The moon, asteroids and brand new rockets topped the world’s space news in 2023.
Elon Musk’s monster rocket made it to space on the second test flight before exploding again. India landed successfully on the moon, outdoing Russia, which crashed. And NASA brought back its first samples of an asteroid.
These are just a few of 2023’s cosmic hits and misses. And there’s more to come in 2024.
The moon was the hottest ticket in town, with landing attempts in 2023 by Russia, India and a private Japanese company. Only India prevailed, becoming the fourth country to do so. Two U.S. companies, China and the Japanese Space Agency are targeting touchdowns, some as early as January. NASA kicked off 2023 by introducing the four astronauts who are slated to fly around the moon in late 2024—three from the U.S. and a Canadian. Another crew will actually land, but the timing is uncertain.
The biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, SpaceX’s Starship, launched twice from South Texas in 2023 and, both times, blew up and littered the Gulf of Mexico. The second test flight lasted twice as long and soared 93 miles (150 kilometers). SpaceX wants the empty spacecraft to make it around the world, before adding satellites and people. NASA’s next moonwalkers will need Starship to get to the lunar surface. Three other rockets are set to make their debut in 2024: United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan with a lunar lander, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, the company’s first orbital-class rocket, and Europe’s upgraded Ariane 6 rocket.
NASA billed it as asteroid autumn. In September, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft delivered a batch of rubble collected from asteroid Bennu. A couple weeks later, the Psyche spacecraft blasted off on a six-year cruise to a metal-rich asteroid bearing the same name. Then in November, the Lucy spacecraft zoomed past the first asteroid on its crowded itinerary, discovering a mini moon with two fused orbs. Lab workers in Houston are still trying to pry open the asteroid sample canister that landed in the Utah desert. So far, scientists have removed 2.5 ounces (70 grams) of Bennu’s black dust and chips of rock.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic started taking tourists on short rides to space in 2023 and whipped through five customer launches in less than five months from New Mexico. Only a few more are planned before the company stands down in mid-2024 to develop a rocketship that can fly more people more often. Musk’s SpaceX did its second private trip to the International Space Station and has more chartered flights coming up, as well as the first private spacewalk. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin hasn’t launched passengers since its New Shepard rocket carrying experiments crashed in Texas in 2022.
The James Webb Space Telescope marked its first year of cosmic picture-taking with the release of a wondrous shot of the closest star-forming region to Earth. It followed with a fresh look at the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant previously photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, and helped discover the oldest black hole yet, a goliath formed 470 million years after the Big Bang. “The James Webb continues to just do extraordinary things for us,” said NASA chief Bill Nelson. Hubble keeps churning out its own glamour shots, 30 years after spacewalking astronauts restored its vision in one of the most thrilling shuttle missions ever.
The Americas reveled in a “ring of fire” eclipse in October, an appetizer to the total solar eclipse coming up in April. The sun, moon and Earth lined up to create the “ring of fire” solar eclipse from Oregon to Texas and parts of Central and South America. The moon was too far from Earth to completely blot out the sun, but will be at just the right distance on April 8. The total solar eclipse will begin in Mexico and head northeast through Texas and Arkansas, the Midwest, upstate New York, New England and Canada.
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