The Biggest Space Stories of 2023

Space exploration took several leaps in 2023 as countries and organizations around the world turned their attention back to the stars. In this article, we look back at some of the most fascinating stories and ahead to the future of space flight.

While artificial intelligence has dominated the headlines this year, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other space agencies worldwide have also made waves with trips to the moon, new explorations of Mars, and advances in deep space communication.

A return to the Moon

Last summer, India became the fourth country to land a craft on the moon’s surface. On August 23, the Indian Space Research Organisation landed a spacecraft named Vikram at the Moon’s southern pole.

“Historic day for India’s space sector. Congratulations to [the ISRO] for the remarkable success of [the] Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter.

“Chandrayaan-3 scripts a new chapter in India’s space odyssey. It soars high, elevating the dreams and ambitions of every Indian,” Modi said. “This momentous achievement is a testament to our scientists’ relentless dedication. I salute their spirit and ingenuity!”

The Vikram lander also included a lunar rover to collect samples that scientists will use to analyze the lunar surface.

Deep space communications

In October, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) launched an experiment to test laser-based transmission. The project aimed to see if it was possible to have superior data relays from deep space. The Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC) experiment was part of the six-year Psyche mission to a mineral-rich asteroid orbiting the sun, with NASA looking to enhance its communication capabilities. 

“The DSOC is NASA’s first experiment to take optical communications past lunar distances to deep space,” JPL’s DSOC project lead Malcolm Wright told Decrypt. “The advantage of optical communications is that prior to now, all the communications have been on radio or microwave links.”

The DSOC technology promises higher data transmission rates compared to traditional methods, but complications due to weather, Wright said, remain a concern. 

Even though most space exploration deals with leaving Earth behind, scientists this year also studied the effect of celestial events on technology, including the internet.

Monitoring solar activity

In November, scientists from George Mason University predicted that the peak of this solar activity, in the form of sunspots and solar flares, expected in early 2024, could disrupt earth-bound technologies, including the internet, despite being relatively weak astronomically. 

The concern arises from increased solar activity and our reliance on the internet. 

“The internet has come of age during a time when the sun has been relatively quiet, and now it’s entering a more active time,” George Mason University Professor Peter Becker told Fox Weather. “It’s the first time in human history that there’s been an intersection of increased solar activity with our dependence on the internet and global economic dependence on the internet.”

In addition to solar flares, researchers are studying the effect of space radiation on blockchain technology, with experiments in space to assess radiation-induced errors in blockchain data transmission. 

“So there are two sources of radiation that we’re concerned with in space, and one is from the sun,” University of Villanova Adjunct Professor Hasshi Sudler told Decrypt. “If we have a very active sun going through what’s called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), it can eject enormous radiation particles at any given time.”

We are not alone, apparently

In July, the world was introduced to the concept of “non-human biologics” as military veterans testified about witnessing unidentified flying objects, better known as UFOs. In what was called the first of many hearings on UFOs, the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security members heard testimony regarding the truth of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) visiting Earth.

“Some of the behaviors we saw in our working area, we would see these objects being at 0.0 Mach, that’s zero airspeed,” Graves said. “These objects stayed completely stationary in category four hurricane winds,” he said, adding that the objects would then accelerate to supersonic speeds, noting the erratic flight path.

Of course, crypto degens created meme-coins to try and take advantage of the new alien hype.

Space exploration and Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence has played a significant role in astronomy as well. In October, a group of scientists and astronomers from Northwestern University reported using artificial intelligence to identify and classify supernovae in real-time successfully.

“We’ve been doing this since about 2018 when this program first started,” project co-lead and astronomy graduate student Nabeel Rehemtulla told Decrypt. “So we now have tens of thousands of supernovae, which we can train and build the model on and automate this process.”

The Bright Transient Survey (BTS) bot, trained with over 1.4 million historical images from 16,000 sources, can autonomously confirm exploding stars, which astronomers hope will enhance research efficiency, taking the “human middleman” out of the equation. 

“Something that people who adopt AI for astronomy need to be thinking about is, what kind of biases are we putting into [the] research,” Rehemtulla said.

Vitalik chimes in

In a post about the importance of how artificial intelligence is developed, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin warned that even the red planet wouldn’t be a safe place if an AI uprising ever took place.

“But a superintelligent AI, if it decides to turn against us, may well leave no survivors and end humanity for good,” Buterin said. “Even Mars may not be safe.”

An October another report out of Northwestern University, speaking of the red planet, concluded that the Martian core is surrounded by an approximately 150-kilometer or 93 miles-thick layer of “soft, essentially molten rock.”

“The original intention was to learn more about the formation and evolution of Mars as a planet,” Suzan Van Der Lee, Professor and Director of Computing at Northwestern University, told Decrypt. “Doing that in a way that we’ve done for Earth very successfully is by listening to the planet.”

Looking to the future

Not content with its achievements in 2023, NASA is also looking to the future. In 2024, NASA plans to launch the Artemis mission, which will be the first time since 1972 that American astronauts have landed on the Moon’s surface. 

According to NASA, the ten-day trip to the Moon will make Artemis the first time a woman, mission specialist Christina Hammock Koch, and a person of color, pilot Victor Glover, will land on the lunar surface.

Scheduled for May 2027, the Roman Mission will use artificial intelligence for data analysis, leveraging technology and other digital tools to make data easily accessible to humans. The Roman Mission is named after Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first female executive. 

“In the late ‘60s, we started flying telescopes into space, and she was the person who made this happen,” Dr. Dominic Benford, Program Scientist for the Nancy Grace Roman mission, told Decrypt. “So she’s colloquially called the ‘Mother of Hubble,’ because the last big project she started was the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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