Astronomers are often disappointed when long-time, ambitious projects take a while to reach fruition. But 2022 was a year when several payoffs from decades of work finally came to light.
Researchers discovered a Milky Way that looks like a holey Swiss cheese, and are mapping bubbles to understand their role in star formation.
1. The James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a powerful telescope that can see in the infrared, which allows scientists to peer back at the first stars and galaxies forming after the Big Bang. The observatory, which is hailed as the most powerful telescope ever built, can also look at far-flung asteroids to learn more about their composition and history.
The JWST team has already made some impressive discoveries, including a stunning infrared image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 and a spectral analysis of the atmosphere of a hot Jupiter that revealed water, clouds, and haze—a key step toward finding Earth-like planets in our stellar neighborhood. It’s sometimes called Hubble’s replacement, but NASA considers it more of a successor.
The telescope has a unique ability to interrupt its scheduled observations to take a closer look at targets of opportunity. Those can be supernovae, gamma-ray bursts or collisions within our Solar System that have to be seen quickly to avoid being missed.
2. The Psyche Spacecraft
The Psyche spacecraft will fly to asteroid 16 Psyche, the leading candidate for being an iron core remnant, and shed new light on how Earth and other rocky planets formed. Its payload of instruments includes a magnetometer to search for signs of an ancient magnetic field that could prove the asteroid is the core of a former planetesimal. The spacecraft will also carry a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which will reveal 16 Psyche’s elemental composition, and a multispectral imager.
The mission’s powerful solar electric propulsion system, a key innovation, will propel Psyche through deep space. It will be built by Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, and delivered to JPL where the Psyche team is already hard at work testing the hardware for its upcoming launch window. The Psyche team also will test a ride-along technology demonstration using laser communications to encode information in photons and transmit it from Psyche back to Earth, instead of radio waves.
3. The Artemis 1 Uncrewed Mission
In 2022, the first test flight of NASA’s new spacecraft will fly a crewless spaceship around the Moon. It’s called the Artemis 1 Uncrewed Mission, and its purpose is to pave the way for future crewed missions to explore our natural satellite.
The spacecraft will not carry human astronauts, but instead three mannequins designed to simulate humans. One of them is named Moonikin Campos, a name voted on by the public that honors NASA electrical engineer Arturo Campos who helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to Earth. The other two mannequins are Helga and Zohar, designed to represent adult females. All of them will be outfitted for experiments including testing the effects of radiation on human astronauts. The mannequins will also serve as zero gravity indicators, giving the team on the ground a visual cue when the spacecraft has reached weightlessness.
For skywatchers, the best astronomical events of 2022 include the Perseid meteor shower in August and a rare triple conjunction of planets in March, when Venus and Mars will be close together in the predawn sky. Download the free Sky Tonight app to learn more about these astronomical highlights, and sign up for our weekly Wonder Theory newsletter for news on fascinating astronomy discoveries and night sky guides.
4. The Mars Exploration Rovers
Astronomers have a lot to look forward to in 2022, with meteor showers, eclipses and a fine opposition of Mars. But the real excitement is at a lower altitude, where the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) will begin the first of six new seasons.
Each rover carries in situ instruments that analyze rock and soil targets to determine whether the Red Planet’s aqueous past could have supported life. A suite of spectrometers measures atomic mass and isotope ratios of carbon in surface materials. A ChemCam vaporizes surface material to eject particles for analysis.
The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed in opposite hemispheres of Mars, where their mission is to shed light on the role of water in the evolution of a lifeless planet. Each rover is designed to last 90 days on the surface, driving no more than a few miles from its landing site. During that time, it will use its panoramic camera and thermal emission spectrometer to locate rock and soil targets worthy of a closer look with the rover arm.