Dark matter, Jupiter’s moons, and more: What to expect from space exploration in 2023
India also plans to revisit the lunar surface, while private companies aim to send more rich people to space.
The past few years have been a space launch boom: Late 2021 saw the long-awaited arrival of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and in 2022 NASA finally launched its massive new Space Launch System Moon rocket. This year will continue that trend, as several scientific and commercial craft zoom off our world to orbit and beyond.
This year’s historic flights include missions to Jupiter and the asteroid belt, robotic moon landings, and the maiden flight of a new spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the aging International Space Station (ISS). Here are some of the major launches to look forward to in 2023.
Asteroids and icy moons
Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have big plans for studying celestial bodies beyond the orbit of Mars that kick off in 2023.
ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer, or JUICE mission, will study the icy Galilean moons of Jupiter, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. Of the three moons, Europa has so far garnered the lion’s share of scientific interest due to the global liquid water ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust, an environment that could host alien life. But evidence now suggests Callisto and Ganymede may also host subsurface liquid water oceans. JUICE, which is scheduled to launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana sometime in April and will arrive at Jupiter in 2031, will fly by each of the three moons to compare the three icy worlds.
The JUICE spacecraft will enter orbit around Ganymede in 2034, the first time a spacecraft has circled a moon other than Earth’s, where it will spend roughly a year studying the satellite in greater detail. Ganymede, in addition to its potential subsurface ocean and potential habitability, is the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetic field. JUICE will study how this field interacts with Jupiter’s even larger one.
NASA’s Psyche mission, meanwhile, will blast off no earlier than October 10 on a mission to rendezvous with its namesake asteroid, when it arrives in the belt between Mars and Jupiter in August 2029. The Psyche mission was originally scheduled to launch in August 2022, but was delayed due to problems developing mission-critical software at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The asteroid 16 Psyche is a largely metallic space rock that scientists believe could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that formed in the early solar system. If that theory bears out, the Psyche spacecraft could end up traveling millions of miles to give scientists a better understanding of the Earth’s iron core far beneath their feet.
India returns to the moon
The Indian Space Research Organization, ISRO, is going back to the moon with its Chandrayaan-3 mission, which is scheduled to launch over the summer. The space agency’s Chandrayaan-2 mission carried an orbiter and lander to the moon in 2019, but a software glitch caused the lander to crash on the lunar surface. The Chandrayaan-3 mission is ditching the orbiter in favor of a redesigned lander and rover intended for the lunar South Pole. Carrying a seismometer and spectrographs, among other instruments, the lander and rover will study the chemical composition and geology of the polar region.
The hunt for dark matter
Astrophysicists believe dark matter and dark energy shape the structures of entire universes—and drive the accelerated expansion of ours. But experts don’t understand much about these enigmatic phenomena. ESA’s Euclid space telescope, scheduled to launch sometime in 2023, will measure the effects of these dark forces on the cosmos over time to try and discern their properties.
After launch, Euclid will make its way to the same operational location as JWST, entering an orbit around Lagrangian Point 2, about 1 million miles behind Earth. From there, Euclid will use its nearly 4-foot diameter mirror, visible light imaging system, and near-infrared spectrometer to survey a third of the sky out to a distance of about 15 billion light years. That will give a view some 10 billion years into the past. By studying how galaxies and galaxy clusters change over eons and across much of the sky, Euclid scientists hope to grasp how dark matter and dark energy shape galactic formation and the evolution of the entire universe.
Boeing catches up to SpaceX
Boeing will finally launch a crewed test flight of its Starliner spacecraft sometime in April 2023. Boeing developed the Starliner, a capsule that holds up to seven people, as a competitor to the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Like Dragon, Starliner will ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
But while Crew Dragon began flying astronauts to the ISS in November 2020, the Starliner ran into many delay-causing problems, beginning with a software glitch that kept the spacecraft from rendezvousing with the ISS during an uncrewed test flight in December 2020. Boeing kept at it, however, and completed a second attempt at an uncrewed rendezvous with the ISS in May 2022, paving the way for the coming crewed test flight.
If all goes well, NASA will integrate Starliner flights alongside Crew Dragon launches within the Commercial Crew program, providing the space agency some redundancy in case of problems with either type of spacecraft.
The (private) enterprise
As NASA becomes more and more reliant on Boeing, SpaceX, and other contractors for flights to the ISS, private space operators have big plans of their own for 2023.
Axiom Space plans to send a crew of private citizens for a two-week stay on the ISS in the summer, following the company’s first mission in April 2022 when four private astronauts spent more than two weeks aboard the space station. Axiom Space plans to build a new habitat—first connected to the ISS, then separated to create a free-flying space station when NASA retires the ISS in 2031.
[Related: SpaceX’s all-civilian moon trip has a crew]
Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who funded the first ever all-private orbital space flight in September 2021 with the Inspiration 4 mission, will also be back at it in 2023. The Polaris Dawn mission is scheduled to launch no sooner than March and will once again see Isaacman fly aboard a chartered SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft along with three crewmates. Unlike Inspiration 4, at least two of the Polaris Dawn crew plan to conduct the first-ever private astronaut spacewalks outside a spacecraft.
The Jeff Bezos-founded Blue Origin, meanwhile, will attempt to launch the first test flight of its orbital rocket, known as New Glenn, sometime in 2023. While the company has flown celebrities such as Bezos and William Shatner to the edge of space aboard its suborbital New Shepard rocket, the company has yet to make an orbital flight. This year, it’s aiming higher.