It’s a new year and I’m super excited for all that NASA has in store as humans continue to explore the cosmos as well as find ways to continue helping our own planet! Here are 5 reasons why you should keep your eyes on the skies this year!
1. James Webb Space Telescope
I got up just before 4:15 a.m. PT on Christmas Day to watch the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST is the scientific successor to the absolute iconic Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Hubble viewed the universe in visible and ultraviolet light. JWST will focus on infrared – a wavelength important to peer through dust and gas to see distant objects. While the Spitzer telescope could see in infrared, JWST has a mirror that is nearly 60 times larger and is fully adjustable in space. That mirror and many of the components of the JWST are why it had to be folded up to be launched – it’s too big to fit into anything that could launch it to space!
One of the most fascinating things for me about the JWST is where it’s going to be located and why. After it’s Christmas Day launch, it will take JWST about month to get to it’s final resting place, the second Lagrange (L2) point, which is about 1 million miles from Earth. I had not ever heard of this until I started reading about it. There are five positions in space where the gravitational pull of the Sun and Earth balance each other and the force required for a spacecraft to move with them. These points are useful in saving fuel for missions.
This path will keep the JWST on Earth’s night side and track along with Earth while it moves around the Sun. Staying on Earth’s nightside and the giant sunshield unfolding will not only protect the JWST instruments, but will also block out as much light as possible so the telescope can do it’s job of detecting faint heat signals of distant objects.
You can track all things JWST on Where is Webb! Since telescopes are basically real life time machines by being able to peer into the past, I cannot wait to see what JWST finds!
2. Axiom-1 Mission to the International Space Station
Target Launch Date: February 28, 2022
Set to launch at the end of February 2022, Axiom Mission 1 will be the first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Axiom astronauts will spend eight days aboard the ISS with NASA and Axiom mission planners coordinating activities for the private astronauts in coordination with space station crew members and flight controllers on the ground.
The international Axiom astronaut crew will be led by Ax-1 Commander, Michael López-Alegría (former NASA astronauts and Axiom Space VP), Ax-1 Pilot, Larry Connor (entrepreneur and non-profit activist investor), Ax-1 Mission Specialist, Mark Pathy (investor and philanthropist) and Ax-1 Mission Specialist, Eytan Stibbe (impact investor and philanthropist). The crew has been training for this mission since May 2021, beginning with zero-g and centrifuge training, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), spacecraft training, ISS, payload and medical training all before quarantine and launch from Kennedy Space Center in February!
Axiom is also currently constructing the world’s first commercial space station!
3. GOES-T Satellite Launch
Target Launch Date: March 1, 2022
Did you know that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has it’s own satellite office called National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS)? NOAA’s GOES-T will be the third satellite in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) R Series – the Western Hemisphere’s most sophisticated weather observing and environmental monitoring system.
The GOES-T will be positioned to watch over the western contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America, and the Pacific Ocean. The satellite’s location will help monitor weather systems and hazards that affect the Western Hemisphere, such as fire detection, hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts, atmospheric rivers, data for air quality, sea surface temperatures and so much more. NOAA works with NASA’s Launch Services Program to launch the satellite into orbit.
4. Artemis I
Target Launch Date: March 2022
I am so stoked to watch the entire Artemis program play out over the next decade or so. Artemis I will be the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems which include the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center. For Artemis I, the Orion spacecraft will launch this spring on the MOST POWERFUL rocket in the world (the SLS), travel beyond our Moon and come back to Earth over the course of a four to six week mission.
The SLS rocket is designed for missions beyond low-Earth orbit (like to the Moon and beyond) and will produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust during liftoff and ascent to launch a vehicle that weights nearly six million pounds. Orion will then eventually separate and head towards the Moon. On it’s way, it will pass through the Van Allen radiation belts, past the GPS satellite constellation and above all the communication satellites in Earth orbit. It will also communicate through NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites system, the Deep Space Network.
After a few days, Orion will fly about 62 miles above the surface of the Moon and then use the Moon’s gravitational force to propel it 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Orion will stay in that orbit for about six days to collect data. To come back to Earth, Orion will again to another close flyby above the moon, fire up the engine and accelerate back to Earth, coming back into our atmosphere at 25,000 mph! This speed will produce temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit!
Artemis I will be the first time using the power of the SLS rocket and the first time NASA has sent a spacecraft this far away from Earth only to actually return! Artemis II will take a crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s systems with humans on board. And then Artemis III – humans back to the Moon! For now, keep your eye on the Moon and beyond!
5. DART Mission
Target DART Impact: September 26, 2022
In November 2021, I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Mission launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base. DART is going to demonstrate kinetic impactor technology – basically, can we hit an asteroid at a high rate of speed to adjust its speed and path? If you’ve seen the Netflix movie, Don’t Look Up – do not fear (but seriously, NASA really does has a Planetary Defense Coordination Office). DART’s target, Dimorphos, is no threat to our planet.
Set to crash itself into Dimorphos in September 2022, scientists will be able to see if we can indeed change the asteroid’s course, should we need to do so in the future if the Earth is threatened. And there will be photos! A little cubesat (a tiny satellite shaped like a cube) will deploy from DART about ten days before impact and act like a paparazzi photographer to capture images of the impact.
Stay tuned to all things NASA, there is so much going on beyond what I’ve mentioned here, including the continuation of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars, the incredible Parker Solar Probe (which “touched” the Sun and broke it’s own speed record by traveling over 330,000 mph in 2021) and more!