The James Webb Space Telescope leads our list of the top news stories of the year. See what else made the Top 10!
2022 was a good year for astronomy. Images raining down from the James Webb Space Telescope continue to dominate the news cycle. We were treated to not just one but two total lunar eclipses. Artemis 1 launched and the DART spacecraft crashed (on purpose). And astronomers unveiled the first image of the behemoth black hole at the center of our galaxy.
But it’s not all roses and starshine. The National Science Foundation has decided not to rebuild Arecibo and NASA discontinued the SOFIA airborne observatory. New satellites continue to crowd the sky — and they’re getting brighter, not fainter. Light pollution, too, continues to grow.
Here, we look back at the biggest news stories of the year.
1. James Webb Space Telescope
Arguably the biggest and best news of 2022 has been deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope and the deluge of images that followed. Fanfare greeted the release of the initial pictures, and within days Webb had already broken records set by the Hubble Space Telescope earlier this year. Since then, Webb has continued to supply us with jaw-dropping views of newborn stars, dying giants, swirling galaxies, and worlds far closer to home.
This is only the beginning. JWST has much to teach us in the coming years, but it will take some patience. Capturing images is one thing — analyzing them is another. The discovery of the most distant galaxies known, now confirmed by spectroscopic observations, might require us to rethink our ideas of galaxy evolution. And exoplanet data will take time to fully understand.
After touch-and-go wet dress rehearsals and months of delays, the first test flight of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule went off without a hitch. Artemis 1 launched successfully and completed its trajectory, returning some stunning vistas of Earth and the Moon from a vantage point we haven’t seen in quite a while, before splashing back down in the Pacific Ocean.
On its way, the mission also released 10 CubeSat missions to various orbits, with mixed results.
3. Two Total Lunar Eclipses
Not just one but two total lunar eclipses greeted skygazers this year, with the second one combined with an occultation of Uranus. We won’t see another total lunar eclipse until 2025, with only partial and penumbral events until then. See S&T’s online photo gallery for a fine selection of image submissions from both of this year’s events.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission successfully hit Dimorphos, the moon of asteroid 65803 Didymos, in a test of planetary defense. Not only was the impact successful, but so was the redirection, as ground- and space-based telescopes recorded a significant (32-minute) change in the asteroids’ orbits. Astronomers are still analyzing stunning images of the purposeful collision and its debris to fully understand its impact on the asteroid system.
Three years ago, astronomers revealed the silhouette of the black hole that lurks at the center of nearby galaxy M87. This year, we finally got the chance to see our own galaxy’s central beast, Sgr A*. The Event Horizon Telescope team took its time in releasing its silhouette because — well, it’s complicated.
First, to see Sgr A*, astronomers had to peer through the dust and gas that enshrouds our galactic center. And even once they penetrated that veil, they knew the gas falling in toward the black hole would be whirling around the 4.3-million-solar-mass behemoth in a matter of minutes, rather than days as in the case for M87.
The image was worth the wait: Turns out, Sgr A* is full of surprises. The infalling gas was unexpectedly calm, and it seems to have clumped up (though exactly how many clumps and where is still up for debate). Astronomers will be working to understand Sgr A* for years to come.
The opposition of Mars on December 8th meant the Red Planet was once again big, bright, and beautiful in the evening sky. (It wasn’t quite at its closest point — that happened the week before, on December 1st.) But this year, opposition brought with it a special kind of magic in the form of an occultation behind the Moon. The perfectly round orb contrasted beautifully with the shadowed craters of the Moon, resulting in some unforgettable observations and imagery.
The planetary science community has come up with its prioritized wish list for the next 10-plus years in the field, a document that will help decide what missions NASA funds. Top of the list is a flagship mission to the ice giant Uranus, for now called the Uranus Orbiter and Probe.
The full report comes in the form of the National Academies of Sciences' Planetary Sciences and Astrobiology Decadal Survey, titled Origins, Worlds and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032. It's the third prioritized wish list of its kind. As always, any mission concepts will still need to go through rounds of funding, design, and development before reaching the launch pad.
8. Low-Earth Orbit Satellites Are Getting Brighter
Satellites are being launched to low-Earth orbit at increasing rates, leading to an ever more crowded sky. While SpaceX initially worked with astronomers and developed a sunshade to help dim its Starlink satellites, it has since discontinued the sunshade. As a result, the Starlink satellites have become brighter again. They are still dimmer than the original design, with an average magnitude of 5.6.
Meanwhile, an even greater worry is facing astronomers: The AST SpaceMobile aerospace company has launched a satellite named BlueWalker 3, which now shines brighter than most stars, at magnitudes between 4 and 0. The satellite is a prototype for the BlueBird satellite constellation; its members will have even larger panels and will thus be even brighter than BlueWalker 3.
Though expected, the final observations by the SOFIA observatory, which flew for years aboard a modified Boeing 747, represented a loss for infrared astronomy. In our coverage, we reflect on the gains SOFIA has provided over the years, including the discovery of water on the daylit Moon and the first type of molecule to form in the universe, as well as the reaction from the community.
Astronomers have long made the case that supernovae blew out the Local Bubble, a cavity of sparse, hot gas around the Sun. This year, a team of astronomers has gone further, determining the Local Bubble’s origin in time and space. Tracking stellar motions back through time, they conclude it all started some 14 million years ago, when between 14 to 20 stars in the Upper Centaurus Lupus and Lower Centaurus Crux clusters went supernovae.
The Sun now sits nearly at the center of the Local Bubble, but that’s happenstance — our star was 1,000 light-years away from the supernovae when the fireworks began and entered the Local Bubble only some 5 million years ago. Subtle bubbles like this one might fill the galaxy.
Far more happened this year than can be encapsulated in 10 individual news stories. As such, we offer five honorable mentions for significant findings (or just plain fun):