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From a spacecraft the size of a refrigerator plowing 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 ripped from the pages of a science fiction movie script.
Among the memorable events were billionaires mapping out plans to explore the cosmos and scientists attempting 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 meteor crashed into Earth nearly a decade ago.
Here’s a look back at 10 times space travel and exploration felt more like a plot from a Hollywood movie than real life.
Crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid — on purpose
A NASA spacecraft intentionally slammed into Dimorphos, a small asteroid that orbits a larger space rock named Didymos. While this collision seemed like something out of the 1998 movie “Armageddon,” the Double Asteroid Redirection Test was a demonstration of deflection technology — and the first conducted on behalf of planetary defense.
Many tuned in on September 26 to watch as the surface of Dimorphos came into view for the first time, with DART’s cameras beaming back live imagery. The view ended after the spacecraft collided with the asteroid, but images captured by space telescopes and an Italian satellite provided dramatic photos of the aftermath.
The DART mission marked the first time humanity intentionally changed the motion of a celestial object in space. The spacecraft altered the moonlet asteroid’s orbit by 32 minutes. Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos pose a threat to Earth, but the double-asteroid system was a perfect target to test deflection technology.
A heartbeat in space
Fast radio bursts in space have intrigued astronomers since their 2007 discovery, but a mysterious radio burst with a pattern similar to a heartbeat upped the ante this year.
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are intense, millisecond-long bursts of radio waves with unknown origins — which only fuels speculation that their cause is more alien than cosmic.
Astronomers estimate that the “heartbeat signal” came from a galaxy roughly 1 billion light-years away, but the location and cause of the burst are unknown.
Additionally, astronomers also detected a powerful radio wave laser, known as a megamaser, and a spinning celestial object releasing giant bursts of energy unlike anything they had ever seen before.
Mysterious space rings
Speaking of strange objects, astronomers made a new leap forward in understanding odd radio circles, or ORCs. No, they aren’t the goblinlike humanoids from “The Lord of the Rings” books, but these fascinating objects have baffled scientists since their discovery in 2020.
The space rings are so massive that they each measure about 1 million light-years across — 16 times bigger than our Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers believe it takes the circles 1 billion years to reach their maximum size, and they are so large they have expanded past other galaxies.
Astronomers took a new detailed photo of odd radio circles using the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKAT telescope, narrowing down the possible theories that might explain these celestial oddballs.
Eerie, unusual black holes
Black holes are known for behaving badly and shredding 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 stretching from a black hole at the center of a dwarf galaxy to a stellar nursery where stars are born. The stream of gas provided by the black hole triggered a fireworks show of star birth as it interacted with the cloud, which led 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 spied a lone black hole wandering the Milky Way. And X-ray signals from black holes were converted into eerie sounds we won’t soon forget.
A hook-wielding copter tries to catch a rocket in midair
Rocket Lab, a US-based company that launches out of New Zealand, is trying to figure out a way to recapture its rocket boosters as they tumble down toward Earth after launch. In 2022, the company made two attempts to deploy a helicopter with a hook attachment. The wild spectacle is all part of Rocket Lab’s plans to save money by recovering and reusing rocket parts after they vault satellites to space.
The first attempt in May appeared to go as planned when the helicopter snagged a booster. But the pilots made the decision to drop the rocket part due to safety concerns.
On the second attempt, the rocket never came into view, and pilots confirmed the booster wouldn’t be returning to the factory dry. In a tweet, the company reported there was a data loss issue during the rocket’s reentry.
‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’
NASA flew its first virtual assistant on a moon 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 in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the decision did spark plenty of facetious comparisons.
The Artemis I mission was uncrewed, but NASA’s ground control teams used the voice assistant, called Callisto, to control cabin lighting and play music during the journey. It did not have the ability to open or close doors, for the record.
Artemis I was just a test mission, and NASA is still evaluating how the voice recognition system may be included on future missions.
A Japanese billionaire and 8 artists plan a trip around the moon
Japanese fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa picked eight passengers who he said will join him on a trip around the moon, powered by SpaceX’s yet-to-be-flown Starship spacecraft. The group includes American DJ Steve Aoki and popular space YouTuber Tim Dodd, better known as the Everyday Astronaut.
The mission, called Dear Moon, was first announced in 2018 with the intention of flying by 2023. Maezawa initially aimed to take a group of artists with him on a six-day trip around the moon but later announced he had expanded his definition of an “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 viewed themselves as artists.
Separately, millionaire 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’ pace debris found in Australia
Chunks of space debris were reportedly found on farmland in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, and NASA and authorities confirmed that the objects were likely scraps of hardware from a SpaceX Dragon capsule intentionally jettisoned as the spacecraft reentered Earth’s atmosphere in May 2021.
It’s common for space debris to fall to Earth. But it’s far less common for the objects to wind up on land since most space garbage is discarded in the ocean.
Start-up looks to use centrifuge to fling satellites into space
Perhaps among the most unique space start-ups in the world, SpinLaunch aims to whip satellites around in a vacuum-sealed chamber and toss them into space rather than put them on a rocket.
The company began testing a scaled-down version of its technology last year, but things ramped up in 2022. SpinLaunch notched its 10th test flight in October.
There’s a science fiction connection as well. SpinLaunch founder Jonathan Yaney cites the work of Jules Verne — the “Journey to the Center of Earth” writer who died more than 50 years before the first satellite traveled to space — as the inspiration for SpinLaunch.
It’s not clear whether the company’s technology will ever come to fruition. But in the meantime, this group will be in the New Mexico desert attempting to bring art to life.
Jeff Bezos’ joyride rocket explodes on uncrewed mission
If it wasn’t surreal enough watching Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and other celebrities travel to space on his self-funded, suborbital rocket last year, hearing that the rocket exploded a little more than a year later over West Texas — albeit on a trip without any passengers — was a harrowing moment that brought home the adage “space is hard.” However, the crew capsule, which was carrying science projects and other inanimate payloads on September 12, 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 since and has not returned to flight.
And with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic still grounded, neither of the companies spearheading suborbital space tourism last year are conducting routine flights.
CNN’s Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report.