The Year Ahead in Spaceflight

The Year Ahead in Spaceflight

A lot happened in space in 2022, including NASA’s historic Artemis 1 mission to the Moon. The sequel, Artemis 2, won’t happen for another two years (at least), but that doesn’t mean we’ll be neglecting the lunar environment in 2023.

Over a dozen lunar missions are planned for the coming year, some public and some private, in what will be a dramatic showcase of our increasing competency and interest in space. Highlights will include NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer orbiter, an entire army of various rovers (including a transforming rover built by a Japanese toy company and a spider-like robot that could eventually explore lunar caves), India’s second attempt at a soft landing, private landers from Astrobotic Technology and Japan’s ispace, among other missions to our natural satellite.

Conceptual image showing Astrobotic Technologies's Peregrine lander on the Moon.  (Image: Astrobotic Technologies)
Conceptual image showing Astrobotic Technologies’s Peregrine lander on the Moon. (Image: Astrobotic Technologies)

In addition, a big topic of conversation in 2023 will be justified complaints about how many objects are being sent to low Earth orbit, and how they’re negatively impacting astronomy and raising the risk of dangerous in-space collisions. Relatedly, we’ll be astounded at our collective launch cadence, with rockets blasting off on a seemingly daily basis. Welcome to the future — like it or not.

What we’re waiting for:

  • United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur heavy lift rocket is expected to perform its inaugural launch at some point during the first quarter. Powered by a pair of Blue Origin BE-4 engines, the two-stage rocket is currently booked for no less than six launches in 2023. For ULA and its customers, that first flight will need to go well, especially considering its payload: a lunar lander and the first Amazon broadband satellites.
  • NASA is expected to announce the crew of Artemis 2 — a trip around the Moon and back — in early 2023. We’re not sure who will be chosen, but we do know that a Canadian astronaut will be included for the mission, currently scheduled for late 2024.
  • Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket could likewise perform its first flight in 2023, though likely later in the year. The two-stage European rocket will be powered by an upgraded Vulcain 2 engine and either two or four strap-on solid rocket boosters, depending on the mission.
Conceptual image of the Polaris Dawn mission. (Image: Polaris Dawn)
Conceptual image of the Polaris Dawn mission. (Image: Polaris Dawn)
  • The all-private Polaris Dawn mission is scheduled to blast off no earlier than March. The civilian crew, consisting of Jared Isaacman, Scott Poteet, Sarah Gillis, and Anna Menon, will spend around five days in orbit riding inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon. In addition to performing science and engineering experiments, the crew will attempt the first commercial spacewalk in history.
  • In April, NASA and Boeing will attempt the first crewed mission of the CST-100 Starliner, in which the spacecraft will transport NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams to the International Space Station. The $US4.3 ($6) billion Starliner program has been beset with technical problems and delays, but OFT-2, the second uncrewed flight test of the system, performed in May, went reasonably well, setting the stage for the crewed demonstration mission. Should this test go well, an operational mission would follow, but not until 2024.
  • Also in April, an all-private crew will visit the ISS. The crew of Axiom Space’s Ax-2 mission will consist of two NASA astronauts and two yet-to-be named private astronauts from Saudi Arabia. Axiom will attempt another commercial mission to the ISS, Ax-3, in October. NASA now insists that its astronauts take part in commercial missions given that things didn’t go so smoothly the first time around.
  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is scheduled to return its surface sample from asteroid Bennu on September 24. In October, the space agency will attempt to launch its Psyche mission to explore a metallic asteroid. Euclid, a space telescope from the European Space Agency, is expected to launch in late 2023.
Rendering of Dream Chaser. (Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation)
Rendering of Dream Chaser. (Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation)
  • The first orbital flight of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane might happen at some point during 2023. A Vulcan Centaur is slated to lift the uncrewed spacecraft to orbit, where it will hang out for several months. Like the retired Space Shuttle, Dream Chaser is designed to perform atmospheric reentries and runway landings. The company envisions the platform as a means to deliver cargo and crew to future space stations, whether private or public.

Unconventional wisdom:

For SpaceX and its trusty Falcon 9 rocket, reusability is very much the present, but for virtually everyone else, it remains something that belongs in the future. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, or something that will prevent public and private launch providers from doing their thing; expendable rockets are still the way to go, even if the writing is on the wall in terms of their eventual obsolescence.

As many as 20 or more rockets could perform maiden flights in 2023, yet only a small handful will qualify as reusable launch vehicles, namely Blue Origin’s New Glenn, SpaceX’s Starship, and China’s Galactic Energy Pallas-1 and iSpace Hyberbola 2. Of these four, it’s likely that some, or possibly none, will fly in 2023 (more on that later). Make no mistake, reusable launch vehicles will eventually enter into the mainstream — just not in 2023. Unless you’re SpaceX.

Rendering of Blue Origin's New Glenn reusable rocket, which may or may not fly in 2023.  (Image: Blue Origin)
Rendering of Blue Origin’s New Glenn reusable rocket, which may or may not fly in 2023. (Image: Blue Origin)

Similarly, space tourism won’t be making huge headlines in 2023. The aforementioned Ax-2 mission to the ISS will scratch that itch to a degree, with U.S. racing driver John Shoffner making the trek to low Earth orbit. But Ax-2, Ax-3, and also Polaris Dawn, while hinting at space tourism, are serious missions, as the commercial sector sets the groundwork for future space-based engineering, science — and money-making.

At the same time, suborbital flights aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket won’t be happening any time soon. Jeff Bezos’s rocket is grounded while the FAA investigates a mishap from earlier this year. Suborbital flights aboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane are set to resume in 2023, but honestly, who the hell cares. These short hops to suborbital space are primarily reserved for the very wealthy, leading to public disinterest and scorn. Space tourism, it’s clear, is still very much at the beginning of the beginning.

More on this story: FAA Grounds Bezos After New Shepard Booster Goes Up in Flames

Looking to 2023, I’m also expecting a bunch of failures with satellites. It has never been cheaper to launch stuff to space, which means everyone and their uncles will seek to lob their pet projects to low Earth orbit. Many of these satellites will be produced cheaply and quickly, which will only to serve to increase the chances of failure once in space.

People to follow:

  • Gwynne Shotwell – The chief operating officer of SpaceX has managed to avoid the same kind of media attention afforded to CEO Elon Musk, yet her competent and calming presence is exactly what NASA needs right now. The erratic and distracted Musk is understandably making the space agency a bit nervous, but Shotwell’s presence bodes well for SpaceX’s current and future NASA obligations, whether it’s to safely deliver crew and cargo to the ISS or astronauts to the lunar surface.
  • Tory Bruno – The president and CEO of Colorado-based United Launch Alliance has a lot riding in 2023, as the company is set to fly its Vulcan Centaur for the first time. All eyes will be on the rocket scientist, but Bruno’s openness and good humour will make him a popular personality in the coming year.

  • Jasmin Moghbeli – Born to an Iranian family, the U.S. Navy attack helicopter pilot accumulated over 2,000 hours of flight time and participated in over 150 combat missions over her career, but she’s never gone to space. That’s set to change in 2023, as Moghbeli will command NASA’s SpaceX Crew-7 mission to the ISS in the fall of 2023.
  • Jared Isaacman – The billionaire founder of Shift4 Payments is going to space — again. He’s set to command the upcoming Polaris Dawn mission and attempt the first commercial space walk, and it likely won’t be his last sojourn in space. You can love or hate the fact that billionaires are going to space, but Jared Isaacman won’t be a name you can ignore.
  • Tim Dodd – The Everyday Astronaut YouTuber is already a popular spaceflight communicator, but things are about to change dramatically for Dodd, as he is one of eight people chosen for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s dearMoon mission — an upcoming trip around the Moon on board a SpaceX Starship spacecraft. The mission likely won’t fly in 2023, but Dodd’s name likely will.

Companies to watch:

The SpinLaunch A-33 Suborbital Mass Accelerator in New Mexico. (Image: SpinLaunch)
The SpinLaunch A-33 Suborbital Mass Accelerator in New Mexico. (Image: SpinLaunch)

A longshot bet:

I have a hunch that SpaceX won’t launch its fully integrated Starship on an orbital test flight in 2023. Or at the very least, it won’t successfully perform an orbital test in 2023. Musk has said as much, predicting early failures. The rocket is filled with new and untested components, making it likely for Starship to fail on its way up or down.

A static fire test of Starship prototype Booster 7 on November 29, 2022, in which 11 of 33 Raptor engines were ignited.  (Photo: SpaceX)
A static fire test of Starship prototype Booster 7 on November 29, 2022, in which 11 of 33 Raptor engines were ignited. (Photo: SpaceX)

Indeed, the rocket still seems a bit half-baked to me, with full-fledged static fire tests of the booster’s 33 Raptor engines yet to be performed (14 is the maximum performed so far). And then there’s the whole issue of reusability, with the company’s gigantic “Mechazilla” tower expected to assist the gigantic booster when making a controlled vertical landing back at the pad. The Starship upper stage will have to survive reentry, which may be a considerable technical challenge. This is really conceptual stuff, and it’s going to take some time for SpaceX to figure it all out, which I’m sure it will. For the record, I also don’t believe that Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket will fly in 2023.

And as loath as I am to admit this, I also feel that something bad will happen in space in 2023. There’s just too much happening in low Earth orbit for something not to happen, whether it be a pair of satellites smashing into each other, a critically important piece of infrastructure suddenly going silent, or something we simply can’t predict. Just a hunch.

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