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"A great year for science"

When Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's former director of science, talks about the space missions of 2023, his eyes light up. "It's going to be another big year for science," he says in an interview with "Not just for the US, but for the entire scientific community. We – NASA and our partners – have an incredible number of highlights."

"Osiris-Rex" brings rock samples from an asteroid

One of these highlights is certainly the return of the NASA probe "Osiris-Rex" to earth. The probe was launched in Cape Canaveral in 2016 and flew to the asteroid Bennu. In 2020, she approached the deep black rock, which has a diameter of 550 meters, and sucked in rock.

Jason Dworkin, an astrobiologist at NASA, explained at the time: "This is NASA's largest sample collection mission since the Apollo mission. And it is the largest amount of organic material that we have ever pulled from space." Bound in minerals, there are even said to be traces of water on the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid. NASA scientists are now eagerly awaiting the return of the rock samples to Earth. "At the moment we are in the process of flying back. 'Osiris-Rex' arrives in Utah in September," says Zurbuchen.

In the next century mankind could still be very thankful for the knowledge of this mission. Then the asteroid Bennu should come close to the earth – so close that it moves between the moon and the earth during its flyby. The predicted probability of an impact on Earth is well under one percent. But knowing the rocks that make up Bennu will help better calculate defense scenarios in the event of an impending impact.

Europe's new flagship is launched

2023 will also be an exciting year in space for the European Space Agency (ESA). The new carrier rocket Ariane 6 is to take off from the European spaceport in Kourou. The start has already been postponed several times.

Walther Pelzer, head of the German Space Agency at the German Aerospace Center, says of the new rocket: "It is Europe's new flagship in the heavy-lift sector, with which we can then place large satellites in different orbits. That is a major advancement to Ariane 5 and a very suitable rocket for the needs that we have. We have a lot fewer launches than the Americans, a lot fewer launches than the Chinese. So a suitable rocket for us."

Departure for Jupiter

The ESA mission of the Jupiter probe JUICE is launched with one of the last Ariane 5 rockets. The plan is for it to take off for the largest planet in our solar system in April. The journey to the gas giant will take several years and will explore Jupiter itself and three of its moons – Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.

Pelzer explains: "This is an excellent science mission that we will take to Jupiter. In the 2030s we will learn a lot about Jupiter and its moons, especially about the water on the moons under the ice. This will be studied accordingly ." Are there really water oceans under the ice crusts of the moons? The researchers want to find out. Water is considered a basic requirement for life.

Cooperation on the ISS continues

After the return of ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer in 2022, no German will fly to the International Space Station ISS this year. A mission is planned in which NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut will fly to the space station together with an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates. Despite the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the sanctions, international cooperation on the ISS should continue.

Several nations with tarpaulins on the moon

The lunar plans of various nations are advancing. NASA, together with ESA, is preparing for Artemis II. The mission is scheduled to launch in 2024, have astronauts on board and fly around the moon. Also, the US may want to send robotic landers to the moon.

China and Russia are also continuing to work on their plans for a research station on the moon and the launch of a probe to the moon. Russia has postponed the launch of the robotic probe "Luna 25" from last year to this year.

Japanese moon mission with detour

The commercialization of space continues. A private company is expected to land on the moon for the first time in 2023. In December, a SpaceX rocket flew the Japanese company ispace's "Hakuto-R" lander into space. However, landing on the moon is not planned until April. Unlike the Apollo missions or the Artemis I moon mission, which only take a few days to fly to the moon, the Japanese lander is on the road for several months.

"The trajectory of the ispace ferry does not take the shortest route directly to the moon, but far beyond the moon to a point in space from which it can "drop" into a lunar orbit in a very energy-saving manner, and then to land," says SWR science editor Uwe Gradwohl, explaining the unusually long journey. "The advantage is fuel savings, the disadvantage is the long flight time. But lunar cargo usually does not spoil so quickly, and instead of the fuel saved, more cargo can be packed on the ferry."

The Japanese moon lander has, among other things, a small rover from the United Arab Emirates on board. After landing, the ten-kilogram vehicle will travel around the moon for around 14 days and take photos, among other things. In the next few years ispace is planning further moon missions and for 2040 even a small town on the moon with 1000 inhabitants.

Private spacewalks planned

The private space companies of US billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are also planning further space flights. The "Polaris Dawn" mission from SpaceX will make the headlines in particular. Entrepreneur and billionaire Jared Isaacman is said to be on board. He had already launched into space last year as commander of "Inspiration 4", the first space mission without a professional astronaut on board.

In the new mission, a crew of four is expected to spend up to five days in orbit. For the first time, so-called lay astronauts will then also leave their protective spaceship and take a spacewalk.

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