From Artemis to Webb, take a look back and forth to the year’s top aerospace trends

An image of the galaxy NGC 7469 in the midst of star formation serves as this season’s “greeting card” from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. (ESA / Webb, NASA and CSA / L. Armus, AS Evans)

In a few years, we may look back on 2022 as Year One for a new era in aerospace: It was the year NASA’s Next Generation Space Telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s lunar rocket passed its first test flight and when a completely electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the air.

I’ve been collecting the best stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997) and 2022 is among the most important years when it comes to opening new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis lunar program — is that the best is yet to come.

Here’s my top-five for the past year’s big stories, plus five aerospace trends to watch for in the year ahead:

Looking back to 2022

JWST delivers the goods: The Christmas Day launch of the James Webb Space Telescope was one of last year’s biggest stories, but space telescope scientists didn’t start sharing their cosmic goodies with the rest of the world until July. The first presents to be opened included a new deep-field image crammed with distant galaxies and an updated view of the Pillars of Creation, the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic image.

And that was just the beginning: In December, astronomers gathered in Maryland to celebrate the JWST’s first scientific achievements. We’re sure to see more wonders from the space telescope when the “Super Bowl of Astronomy” (aka the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting) hits Seattle in January.

“One thing I found really remarkable about JWST this past year is just how many people want to talk about it,” University of Washington astronomer James Davenport told me in an email. “Obviously I knew any astronomer would be thrilled – these images of young stars and ancient galaxies are something we have so far only dreamed of – but almost every week I meet someone at the supermarket or at the airport and they know about this mission! They have seen some of these iconic images and were moved”.

Davenport said that’s what he loves about astronomy and JWST: “It strikes a chord deep inside and brings us together in awe and wonder of the universe.”

DART hits an asteroid in the center: Davenport said his “surprise hit of the year” was a NASA mission that sent a camera-equipped space probe to crash into an asteroid in September. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test was intended to evaluate how impact, involving a spacecraft the size of a vending machine, would change the orbit of an asteroid around a larger one.

Scientists determined that the collision produced a larger than expected orbital shift, in part because so much debris was thrown off the target asteroid during the impact. This has fueled hopes that future probes may be able to help humanity dodge killer space rocks.

“At the UW’s DiRAC Institute, we’re building algorithms to map our solar system and look for asteroids that could threaten Earth,” Davenport said. “Seeing one of these objects up close, and in real time, was surreal! Watching the huge plume form after the impact, and seeing how far we were able to move this mountain-sized pile of rubble, gives me some hope that one day we might come together and actually save our planet.

NASA’s lunar rocket makes its debut: After years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket took off for the first time in November, sending an unmanned Orion capsule on what was apparently a perfect test mission around the moon and back. . Speaking of images, cameras mounted on Orion’s solar arrays returned jaw-dropping views of the moon and planet Earth that evoked the spirit of the Apollo era. (Orion crashed on the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo moon landing, adding to the sense of history.)

The Artemis 1 mission paved the way for a crewed trip around the moon scheduled for 2024, followed by a lunar landing scheduled for 2025. NASA is expected to appoint the crew for Artemis 2 in 2023.

Aerojet’s Rocketdyne facility in Redmond, Washington, played a significant support role in Artemis 1. Ken Young, general manager of the Redmond facility, told me in an emailed statement that he and his teammates “have worked tirelessly for years to ensure the delivery of trusted, reliable propulsion for the Artemis 1 mission.

Aerojet’s Redmond team supplied or supported mission-critical hardware, including the launch engine for Orion’s launch abort system, reaction control system thrusters for the crew module, booster engines on the European-built service module, Orion main engine and RCS thrusters on the upper SLS stage.

“We are extremely proud of our Redmond team and the broader national coalition for the success of the Artemis 1 mission,” said Young. “As we like to say, the path back to the moon and Mars is through Redmond.”

Eviation’s Alice Plane Takes Flight: Eviation, based in Arlington, Wash., marked a milestone for zero-emission aviation in September when the company put its all-electric Alice prototype airplane through its first flight test at the airport. County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash. done is done aviation history,” said Greg Davis, president and chief executive officer of Eviation, after the eight-minute flight.

It is expected to take years for Alice (named after the Lewis Carroll classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit”) to complete its comprehensive testing program and be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. But Eviation says it has already booked orders totaling more than $2 billion, with the first deliveries set for 2027.

Boeing’s latest 747 bids its long goodbye: A different kind of aviation history was made in November, when Boeing’s latest 747 jumbo jet rolled off the production line in Everett, Wash. The freighter has yet to be painted and handed over to Atlas Air, which will operate the jet for a Swiss logistics company. But the late night launch marked the end of a story that began in Seattle in the 1960s.

Kim Smith, Boeing vice president and general manager for the 747 and 767 programs, hailed the 747 as a “magnificent airplane that truly changed the world.” Unfortunately for the 747, the world has continued to change: Today’s passenger airlines favor smaller models ranging from the single-aisle 737 to the dual-aisle 767, 777, 787 Dreamliner, and 777X.

Since the last 747 left the building, Boeing has had a huge dose of good news on other fronts, including huge orders for Dreamliner and 737 MAX airplanes from United Airlines and BOC Aviation.

While this was the last launch of the “Queen of the Skies,” the 747 is likely to remain in service for decades to come, primarily as cargo aircraft. The next-generation Air Force One planes will also be 747s. Ironically, those planes are currently being retrofitted by the US Air Force for presidential use after being built for a now-defunct Russian airline.

Looking to 2023

Will this be Blue Origin’s big year? Jeff Bezos’ space adventure suffered a setback in September when an unmanned suborbital New Shepard spacecraft suffered a launch anomaly. Blue Origin claims that the astronauts would have survived the booster failure; however, New Shepard flights were suspended during the investigation. It seems likely that crewed flights will resume in 2023, but how will the September crash affect operations?

2023 is also expected to mark the first use of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines (initially, on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket) and the debut of Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket. We should also find out if Blue Origin will play a role in building a second type of lunar lander for NASA and if the company’s plans for a commercial space station called Orbital Reef will move forward.

Will Amazon Launch Project Kuiper? The United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket also plays a key role in Amazon’s plans to build a satellite-based broadband network, known as Project Kuiper. Two prototype satellites are expected to be deployed in low Earth orbit as secondary payloads for the first Vulcan launch.

Right now, Project Kuiper lags far behind SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. The successful deployment of the prototypes would demonstrate that Amazon is serious about its multibillion-dollar effort to put more than 3,000 satellites into orbit and provide global Internet service (including access to Amazon Web Services). The rise of Kuiper is also likely to sharpen the debate about whether the benefits of having thousands more satellites zipping across the night sky outweigh the drawbacks.

Will Boeing’s Starliner fly well? Two and a half years after a first uncrewed test flight went awry, Boeing’s Starliner space taxi connected with the International Space Station during a second uncrewed test in May. Now Boeing is fixing the technical problems that were raised during the test and aiming for next April for the first crewed flight of Starliner. Boeing is banking on a successful test mission, which would solidify Starliner’s position as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space taxi. Having alternatives is essential, as evidenced by the current crisis involving a leaky Russian Soyuz capsule attached to the space station.

Will more commercial space missions level up? 2023 is expected to be a pivotal year for many other commercial space projects, including SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket, Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket and Stoke Space’s reusable rockets. On the agenda: the resumption of suborbital space travel by Virgin Galactic, privately funded orbital excursions organized by Axiom Space and the Polaris program, and robotic lunar landings by the likes of iSpace, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines.

Will Eclipse mania come back? We’re focusing here on 2023, but it’s not too early to start thinking about the total solar eclipse that will be visible along a narrow track stretching from Mexico to Maine on April 8, 2024. The event could attract as much attention as the “All-American Eclipse” of 2017, particularly as the track of totality comes relatively close to the population centers of the Midwestern and Northeastern United States. For what it’s worth, I already have my reservation for an Airbnb near Austin, Texas .

To whet your appetite, you can witness an annular solar eclipse that will feature a “ring of fire” in locations ranging from Oregon to Texas and beyond on October 14, 2023. If the weather cooperates, Seattleites can catch the show at Eugene and environs, shortly after 9 that day. It will be the highlight of the 2023 skywatching schedule.

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