In July, the world saw the first clear images of a sparkling galaxy cluster, an exoplanet outside our solar system and a nebula where stars are born. Those awe-inspiring, mind-bending pictures were captured by the Webb Space Telescope, the largest telescope ever launched into space. Led by NASA, with support from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, the US$10 billion, decades-long project to build the telescope wasn’t without its (serious) setbacks. But the team’s perseverance has helped usher in a new era of space exploration, potentially revolutionizing our understanding of the universe.
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U.S. startup Axiom Space made history with the first all-private astronaut mission to the International Space Station—just the latest achievement in the hypercompetitive race to expand space tourism. Four individuals were launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propelling the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in early April—and splashed down 17 days later. During their time on the space station, the crew conducted more than two dozen scientific research activities on topics ranging from air purification systems to self-assembling robots. A former NASA astronaut headed the crew, while the other three paid an estimated US$55 million each for the once-in-a-lifetime, out-of-this-world excursion. Next up? Axiom-2, planned for early 2023.
What do we need to know to make life on Mars possible? That remains to be seen—but the space industry could make one giant leap in learning with the 3D-printed Mars Dune Alpha habitat by Danish design studio BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group and U.S. construction company Icon. To be located at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, the habitat is a huge, windowless, 158-square-meter (1,700-square foot) living and working environment complete with gym, hydroponic garden and several lounging areas. Four volunteers will hunker down for one-year stints within the habitat, which was designed with the psychological and emotional toll of long space journeys in mind.
The first four launches of SpaceX’s prototype rocket Starship SN15 were successful in terms of liftoff—but the landings were another story: Each exploded before it could safely touch down back on Earth. Last May, the company changed its trajectory. After another test flight, the 16-story Starship gently alighted upon the Texas asphalt after a flight to the target altitude of 6.2 miles (10 kilometers). Elon Musk’s SpaceX ultimately hopes to create a fleet of reusable Starships to allow for easier transport of cargo and astronauts to the moon and Mars—a necessary precursor for the dream of making space trips more accessible and efficient.
One of the greatest challenges standing in the way of humans inhabiting space? Creating dwellings. Transporting bulky building materials or prefabricated dwellings by spacecraft simply isn’t practical. But MIT Media Lab and the Aurelia Institute might have cracked the construction conundrum, developing modular pentagonal and hexagonal tiles that self-assemble into honeycomb-like habitats and houses after being launched via rocket. Fitted with power-generating solar equipment and a series of electromagnets, the tiles snap together autonomously into geodesic dome structures, generate their own energy and disassemble autonomously when no longer needed. In April, the Tesserae tiles were tested at the International Space Station during the Axiom Mission 1 and they’re slated for another test trip next year.
Humans who dream of exiting Earth’s atmosphere probably envision doing so while strapped into a rocket or floating about an instrument-cluttered module. World View has a radically different vision for its Explorer Capsule: The U.S. upstart’s designs reveal a sleek room and comfy upholstered chairs with gourmet meals and flutes of champagne—all dangling from a giant, helium-filled stratospheric balloon that gently lifts passengers beyond the clouds in a two-hour ascent. Jointly conceived by U.K. design agency PriestmanGoode and Dzyne Technologies, the prototype for the luxe observation pod was unveiled in March, and World View aims to launch its first commercial space flights by 2024.
The sheer size and scale of the cosmos is one reason it inspires such awe—and the same is true for the Shanghai Astronomy Museum. After more than seven years of planning and construction, it debuted in July 2021, staking its claim as the world’s largest museum devoted to the subject. The sprawling, 39,019 square-meter (420,000-square-foot) ode to space exploration and the vast wonders of the universe was designed by Chinese firm Ennead and features dozens of immersive exhibits: Visitors can walk around a black hole, tour the cosmos within a suspended planetarium, stand before a huge and fiery red model of the sun, and peek at a 23.8-meter-tall (78-foot-tall) solar telescope. The museum was also designed with almost no right angles—a design choice meant to evoke the celestial grace of a sundial.
Space exploration doesn’t just let scientists learn about far-off galaxies. It can also help them explore some of the many unknowns around climate change here on Earth. In the search for answers, the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency teamed up to build EarthCARE (Cloud, Aerosol and Radiation Explorer), a satellite designed to gather data on clouds and aerosols—specifically, the ways in which they reflect solar radiation into space and the role they each play in trapping infrared radiation emitted by the Earth. Set to launch September 2023 from Kourou, French Guiana, the 11-meter (36-foot) spacecraft is equipped with a five-panel solar wing—on which the two agencies began preliminary testing in July—as well as Doppler cloud radar and tools to measure atmospheric radiation. Project leaders say the mission’s purpose isn’t simply to increase the scientific community’s knowledge, but to steer the world’s environmental solutions for generations to come.
The world may soon witness the first-ever extended space visit by a resident of an Arab nation. As part of SpaceX’s Crew-6 mission, Sultan AlNeyadi, an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates—handpicked from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre—will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) and remain there for a six-month stay. Announced in July and scheduled for early 2023, the mission will be focused on intensive scientific research projects. To prepare for the trip, AlNeyadi completed 1,400 hours of training in four different countries, navigating high-pressure simulations of everything from an ammonia leak within the ISS to an emergency landing of the capsule. Only one other Emirati has visited space: Hazza Al Mansoori, who stayed at the ISS for eight days—making AlNeyadi’s mission a notable step to greater inclusion.
For countries without space programs or companies wanting to test a new space product, the bar for entry may seem astronomically high. But Blue Origin (founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) and Sierra Space want to put the low Earth orbit within easier reach. In October 2021, the companies announced a joint venture to create Orbital Reef, a commercially developed, owned and operated space station that will “provide anyone with their opportunity to establish their own address on orbit.” Project partners—which include Redwire, Genesis Engineering Solutions, Boeing and Arizona State University—are targeting the latter half of this decade for launch. John Mulholland, Boeing VP and program manager for the International Space Station (ISS) says, “This project does not duplicate the immensely successful and enduring ISS, but rather goes a step further to fulfill a unique position in low Earth orbit where it can serve a diverse array of companies and host non-specialist crews.”