SpaceX's deep-space, orbital Starship spacecraft is stacked atop its Super Heavy Booster in August at the company's South Texas facility as engineers prepare for more test firings. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Space exploration may shatter records in 2022 with the launch of the most powerful rocket ever in a flight beyond the moon, a space telescope that will peer into the dawn of the universe and groundbreaking science on Mars.
The New Year also may see SpaceX's deep space Starship rocket fly above the atmosphere, expansion of space tourism and new rocket launches from companies such as United Launch Alliance and Firefly Aerospace.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to dominate the global launch industry again with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy after launching a record 31 orbital missions in 2021. Most of those launches will carry the company's own Starlink broadband Internet communications satellites.
The year ahead also will see a continuation of NASA astronaut launches by SpaceX to the International Space Station and many new accomplishments, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview.
Nelson said he also is certain Congress will provide sufficient funding for a return to the moon in the next few years.
"I'm confident because the American people do not want to land [again] second to China," Nelson said. "And neither does Joe Biden, and he reflects the will of the American people."
NASA plans to launch the massive SLS moon rocket in March or April for the Artemis I mission. It will pack a thrust of 8.8 million pounds --15% more than the Apollo-era Saturn V.
With that power, the rocket would send an uncrewed Orion capsule 280,000 miles from Earth, much farther than the previous record set by Apollo 13 at 249,000 miles in 1972.
NASA plans to collect data first from the rocket, and then for weeks from the capsule as it orbits the moon, flies 40,000 miles past and returns to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
The space agency had planned to launch the SLS rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February. But NASA postponed that target date in mid-December due to a problem with an engine flight controller, which is to be replaced.
NASA plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, but the agency has acknowledged that goal may be difficult to achieve because of a lack of congressional funding.
Looking for signs of life on Mars
NASA's rovers, Perseverance and Curiosity, along with the Ingenuity helicopter, will continue roaming Mars, looking for signs of ancient life.
Perseverance will continue drilling rock samples in the Red Planet's Jezero Crater, which NASA believes was an ancient lake that could have supported primitive life. Tiny Ingenuity will continue scouting for the rover after 18 successful flights.
No one knows how long the 4-pound helicopter will last on Mars. Ingenuity was designed for a 30-day test purely to demonstrate flight in the thin Martian air. But it has now flown 18 times over eight months. And NASA leadership fully supports funding the helicopter as long as it can fly, administrator Nelson said.
As the robotic explorers make progress, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send another mission to Mars in 2028 to collect drilled rock samples and bring them to Earth.
SpaceX and Starship
NASA intends to send people to Mars and the moon, and the agency has chosen SpaceX's Starship to provide the first human lunar lander for such a mission when it happens.
Starship and its booster would tower over the SLS and the Saturn V as the largest rocket ever -- more than 390 feet high. The ship is designed to take people and cargo to the moon and Mars, and is considered a key to Musk's plan to launch thousands of Starlink communications satellites.
But Starship hasn't flown in space, and SpaceX hasn't set a date for another test flight. If and when the company sends Starship into space, it would fly around the globe, re-enter the atmosphere and splash down off the coast of Hawaii, according to plans filed with federal regulatory agencies.
But all these plans were shrouded in uncertainly after Musk warned company employees in an email the day after Thanksgiving that snags in Starship Raptor engine production threatened SpaceX's progress and viability.
"What it comes down to is that we face a genuine risk of bankruptcy if we can't achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year," Musk said in the email, which was first obtained by the website Space Explored.
Nelson expressed confidence in SpaceX Starship development, but said he's pushing for extra congressional appropriations to fund a competitor, such as Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
The Amazon founder's company proposed a separate human lander in a three-way competition with SpaceX and Alabama-based Dynetics, but NASA said lack of funding forced it to choose only SpaceX.
"I work ... daily to try to get the additional funds to make the process competitive again," Nelson said. "I believe that you're going to see some exciting things coming out of SpaceX with regard to the Starship having its first flight test in orbit -- sometime early next year."
Many space industry observers have confidence in SpaceX, but aren't sure if the Starship design can be successful, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.
"If they can fly the upper stage in orbit, and bring it back down successfully, they will change the space industry forever," McDowell said. "The tests they've done so far are amazing, but it's not clear to me when or if they will ever accomplish orbital flight."
James Webb Space Telescope
Another major space project that took longer than anticipated to build is due to reveal new secrets of the universe in 2022.
The most powerful observatory ever built, the James Webb Space Telescope, is fully booked to peer at other planets and the origins of the universe for a year after its planned launch from the European Space Agency's spaceport in South America on Christmas morning.
The telescope will travel 1 million miles from Earth and orbit the sun.
The astronomy community will be waiting anxiously for the telescope's deployment, which could take up to a month, McDowell said.
"I've been watching my friends on Twitter panic about this launch. ... Everyone is nervous as hell," he said.
The Webb telescope will look billions of light years into the universe's history, according to NASA. Its powerful infrared instruments are designed to see more clearly and a few hundred million light years farther than the Hubble Space Telescope.
Scientists have scheduled about 400 studies that could reveal secrets about the oldest galaxies, inhabitable planets and even the dawn of the universe, according to NASA and astronomers involved in the project.
Preparing for something going wrong, engineers designed the Webb telescope with 50 deployment mechanisms and 178 releases or latches. They've even practiced shaking and spinning the observatory to jostle anything that doesn't unfurl property, such as its tennis court-sized sunshield.
"It's a crazy overcomplicated machine," McDowell said. "There are so many things that can go wrong, and it would be astonishing if we don't have at least one or two heart-stopping moments."
The sunshield will keep solar energy from interfering with the cold infrared instruments on the other side, which will be chilled to about -394 degrees F. By comparison, the coldest temperature recorded on Earth was in Antarctica at -128.6 F.
ULA Vulcan rocket coming along
Another big rocket that was to have been launched by now -- United Launch Alliance's Vulcan -- should see its maiden voyage in late 2022, company CEO Tory Bruno said in an interview.
"The rocket for the first launch is in the final stages of production and testing in our Decatur factory, and operations have been completed at [Cape Canaveral Space Force Station] Launch Complex 41 to test receiving, assembling and transporting a Vulcan to the launch pad," Bruno said.
ULA has been the primary launch provider for U.S. national security missions with the Atlas V rocket, which the company intends to retire. The new rocket relies on BE-4 engines manufactured by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space company, but they haven't been delivered to ULA yet, Bruno said.
He said the engines have performed better than expected in testing.
"The first flight engines are being manufactured. We look forward to receiving them in early 2022 to support the inaugural launch later in the year," Bruno said.
ULA also intends to launch Boeing's Starliner capsule on an Atlas V rocket for the spacecraft's second and delayed uncrewed test flight bound for the International Space Station, he said.
If that flight is successful, Starliner could carry astronauts by the end of the year on regular missions launched by ULA.
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA