A Hindu priest performs a special prayer for the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission alongside the model of the LVM3-M4 spacecraft used for its launch, during a religious event in Kolkata on August 20, 2023 | Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
An intense race to the moon and a dedicated asteroid season mark the year 2023 in space exploration. Among all the countries and companies involved in these endeavors, India in particular gained unprecedented respect by making the first landing in the region near the lunar south pole.
It certainly won't be the last. The area is coveted by the Americans and Chinese for its natural resources – especially the water ice found at the bottom of craters where sunlight never reaches, as well as the saturated particles in the soil itself – and both are planning for the second half of this year. A decade of manned missions there. But the first to land there was India, with the Chandrayaan-3 mission. The landing, which was broadcast live, enchanted the world on August 23, putting Indians once and for all on the list of space powers.
The result contrasts with two other landing attempts carried out this year, one in April by the Japanese company ISpace, and the other in August by the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
The first would have made Japan the fourth country to land on the moon (after Russia, the United States, and China), and the second would have brought a little prestige to spaceflight pioneers, who today have a program that deteriorates every year. .
Both failed, bearing in mind that executing a successful landing, especially at a distance, remains a major challenge.
But this will not discourage countries and companies from continuing to follow the lunar path.
The new Japanese probe Slim, developed this time by the Japanese Aerospace Agency, is already on its way to the moon, and is supposed to make a precise landing attempt on January 19. It's pulling a line of trailers rented by NASA to transport payloads to the lunar surface, and next year will be busy in those parts.
The largest rocket in history
In terms of lunar exploration, this year the world had the opportunity to see not one, but two flights of the largest rocket ever built in history. NASA has selected Elon Musk's SpaceX Starship to transport crews to the moon's surface, but there is still a long way to go before it can do so.
In practical terms, this is the second year in a row that we have seen the world's most powerful rocket in action. In 2022, the trademark holder will be NASA's SLS, which will also be used for manned lunar missions. It was slightly less capable than the Saturn V, which the agency used to take humans to the moon last century, and is being built at a slow pace — the next flight, only in 2024, if rain doesn't come. The spacecraft is more capable than the Saturn V, is intended to be reusable, can be refueled in space, and is built at high speed. So much so that two have already flown, and a third is already being prepared, with parts for the next aircraft well in hand.
It's part of SpaceX's revolutionary philosophy, based on rapid innovation and continuous testing on board. Not surprisingly, the first two launches were not entirely successful, unlike the SLS mission, which went perfectly.
On the first flight, in April, the rocket did not leave the atmosphere, and after several engines failed, it was not even able to separate the second stage.
On the second, in November, the engines worked perfectly, the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas remained intact, and the second stage activated as planned, taking the vehicle into space — but it ended up being lost shortly afterward. , even before it reaches its final speed for the planned “suborbital” insertion into the flight.
No one should underestimate these results. This is how SpaceX learns, and the company has already proven that it outperforms everyone else with this mindset.
In 2023, the company is close to launching a hundred orbital rockets — that's one rocket every four days, on average — and has launched about 80% of the total mass launched into space worldwide. That's right, they alone release much more than the rest of the world. With Starship, there is a tendency for this to become more apparent – and prices should come down.
What this means for the future of space exploration is not yet clear. But we can already tell that we will have a lot of them in the coming years.
Astronomy and planetary sciences
This year has been a year of awe for astronomers who have been able to work with the first results from the James Webb Telescope, which begins operations in 2022.
It's still early days, but despite this, new equipment from NASA, ESA and CSA (the American, European and Canadian agencies) has already achieved remarkable results, such as analyzes of deeper exoplanets of the Trappist-1 system – the preferred target of the search for habitable worlds, since they It contains three worlds at the right distance from the star to preserve water – and to discover already evolved galaxies in the far reaches of the universe, reflecting the universe's infancy.
Trappist-1 b and c turn out to have no appreciable atmosphere, which begins to answer astronomers' doubts about whether planets orbiting red dwarfs, stars that are smaller, cooler and more active than the Sun, could have them — a prerequisite. So the planet is similar to Earth. But there are still five worlds to examine out there, and these are particularly the most interesting, and the jury is still out. It will last for years to come.
The study of distant galaxies is revolutionizing our understanding of the evolution of the universe since the beginning of its expansion, 13.8 billion years ago. It has become clear that the formation of structures such as stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters began very early, perhaps 300 million years after the Big Bang, and evolved very quickly – perhaps too quickly to be explained by our cosmological model. .more acceptable. Promises of the future.
To truly understand the universe, we still need to discover the matter that makes up 95% of everything in it, two mysterious entities that astronomers call dark matter and dark energy. They know they exist, but they don't know what they are.
A new mission launched by the European Space Agency in July this year, Euclid, promises to provide answers. After a somewhat shaky start, engineers have gotten the space telescope up and running, and are already working on building a large-scale 3D map of the universe. The idea is to accurately map the effects of dark matter and energy, in order to clarify their nature.
Finally, we've also made important progress in exploring the solar system beyond the moon. The European Space Agency has launched its first mission to Jupiter, Jupiter, and NASA has sent the Psyche probe, which is expected to visit a large metallic asteroid called Psyche, in the belt between Mars and Jupiter.
By the way, the US Space Agency celebrated what it called the “autumn of asteroids.” Within three months (between September and November, autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and spring in the Southern), it completed the OSIRIS-REx mission, bringing back samples from the asteroid Bennu, launching the aforementioned Psyche and performing its first Earth flyby. An asteroid with the Lucy probe, on its way to orbit Jupiter, where it will study many of these objects that accompany the giant planet on its journey around the sun, a group known as the Trojans.
That's a lot of news, not to mention all the interplanetary missions from different countries that continue to operate in all corners of our system. We're slowly learning about and occupying our own backyard in the Milky Way, and 2023 was an important year on this path to the future. More will come.
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