discovered. It’s also already spotting undiscovered exoplanets. Next year is almost certain to bring even more discoveries our way.

Most likely to catch a rocket with a helicopter: RocketLab 

Rocket Lab, a smaller private space company, took to the skies this year not only in a rocket but in a helicopter. The company attempted a first-ever maneuver — trying to catch a rocket booster with a helicopter as it falls back to Earth. 

The company accomplished this feat on May 2nd, snagging its Electron booster out of the sky. However, they did almost immediately drop it into the ocean, and a second attempt at the feat was called off in November after the company says it lost telemetry of the rocket during re-entry. 

The company has yet to achieve a complete success — catching a rocket and bringing it back to land. Their goal is to join SpaceX in the quest for reusable rocket boosters since a good portion of the budget of any launch goes into the booster. We’ll have to see if 2023 brings a more unqualified success.