NASA’s three 2022 missions that changed the future

Looking back, 2022 was one of the most productive years NASA has had in decades. Three missions that took place in 2022 distinguished themselves not only with their success but with their potential to improve the future.

The James Webb Space Telescope actually launched in late December 2021 on an ESA Ariane 6 rocket. The telescope undertook its first test as it arrived at the Earth-Sun L2 point about a month later. The space telescope unfolded its mirror and huge sunscreen, a process that had ground controllers sweating. If anything had gone wrong, a space-borne mission such as the one that rescued the Hubble Space Telescope would not have been possible.

Fortunately, deployment and alignment of the mirror and sunscreen proceeded without major problems. The James Webb Space Telescope began returning the first full-color images of the universe in July 2022. The results were spectacular. The images included nebulae, galaxies and even an indication of water and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a distant star. The $10 billion gamble paid off.

By the end of 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope had returned images of Neptune’s rings, star formations near and far, as well as the first galaxies in the dawn of the Big Bang. The space telescope promises to expand humankind’s knowledge of the universe for many years to come. What will come from that knowledge is currently beyond evaluation.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in November 2021. Ten months later, DART slammed into Dimorphos, an asteroid that circles a larger asteroid called Didymos. DART’s mission was to ascertain if NASA could alter the path of an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

DART succeeded beyond expectations. NASA found that DART had altered Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by 32 minutes, give or take two minutes. The impact also created a tail of ejected debris weighing between 2.2 million pounds and 22 million pounds. NASA acquired crucial data about how massive an impact must be to alter an asteroid’s path.

DART’s success may well lead to the salvation of the human species. Most people know that the age of the dinosaurs ended because of an asteroid strike near the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago. A similar impact could end human life. Now, NASA has demonstrated a technique that could postpone doomsday permanently. As a bonus, DART’s success has inspired the development of the NEO Surveyor, a space telescope dedicated to locating and characterizing near-Earth objects, some of which may threaten the Earth.

Artemis 1, the first mission of a spacecraft designed to take astronauts to deep space for the first time in 50 years, roared off the launch pad in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 2022. Over budget and behind schedule, NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System hurtled an Orion space capsule in a distant retrograde orbit around the moon on a 26-day mission.

The Orion contained mannikins festooned with sensors designed to measure the radiation environment that real astronauts would experience in a similar deep space voyage. The mission tested nearly all of the systems that would need to work on a crewed expedition. Aside from a few anomalies, Artemis 1 was a complete success. The Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Baja California.

Besides the data needed to proceed with crewed missions back to the moon, Artemis 1 returned a series of images of the moon from the most distant part of its orbit with the Earth beyond. Heart-stoppingly beautiful, the images brought to mind the famous Earthrise photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8. The Artemis 1 photos provided a little well needed inspiration toward the end of a tumultuous year.

The future that Artemis 1 has summoned is one in which humans are no longer confined to one planet. Humans will return to the moon, then go on to Mars and beyond to wrest knowledge, riches, and glory from the heavens.

Americans seem to have had a love-hate relationship with NASA. The space agency’s glory days seemed to be long past, a subject of boomer nostalgia. But the James Webb Space Telescope, DART and Artemis 1 missions proved the agency that sent men to the moon and built the International Space Station is still capable of greatness.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  

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