What’s next in space
The moon, private space travel, and the wider solar system will all have major missions over the next 12 months.
We’re going back to the moon—again—in 2023. Multiple uncrewed landings are planned for the next 12 months, spurred on by a renewed effort in the US to return humans to the lunar surface later this decade. Both private space companies and national agencies are set to make the 240,000-mile trek to our celestial neighbor, where they will test landing capabilities, look for usable water ice, and more.
Previous years were “all about Mars,” says Jill Stuart, a space policy expert from the London School of Economics in the UK. “Now we’ve shifted back to the moon.”
That is not all 2023 has in store. We’re also likely to see significant strides made in private human spaceflight, including the first-ever commercial spacewalk, compelling missions heading out into—or back from—other solar system destinations, and new rockets set to take flight.
Here’s what the next year has lined up for space.
A lunar lander will already be on its way when 2023 begins. Launched in December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the private spacecraft Hakuto-R, developed by Japanese firm ispace, is on a four-month journey to reach the moon, where it will deploy rovers built by the space agencies of Japan and the United Arab Emirates, among other goals. If successful, Hakuto-R could become the first private mission to land on the moon in March.
We say “could” because two private landers from the US—one from the firm Astrobotic and the other from Intuitive Machines, called Peregrine and Nova-C, respectively—are also set to reach the moon around the same time. Both are NASA-backed missions with various instruments on board to study the lunar environment, part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payloads Services program, which aims to spur commercial interest in the moon ahead of human missions planned for later this decade under its Artemis program.
The first part of that program, Artemis I, saw an uncrewed Orion spacecraft launch to the moon on NASA’s giant new Space Launch System rocket in November 2022. While the next Artemis mission, a crewed flight around the moon, is not planned until 2024, these next 12 months will lay important groundwork for Artemis by studying the moon’s surface and even looking for water ice that could be a potential target for future human missions, among other goals. “The moon is getting a lot more attention than it has done for many years,” says Jon Cowart, a former NASA human spaceflight manager now at the Aerospace Corporation in the US.
Intuitive Machines has a second lunar landing planned in 2023. Also on the books are landings from the space agencies of India and Japan, with Chandrayaan-3 and SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon), respectively. India hopes to launch in August 2023. It will be the country’s second attempt—the first crash-landed on the moon in 2019. A date for SLIM, which will test precision landing on the moon, has not yet been set. Russia reportedly has plans for the moon in 2023 too with its Luna-25 lander, but the status of the mission is unclear.
Private space travel
Since May 2020, SpaceX has been using its Crew Dragon spacecraft to ferry astronauts to space, some to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract with NASA and others on private missions. But SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn mission, currently slated for March 2023, will be a big new step.
Four commercial astronauts, including billionaire Jared Isaacman, who is paying for the flight and also funded SpaceX’s first all-private human spaceflight in 2021, will target a maximum orbit of 1,200 kilometers, higher than any human spacecraft since the Apollo missions. And in a first for commercial human spaceflight, the crew will don spacesuits and venture outside the spacecraft.
“Polaris Dawn is really exciting,” says Laura Forczyk from the space consulting firm Astralytical. “My understanding is that the entire vehicle will be evacuated. Everybody is going to at least stick their heads out.”
The mission may help NASA decide whether a future Crew Dragon mission could be used to service the Hubble Space Telescope, a capability that the agency has been investigating with SpaceX. “We’ll have some idea whether it’s feasible,” says Forczyk.
Two more private missions using Crew Dragon—Axiom-2 and Axiom-3—are planned to head for the ISS in 2023, as well as two NASA flights using Crew Dragon. A competing vehicle from the US firm Boeing is also set to launch with crew for the first time in April 2023, following multiple delays.
Meanwhile, we wait to see if Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin will be allowed to launch with humans again. The company has been grounded following an uncrewed launch failure in September 2022. Another private spaceflight pioneer, Virgin Galactic, has been relatively quiet since it launched its founder Sir Richard Branson into space in July 2021.
All these developments in commercial human spaceflight may be overshadowed by the first orbital flight attempt of SpaceX’s massive and reusable Starship rocket, which was undergoing launchpad tests earlier this month and should launch in 2023, if not by the end of 2022.
If successful, the rocket, which would surpass NASA’s Space Launch System as the largest rocket to make it to orbit, could transform our exploration of space. “The ability to take more mass up opens up new opportunities,” says Uma Bruegman, an expert in space strategies at the Aerospace Corporation. That could include, one day, human missions to Mars—or beyond. But there’s a long way to go yet. “It’s definitely an important year [for Starship],” says Cowart. “They’ve got a lot to do.” One of its nearer-term goals will be preparing for the moon—NASA chose Starship’s upper stage as the initial lunar lander for the Artemis program.
Into the solar system
Moons of the solar system’s biggest planet are also on the agenda next year. April 2023 will see a gripping new mission launch from the European Space Agency (ESA) called JUICE, for “Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer.” Scheduled to arrive in orbit at Jupiter in 2031, the spacecraft will perform detailed studies of the Jovian moons Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa, all of which are thought to harbor oceans that could contain life beneath their icy surfaces.
“It’s the first mission that’s fundamentally focused on the icy moons,” says Mark McCaughrean, senior advisor for science and exploration at ESA. “We now know these icy moons have very deep water oceans, and they could have the conditions for life to have developed.”
JUICE will map these oceans with radar instruments, but McCaughrean says it will also be able to look for possible biosignatures on the surface of Europa’s ice, which could rain down from plumes ejected into space from its subsurface ocean.
Later in 2023, ESA is scheduled to see another major mission launch: its Euclid telescope, which was switched from a Russian rocket to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The telescope will probe the “dark universe,” observing billions of galaxies over a third of the sky to better understand dark matter and dark energy in the cosmos.
In October, NASA should launch a significant science mission of its own when Psyche takes flight following a delay from 2022. The spacecraft will head to 16 Psyche, an unusual metal-rich asteroid that has never been seen up close.
A number of other intriguing developments are expected in 2023. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to return to Earth in September with pieces of an asteroid called Bennu, which could offer new insight into the structure and formation of the solar system. Amazon aims to send up the first satellites for Project Kuiper in early 2023, the start of a 3,000-satellite orbiting communications network it hopes will rival SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. And several new rockets are set to launch, including the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket (it will carry Astrobotic’s moon lander and some of Amazon's satellites) and possibly Blue Origin’s large New Glenn rocket. Both are heavy-lift rockets that could take many satellites into space.
“There’s a huge swathe of activity,” says Cowart. “I’m very excited about this year.”
This story is a part of MIT Technology Review’s What’s Next series, where we look across industries, trends, and technologies to let you know what to expect in the coming year.
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