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For space exploration, 2022 was a year full of cosmic milestones

EMILY FENG, HOST:

2022 was a tough year here on Earth. But in space, things actually went pretty well for us. Joining me to discuss the year from beyond our little, blue planet and what's to come in 2023 is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Welcome to the show, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Emily.

FENG: So space is vast. Where do you want to start your look back for the year?

BRUMFIEL: Well, why don't we start to look back with a telescope that's designed to look, actually, back at the start of the universe? It's called the James Webb Space Telescope. It's this $10 billion project. It took decades to develop. And it's an engineering marvel. It traveled a million miles from Earth and then kind of unfolded in this, like, origami-style way. NASA actually calculated there were 344 ways it could fail. But it didn't. Everything went fine. So we ended up with some spectacular views of space, including some of the earliest galaxies in the universe - over 13 billion years ago. So the thinking is this could really revolutionize our understanding of the early universe and even the Big Bang.

FENG: That's incredible. And then closer to Earth, there was a mission to deflect an asteroid that we also pulled off, right?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, yeah. This was pretty cool. It was known as DART for short. And basically, the goal was to smash a spacecraft about the size of a golf cart into an asteroid roughly the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza. So in September, they lined everything up, and they took their best shot. And it worked. They actually did manage to move this asteroid a little bit. In fact, they moved it a bit more than they'd sort of hoped they would.

FENG: So we're safe. We're safe from asteroids?

BRUMFIEL: The truth is this is a proof of principle. And, in fact, NASA's needs to find these potential Earth-destroying asteroids. And that's one of the things they want to do next - is build a telescope to look for asteroids that might cross Earth's path.

FENG: All right. So all the missions you described were uncrewed. I'm wondering how things went for humans that managed to make it off-Earth.

BRUMFIEL: Chinese astronauts had a - actually a pretty big year in space. They managed to expand their space station and started regular crew rotations - which is a fairly big deal for them. And after years of delays, NASA finally launched a capsule that's designed to take humans back to the moon. Now, this didn't have people on it this time, but the trip went really well. And the hope is the next mission this capsule does will have humans on board. You know, it wasn't all smooth sailing for humans off the planet. Particularly on the International Space Station - which is a joint U.S.-Russia project - there were a lot of tensions, of course, because of the war in Ukraine. And there were also some technical problems, including the recent unexpected venting of a bunch of coolant from our Russian space capsule. So it was a tough year on the space station. But otherwise, humans did all right.

FENG: And what do we have to look forward to in 2023?

BRUMFIEL: So we're going to get more pictures from the Webb telescope filling up our feeds. That should be great. And we have a bunch of potential developments in commercial spaceflight. So we might have the first commercial spacewalk from a SpaceX capsule. That's Elon Musk's company. And SpaceX might also launch this massive, new rocket called a Starship that is maybe the sort of architecture they'll use to one day try and reach Mars. And then Boeing, not to be outdone, is going to try and launch crew aboard its first commercial vehicle as well. So there will be a lot of astronauts going into space aboard commercial spacecrafts next year. And that's something to look forward to.

FENG: Very exciting. That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.