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Space Exploration in 2023: The Major Milestones for Humanity

Astronomer Frank Rubio during a spacewalk in 2023
Space Exploration in 2023: The Major Milestones for Humanity. Credit: NASA

The past twelve months have undoubtedly exhibited credible milestones regarding space exploration. Based on this, humanity should brace for yet more major landmark events because, come 2023, a lot is lined up regarding space surveying.

Both private space companies and national agencies are enthusiastically looking forward to trekking space in order to test various capabilities, including space landings, spacewalks, and usable water ice detection among other things.

Humanity should brace for significant strides in private human spaceflight specifically. This includes missions heading back and forth to solar system destinations as well as new rockets which will be used for flights out into space.

According to Jill Stuart, a space policy expert from the London School of Economics in the UK, previous years were “all about Mars.” He notes that “now we’ve shifted back to the moon.”

Most of our anticipated space explorations in the coming year, as highlighted below, are mainly prompted by a renewed effort in the US to return humans to the lunar surface later this decade.

Moon landing by humanity

In preparing to start off 2023, Hakuto-R, a private spacecraft developed by a Japanese firm, was launched on December 11, 2022 ahead of a four-month journey to the moon. Among other goals, the lunar lander is expected to deploy rovers built by the space agencies of Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

If successful, Hakuto-R could become the first private mission to land on the moon in March. However, around the same time of the Hakuto-R spacecraft moon landing, two private landers from the US—one from the firm Astrobotic and the other from Intuitive Machines, called Peregrine and Nova-C, respectively—are also set to reach the moon.

Both of these are NASA-backed missions equipped with gadgets that will study the lunar environment. This is part of the Commercial Lunar Payloads Services program which will be in effect ahead of human missions planned for later this decade under the Artemis program.

With the Artemis program having reached a milestone during its unmanned Artemis 1 spacecraft launch in November 2022, NASA anticipates laying significant groundwork in 2023 by critically studying the moon’s surface. This will be in preparation for a manned spacecraft mission in 2024.

Jon Cowart, a former NASA human spaceflight manager now at the Aerospace Corporation in the US, asserted that “the moon is getting a lot more attention than it has done for many years.”

The Orion capsule looking back at the Moon and Earth
The Orion capsule looking back at the Moon and Earth Credit: NASA

Other moon landing space mission

Prior to NASA’s affiliated moon landing missions, other planned moon missions include those from the space agencies of India and Japan, with Chandrayaan-3 and SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon), respectively.

India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission is set to launch in August 2023 for a second attempt after an initial crash on the moon in 2019. Although the launch date for SLIM has not yet been set, the mission is expected to test precision landing on the moon.

Russia’s Luna-25 lander is also reportedly planning for a moon landing in 2023. However, the status of its launch and purpose are still uncertain.

Private human space travel

Driven by ambition and curiosity, four commercial astronauts are expected to travel to space aboard SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn mission slated for March 2023. Among those on board will be billionaire Jared Isaacman. Specifically, the goal will be to fly at an altitude higher  than any other manned orbital spaceflights since the Apollo missions.

Since 2020, SpaceX has been ferrying astronauts to space with some to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract with NASA and others on personal missions. However, the impending March Polaris Dawn mission will be a new significant step in private space travel because the crew is anticipated to don spacesuits and venture outside the spacecraft.

“Polaris Dawn is really exciting,” says Laura Forczyk from the space consulting firm Astralytical. “My understanding is that the entire vehicle will be evacuated. Everybody is going to at least stick their heads out.”

Besides the individual motives of the members aboard the spacecraft, the mission may help NASA decide whether a future Crew Dragon mission could be useful in servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.

Together with SpaceX, NASA has been investigating the capability of servicing the Hubble Space Telescope with the aid of a Crew Dragon. Therefore, Forczyk said, “We’ll have some idea whether it’s feasible.”

Other private human space travel missions using Crew Dragon slated to head for the ISS in 2023 include the Axiom-2 and Axiom-3 alongside two additional NASA flights using Crew Dragon.

Another competing spacecraft from the US firm Boeing is also set to launch with a crew for the first time in April 2023 after multiple delays.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft is lowered onto the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida on Sunday, August 2, 2020. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Re-ignition of aborted space projects

Apart from the already planned commercial space travels in 2023, the world has recently been anticipating other establishments aimed at providing opportunities to private individuals hoping to travel out to and explore space.

The astronomic world eagerly awaits to see if Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, will be allowed to launch with humans again after being grounded following an uncrewed launch failure in September 2022.

Private spaceflight pioneer, Virgin Galactic, has been relatively quiet since it launched its founder, Sir Richard Branson, into space in July 2021. However, with its re-energized ambition to venture into space, there’s a project over the horizon to look out for in 2023.

Another game-changer to look out for next year regarding commercial human spaceflight may be the first orbital flight attempt of SpaceX’s massive and reusable Starship rocket. The spacecraft underwent launchpad tests earlier this month. Therefore, it may launch by the end of this year but most probably in 2023.

However, if the Starship rocket launch is successful, it could transform our exploration of space because it would surpass NASA’s Space Launch System as the largest rocket to make it to orbit.

“The ability to take more mass up opens up new opportunities,” says Uma Bruegman, an expert in space strategies at the Aerospace Corporation. That could include, one day, human missions to Mars—or beyond.

But there’s still a long way to go. “It’s definitely an important year [for Starship],” says Cowart. “They’ve got a lot to do.” One of its nearer-term goals will be preparing for the moon. NASA chose Starship’s upper stage as the initial lunar lander for the Artemis program.

Jeff Bezos with his crew on the first Blue Origin flight into space
Jeff Bezos with his crew on the first Blue Origin flight into space. Credit: Facebook/Blue Origin

Exploration into the solar space system

Another interesting exploration opportunity in space will involve the moons of the solar system’s biggest planet—Jupiter. This will be a part of the new European Space Agency (ESA) mission dubbed JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer).

ESA’s spacecraft is scheduled to go into orbit around Jupiter in 2031 and will perform detailed studies of the Jovian moons Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa, all of which are thought to harbor oceans that could contain life beneath their icy surfaces.

Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor for science and exploration at ESA, said, “It’s the first mission that’s fundamentally focused on the icy moons,” and “we now know these icy moons have very deep-water oceans, and they could have the conditions for life to have developed.”

JUICE will map these oceans with radar instruments, but McCaughrean says it will also be able to look for possible biosignatures on the surface of Europa’s ice, which could rain down from plumes ejected into space from its subsurface ocean.

Later in 2023, ESA will launch the Euclid telescope, which will probe the “dark universe,” observing billions of galaxies over a third of the sky to better understand dark matter and dark energy in the cosmos.

NASA also plans to launch the Psyche spacecraft in October 2023 on a Falcon Heavy launch spacecraft. This is an orbiter mission that will explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche.

The space agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to return to Earth on September 24th with pieces of an asteroid called Bennu. New insight could be gleaned into the structure and formation of the solar system.

Other space explorations to watch out for

E-commerce company Amazon also aims to send up the first satellites for Project Kuiper in early 2023, the start of a 3,000-satellite orbiting communications network it hopes will rival SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

Several new rockets are set to launch, including the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. It will carry Astrobotic’s moon lander, some of Amazon’s satellites, and potentially Blue Origin’s large New Glenn rocket.

Because both are heavy-lift rockets that could take many satellites into space, Cowart said, “There’s a huge swathe of activity, [and] I’m very excited about this year.”

A joint mission of the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)—dubbed BepiColombo—to the planet Mercury is expected to carry out its third Mercury flyby on June 20, 2023.

The mission is comprised of two satellites launched together, namely the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Mio (Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, MMO), with the purpose of performing a comprehensive study of Mercury. This will include characterization of its magnetic field, magnetosphere, and its interior and surface structure.

The Parker Solar Probe, a NASA space probe launched in 2018 with the mission of making observations of the outer corona of the Sun, is also expected to make its sixth Venus flyby by August 21, 2023.

Reflecting on the numerous space exploration events in the pipeline for the year 2023, humanity should brace for yet another year of history in the making, as major milestones will surely be reached.

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