From a refrigerator-sized spacecraft crashing into an asteroid (deliberately) to a helicopter trying to catch a rocket plummeting back to Earth, 2022 offered surreal moments in space that could have been straight out of a sci-fi movie script.
Among the memorable happenings were billionaires plotting plans to explore the cosmos and scientists trying to find answers to perplexing questions, only to discover deeper mysteries.
Researchers managed to grow plants in lunar soil for the first time, while engineers successfully tested an inflatable heat shield that could land humans on Mars. And scientists determined that a rare interstellar meteorite crashed into Earth nearly a decade ago.
Here’s a look back at 10 times when space travel and exploration seemed more like the plot of a Hollywood movie than real life.
Crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid on purpose
A NASA spacecraft intentionally collided with Dimorphos, a small asteroid orbiting a larger space rock called Didymos. Although this collision looked like something out of the 1998 movie “Armageddon,” the Double Asteroid Redirect Test was a demonstration of deflection technology, and the first conducted in the name of planetary defense.
On September 26, many went online to get their first glimpse of Dimorphos’ surface, with DART cameras transmitting live images. The viewing ended after the spacecraft collided with the asteroid, but images captured by space telescopes and an Italian satellite provided dramatic pictures of what happened next.
The DART mission marked the first time mankind intentionally modified the motion of a celestial object in space. The spacecraft altered the orbit of the lunar asteroid in 32 minutes. Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos pose a threat to Earth, but the dual asteroid system was a perfect target for testing deflection technology.
A heartbeat in space
Fast radio bursts in space have intrigued astronomers since their discovery in 2007, but a mysterious radio burst with a heartbeat-like pattern raised the bar this year.
Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are intense bursts of millisecond radio waves of unknown duration and origin, fueling speculation that their cause is more extraterrestrial than cosmic.
Astronomers estimate that the “heartbeat signal” comes from a galaxy about 1 billion light-years away, but the location and cause of the burst are unknown.
In addition, the astronomers also detected a powerful radio wave laser, known as a megamaser, and a spinning celestial object that releases gigantic bursts of energy the likes of which they have never seen before.
Mysterious space rings
Speaking of strange objects, astronomers took a new leap forward in understanding strange radio circles, also known as ORCs. No, they’re not the elf-like humanoids from the “Lord of the Rings” books, but these fascinating objects have puzzled scientists since their discovery in 2020.
The space rings are so massive that each is about 1 million light-years across, 16 times larger than our Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers believe the circles take 1 billion years to reach their maximum size, and are so large that they have expanded beyond other galaxies.
Astronomers took a new detailed photo of the strange radio circles using the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKAT telescope, narrowing down possible theories that could explain these strange celestial spheres.
Disturbing and unusual black holes
Black holes are known for misbehaving and destroying stars, so astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope were surprised when they saw a black hole fueling star birth.
Their observation revealed a gaseous umbilical cord extending from a black hole at the center of a dwarf galaxy to a stellar nursery where stars are born. The stream of gas from the black hole triggered a pyrotechnic show of stellar birth as it interacted with the cloud, giving rise to a cluster of forming stars.
This year, astronomers also captured an image of the supermassive black hole lurking at the center of our galaxy, and Hubble spotted a lone black hole wandering through the Milky Way. And the black hole’s X-ray signals became eerie sounds we won’t soon forget.
A helicopter with a hook tries to catch a rocket in mid-air
Rocket Lab, a U.S. company based in New Zealand, is trying to find a way to recapture its booster rockets as they fall toward Earth after launch. In 2022, the company made two attempts to deploy a helicopter with a hook. The crazy spectacle is part of Rocket Lab’s plans to save money by recovering and reusing rocket parts after launching satellites into space.
The first attempt, in May, appeared to go according to plan when the helicopter snagged a booster. But the pilots made the decision to release the rocket part for safety reasons.
On the second attempt, the rocket failed to turn up and pilots confirmed that the booster would not return dry to the factory. In a tweet, the company reported that a data loss issue had occurred during the rocket’s re-entry.
“Open the capsule doors, Hal.”
NASA flew its first virtual assistant on a lunar mission with the space agency’s historic Artemis I flight: a version of Amazon’s Alexa.
While not exactly reminiscent of HAL 9000, the antagonistic voice assistant from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the decision drew a multitude of funny comparisons.
The Artemis I mission was unmanned, but NASA ground control teams used the voice assistant, called Callisto, to control cabin lighting and play music during the trip. It did not have the ability to open or close doors, let that be clear.
Artemis I was only a test mission, and NASA is still evaluating how to include the voice recognition system in future missions.
Japanese billionaire and 8 artists plan trip around the Moon
Japanese fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa chose eight passengers who he said will accompany him on a trip around the Moon, powered by SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, which has yet to fly. The group includes American DJ Steve Aoki and popular space youtuber Tim Dodd, better known as Everyday Astronaut.
The mission, called Dear Moon, was first announced in 2018 with the intention of flying in 2023. Initially, Maezawa intended to take a group of artists with him on a six-day trip around the Moon, but later announced that he had expanded his definition of “artist.” Instead, Maezawa announced in a video last year that he would be open to people from all walks of life as long as they considered themselves artists.
On the other hand, billionaire Dennis Tito, who became the first person to pay his way to the International Space Station in the early 2000s, made his own lunar travel plans with SpaceX.
Alien” Space Debris Found in Australia
Pieces of space debris were found on farmland in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, and NASA and authorities confirmed that the objects were likely hardware debris from a SpaceX Dragon capsule intentionally launched when the spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in May 2021.
It’s not uncommon for space junk to fall to Earth. But it is much less common for objects to end up on land, as most space junk is disposed of in the ocean.
Start-up wants to launch satellites into space with a centrifuge
SpinLaunch, one of the world’s most unique space start-ups, aims to launch satellites into space in a vacuum-sealed chamber, rather than on a rocket.
The company began testing a scaled-down version of its technology last year, but ramped up in 2022. SpinLaunch conducted its 10th test flight in October.
There’s also a science fiction connection. SpinLaunch founder Jonathan Yaney cites the work of Jules Verne – the writer of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” who died more than 50 years before the first satellite traveled into space – as inspiration for SpinLaunch.
It’s unclear whether the company’s technology will ever become a reality. But in the meantime, this group will be out in the New Mexico desert trying to bring the art to life.
Jeff Bezos’ rocket explodes on an unmanned mission
As if it wasn’t surreal enough to see Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and other celebrities travel into space on his self-funded suborbital rocket last year, learning that the rocket exploded just over a year later over West Texas-albeit on an unmanned trip-was a heartbreaking moment that brought home the adage “space is hard.” However, the crew capsule, which on Sept. 12 was carrying science projects and other inanimate cargo, was able to land successfully.
“The capsule landed safely and the booster impacted within the designated hazard area,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a September statement. Bezos’ Blue Origin has been in limbo ever since and has not flown again.