SpaceX's empire, successes and failures on the moon, new records, and deep space research. A summary of 2023 in space
2023 was an important year in the space sector, marked by a multitude of remarkable events and significant milestones. When future generations reflect on this year, one event is bound to overshadow all others in the cosmic narrative: the initial steps in launching SpaceX's Starship program. Starship, a colossal and sophisticated spacecraft, is designed to realize SpaceX founder Elon Musk's vision of landing humans on Mars, and thus includes enhancements and capabilities unmatched by any other spacecraft. It is made of stainless steel, which allows for reusability at minimal maintenance costs; it is powered by methane and oxygen, resources obtainable from the Martian atmosphere. With six powerful engines and vertical landing ability, Starship surpasses existing spacecraft in its human carrying capacity and versatility, serving both as a supply vessel and a refueling spacecraft.
Starship is launched on a dedicated giant rocket, named SuperHeavy. Due to the size and power of the system it is poised to become a central player in the field of space travel, and it has already been chosen to land humans on the moon in NASA's first manned Artemis program landings. The first experimental Starship launch was conducted in April this year, but the spacecraft failed to separate from the launch rocket as planned, and both were destroyed in a controlled explosion without reaching space. However, seven months of rigorous improvements and adjustments paved the way for a second launch, ultimately reaching space before a self-explosion ended the experiment. The substantial progress between the two launches, coupled with a growing familiarity with SpaceX's capabilities, indicates that routine Starship missions and enhanced space accessibility are on the horizon.
A Tough Start. Summary of the first Starship launch experiment, which ended in an explosion:
SpaceX itself did not meet its 2023 goal of 100 successful launches, but came remarkably close, notching up 96 launches, a significant increase from the previous year's 60. Most launches (90) involved Falcon 9 rockets, with the majority (57) deploying Starlink satellites, SpaceX's expansive communication network now boasting around 5,000 units in low Earth orbit. Despite geopolitical tensions and controversies, notably regarding network access in conflict zones, SpaceX's impact continues to grow, including four Falcon Heavy rocket launches and, as mentioned, two Starship spacecraft launches.
Indeed, SpaceX is now the world's largest space power, at least in terms of the number of launches. China, with 66 launches, exceeded its previous year's count by two (65 successful and one failure), while Russia conducted 19 launches. Remarkably, the United States, excluding SpaceX, achieved only 17 launches, with six ending in failure. India achieved seven successful launches, and even North Korea joined the space club with a successful first launch of a military reconnaissance satellite, after two previous setbacks.
In total, 2023 set a new record with 207 launches into Earth's orbit, surpassing any previous year.
Space Power. The launch of the Shenzhou 16 manned mission to the Chinese space station in May 2023 | Photo: Xinhua/Li Gang
The year 2022 concluded with the successful mission of the Orion spacecraft around the moon, kickstarting NASA's Artemis program. In April this year, NASA announced the crew slated to orbit the moon as part of the Artemis 2 mission, planned for 2024, aimed at paving the way for a crewed lunar landing, although Starship's developmental delays have caused setbacks.
Meanwhile, efforts continue to land more and more unmanned spacecraft on the moon, laying groundwork for prolonged, if not permanent, human presence on the moon. It serves as a stark reminder that this endeavor, though accomplished over half a century ago, remains a formidable task, particularly with constrained budgets. India recorded the biggest success of the year by softly landing the unmanned Chandrayaan 3 in the moon's South Pole region, a few days after the Russian Luna 25 crashed during its landing attempt in the same region.
In April this year, the Japanese company ispace attempted at being the first to successfully land a private spacecraft on the moon, but the attempt ended in the crash of Hakuto-R, which also carried a small rover from the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, two American companies intending to launch private spacecraft to the moon this year postponed their missions. The first of these, Astrobotics' Peregrine landing, is now scheduled for launch on January 8, 2024.
Last week, Japan's space agency inserted the SLIM spacecraft, launched in September, into lunar orbit, and plans are underway to attempt a small lander and rover landing on the moon's surface towards the end of January.
First successful landing in the moon's South Pole region. A simulation of the Chandrayaan 3 landing and the tiny rover on the moon's surface | Source: ISRO
Crowded Space, Sluggish Space Tourism
For a brief time in May this year, an unprecedented number of 17 people were found concurrently in orbit around Earth. This number includes the seven crew members on the International Space Station, four private astronauts of the Axiom 2 mission, and six Chinese astronauts stationed aboard the Tiangong 3 space station during a crew change. If suborbital flights are considered, the count briefly surged to 20 a few days later, thanks to a Virgin Galactic tourism flight to the edge of space.
While professional space activities maintain a steady launch pace, with two crews launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) and two to the Chinese station, the field of space tourism is lagging behind expectations. Axiom Space launched one mission of private astronauts to the International Space Station, including two astronauts from Saudi Arabia.
The sector of tourism to the edge of space, initially anticipated to flourish this year, recorded only modest achievements. Virgin Galactic resumed flights after a lengthy hiatus, conducting one employee flight and five commercial flights. However, the company intends to suspend flights in the near future to concentrate on developing the next generation of spaceplanes, amidst declarations from the company's founder, Richard Branson, that he will stop funding it. Blue Origin, the competitor in suborbital flights, recently resumed unmanned flights after an over-year-long due to a launch failure, and the timeline for resumption of tourist flights remains uncertain.
Celebrating a few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space. Representatives of the Italian Air Force on Virgin Galactic's first commercial flight, June 2023 | Photo: Virgin Galactic"
Continuing to Delve Deeper
The United States space agency successfully completed the sample collection mission from the asteroid Bennu, undertaken by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft in 2020. The spacecraft dropped the sample container in the Utah desert this September, and while NASA scientists are still grappling with technical difficulties in opening the main sample container, they have already extracted about 70 grams from the outer container, revealing intriguing findings.
The European Space Agency launched the JUICE mission this year to study Jupiter and its moons. The spacecraft carries several computer chips from the Israeli company Ramon Space, as well as an Israeli research instrument developed by Accubeat, situated in Jerusalem, led by Prof. Yoav Kaspi from the Weizmann Institute of Science and funded by the Israeli Space Agency. The instrument, a metronome generating an exceptionally stable radio signal, holds the promise of enhancing our understanding of Jupiter's atmospheric structure when its signals traverse the giant planet's atmosphere. Kaspi himself, known to be one of the leaders in the study of the structure of Jupiter and a member of the scientific team of the American spacecraft Juno, recently received NASA's Medal of Scientific Excellence for his contribution to the project.
In October this year, NASA launched the Psyche mission, designed to explore the giant asteroid 16 Psyche, which is over 200 kilometers in diameter. The mission is anticipated to reach the asteroid in 2029 spending approximately two years in its orbit in order to study its composition,in an attempt to better understand how planetary cores and other celestial bodies are formed.
Three new space telescopes were launched this year. The European Space Agency's Euclid telescope, ESA, is dedicated to measuring the universe's expansion and unlocking the enigmas of dark matter and dark energy. The Indian Space Agency, ISRO, launched the Aditya-L1 telescope, to study solar storms and their impact on Earth, while the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, launched the X-ray telescope XRISM, designed to explore questions related to the composition of matter in the universe. An Israeli researcher, Dr. Roy Rachin from NASA's Goddard Center, who studies the formation of new elements in star explosions known as supernovae, is also part of the telescope's scientific team.
Another study involving Israeli participation was conducted here on Earth, led by American-Israeli physicist Avraham (Avi) Loeb from Harvard University, attempting to locate remnants of a meteorite that apparently came from another solar system and exploded in the South Pacific Ocean. Using a special magnet, Loeb and his team collected hundreds of fragments, which they claim were created in the meteorite explosion, and according to him, indicate that its origins lie outside of the solar system. However, many researchers do not agree with his conclusions.
Studying the secrets of the universe. A short video about the Euclid space telescope:
Looking Ahead to 2024
The year 2024 promises a multitude of exciting space events. As mentioned, the Artemis 2 mission, if not subject to further delays, is poised to carry four astronauts on a momentous lunar orbit flight—the first since 1972. Hopefully, Starship will successfully complete its first space trial, potentially encompassing a partial orbit of Earth and perhaps even advancing to full orbital flight.
China, which landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon about five years ago, plans to repeat the operation with the Chang'e 6 mission. This mission not only aims to land on the far side but also to return soil samples to Earth, marking a historic first. Additionally, NASA's plans include the late-year launch of Viper, an unmanned rover tasked with exploring the moon's South Pole region in search of evidence of frozen subsurface water. This is in addition to several missions by private enterprises striving to make lunar landings during the year.
Japan's space agency is expected to launch a mission to study Mars' two small moons, and the United States space agency plans to launch small twin spacecraft to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere. NASA also plans to launch the Europa Clipper spacecraft to explore Europa, one of Jupiter's large moons, and try to ascertain if conditions conducive to life exist beneath its icy exterior.
In Earth's orbit, the American company Sierra is expected to finally inaugurate the Dream Chaser, a spaceplane capable of runway landings, reminiscent of space shuttles. This innovative spacecraft is slated for supply missions to the International Space Station and, eventually, human transportation. Boeing, another player in the space industry, aims to conduct its first manned test flight this year for missions to the space station, marking a milestone after numerous delays and after a successful unmanned trial in 2022.
Stay tuned for an exciting year ahead in the realm of space exploration and discovery.