Even for an agency that put the first human on the moon, designed and flew the first reusable spacecraft, and now continues to extend our knowledge of the near and far stretches of the universe, NASA strung together a remarkable list of accomplishments in 2022.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous moonshot speech at Rice University in Houston on Sept. 12 of this year, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson rekindled Kennedy’s answer to the question of why go to the moon as NASA, once again, is on a track to put astronauts on the lunar surface. But this time, Nelson noted, a moon landing is just one step toward a much bigger goal.

“Throughout America’s story there are defining days,” Nelson told an audience of students, standing in virtually the same spot Kennedy did in 1962. “Days when minds change, hearts fill and imaginations soar. Days when visions transform the trajectory of the American story, which is our story.”

“Doing what is hard and achieving what is great, that is what stirs humankind. That’s what unites us. With inspiration and innovation no Herculean effort is too large. No moonshot is beyond our reach. A new generation ... stands ready. Ready to return humanity to the moon and then to take us further than ever before, to Mars.”

And while NASA took a huge step toward accomplishing that new mission late in 2022, let’s start a little further back with a look at the agency’s highlight accomplishments in the past year.

This image released by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA. | NASA via Associated Press

James Webb Space Telescope expanding knowledge and wonder

In July, NASA shared the debut pictures captured by the world’s most advanced space observation platform, the James Webb Space Telescope, the first in a slew of jaw-dropping images that are serving to inspire awe, solve long-running mysteries and create entirely new paths of inquiry about the deepest reaches of the universe.

President Joe Biden hosted a grand unveiling of Webb’s first images at the White House in early July and the pics did not disappoint. One image captured a field of stars and galaxies, including faint recordings of galaxies as much as 13 billion light-years away.

Since then, Webb has streamed the sharpest images ever created of planets in our own solar system as well as dramatic, distant bodies with names as intriguing as their appearances like Cartwheel Galaxy, Tarantula Nebula and the Phantom Galaxy.

Orion capsule back after 25-day journey as NASA inches closer to moon landing
Earth strikes back: NASA successfully crashes spacecraft into asteroid in planetary defense test
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This photo made available by NASA was taken during the first drive of the Perseverance rover on Mars on March 4, 2021. A NASA rover on Mars by chance had its microphone on when a whirling tower of red dust passed overhead and caught the sound. Scientists released the first-of-its-kind audio on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. | NASA via Associated Press

Perseverance Rover may be holding the first evidence of alien life

The Mars Perseverance Rover has been on the Red Planet for over a year and a half, but this summer it hit the mother lode when it comes to gathering evidence that may lead to a conclusive answer about the existence of life on other planets.

At a NASA press briefing in September, Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley, of the California Institute of Technology, said rocks currently under investigation in Mars’ Jezero Crater “have the highest concentration of organic matter that we’ve yet found on the mission. And of course, organic molecules are the building blocks of life.”

But Farley also stressed that organic compounds and other potential signs of past organic life, so-called biosignatures, can come from other sources and are not, in themselves, definitive proof past Martian life.

“Potential biosignatures is something that may have been produced by life but also could have been prod in the absence of life,” Farley said. “The key point about a potential biosignature is it compels further investigation to draw a conclusion.”

And Perseverance is not only picking up and storing Martian samples that may reveal alien life, it also has a future date with another NASA mission that is aiming to land on Mars, retrieve the samples, and return them to earth.

“These rocks are exactly the kind of rocks we came to investigate both with the rover and its scientific instruments and to bring back to earth so they can be studied in terrestrial laboratories,” Farley said.

This illustration made available by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA depicts NASA’s DART probe, foreground right, and Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube, bottom right, at the Didymos system before impact with the asteroid Dimorphos, left. DART is expected to zero in on the asteroid on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph. The impact should be just enough to nudge the asteroid into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion space rock. | Steve Gribben, Johns Hopkins APL/NASA via Associated Press

DART mission scores direct hit, 7 million miles away

In late September, NASA successfully crashed a spacecraft into a distant asteroid to see if it could move the rock, a method that will come in handy should a planet-killing asteroid ever come hurtling toward earth.

NASA says this particular asteroid is millions of miles away and was not a threat to earth before the crash, nor will it be a hazard following impact.

Thanks to a camera on board the spaceship, the lead-up to the collision was live-streamed back to earth. Those logged onto NASA’s YouTube channel saw the Dimorphos asteroid slowly fill the frame in the minutes before impact when the image screen froze and moments later mission engineers confirmed a direct hit.

Sponsored by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is a $325 million project that successfully crashed a 1,260-pound spacecraft traveling at 14,000 mph into Dimorphos, an asteroid that’s 525 feet in diameter and 7 million miles from earth.

Dimorphos is a moonlet asteroid, orbiting a larger asteroid named Didymos, which is about a half-mile in diameter. Mission officials have stressed that the binary system “is not on a path to collide with earth and therefore poses no actual threat to the planet” but is the “perfect testing ground” to see if an asteroid’s natural path can be altered via a high-velocity impact.

While DART was recording video right up to the moment of its own demise, plenty of other “eyes” were on the collision, including a slew of earth-bound telescopes as well as a number of spaced-based observers.

NASA says the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes were turned toward the Didymos system for the event, as was the Lucy space probe. DART was also carrying a small cube satellite designed and built by the Italian Space Agency that it launched about two weeks ago on its way to the target. The LICIACube had the closest third-party view of the crash from its position at 55 kilometers, around 34 miles, from Dimorphos at the time of impact, according to NASA.

In October, NASA reported its data analysis determined the DART impact had altered Dimorphos’ orbit period from 11 hours and 55 minutes to 11 hours 32 minutes, a result that far exceeded the space agency’s goal for the experiment.

“For the first time ever, humanity has changed the orbit of a planetary object,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA.

“As new data come in each day, astronomers will be able to better assess whether, and how, a mission like DART could be used in the future to help protect Earth from a collision with an asteroid if we ever discover one headed our way.”

While this may seem like a minor bump, the ability to create even a minute change in an asteroid or comet’s trajectory toward earth, with sufficient lead time, could be the difference between a future near-miss or direct hit.

Artemis I is a first step toward returning to the moon, and beyond

NASA’s oft-delayed Artemis I mission came to a spectacular and successful conclusion on Dec. 11 when the unoccupied Orion crew capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico after surviving a 25,000 mph and 5,000-degree reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

While unmanned, the Orion crew capsule included three test dummies outfitted in space suits and monitoring gear as it completed a 25-day journey that took the craft on a wide orbit around the moon, traveling further from Earth than any spacecraft designed to carry astronauts. All told, Orion traveled some 1.4 million miles on a mission powered by the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System, that lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in the early morning hours of Nov. 16.

The Artemis I mission experienced multiple launch delays thanks to pesky issues related to fueling process and, later, a pair of hurricanes that ripped through central Florida. But, once the rocket finally left the clutches of Earth’s gravitational pull, the mission performed beyond expectations, according to NASA, proving out a brand new launch system along with a host of other new technologies and methods.

What is the Artemis mission?

The crewless Artemis I mission allowed NASA experts to test the new SLS components, many of which had been repurposed from the old space shuttle program and other systems, as well as the Orion space capsule.

Artemis I is just the first in a three-phase program aiming to put astronauts back on the surface of the moon for the first time since the final Apollo moon visit in December 1972.

Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. Then, if all goes according to NASA’s current plan, the SLS/Orion package will return on a mission that will include a landing on the moon’s surface in 2025.

Along the way, NASA wants to put a small space station, the Lunar Gateway, in orbit around the moon and has future plans that include a moon base station, the Artemis Base Camp.

Why does NASA want to return to the moon?

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In a posting on the Artemis missions’ website, NASA lists a few reasons why it’s devoting billions of dollars to making moon landings, once again, a priority.

“We’re going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation,” NASA says. “While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all.”

While a return to the moon smacks a little of “been there, done that,” NASA says it’s committed to accomplishing some other first benchmarks as part of the series of Artemis missions, including extending manned exploration deeper into the solar system.

“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA says in a web posting. “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”

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