9 thrilling 2023 space launches to look forward to

The new Space Age came alive last year with the opening of the James Webb Space Telescope, the new super-sensitive observatory in the sky, and the maiden voyage of Artemis, NASA‘s moon-to-Mars campaign that soon will return humans to deep space. Not to mention when the U.S. space agency intentionally moved an asteroid for the first time. Science journals are bound to be packed with new discoveries as a result of those success stories, broadening our understanding of the universe.

History books may one day reflect on 2023 as the Year of the Lunar Landers, with a launch schedule jammed full of robotic missions to Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Though 2023 may have big shoes to fill in the cosmos, it promises to keep launch pads scorching hot. Many upcoming missions will set the stage for NASA’s moon endeavors, shipping supplies and experiments to its surface ahead of astronauts’ arrival in 2025 or later, as well as kickstarting a future lunar economy. That’s largely thanks to NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program, established in 2018 to recruit the private sector to help deliver cargo to the moon.

Here’s a round-up of space missions slated to (fingers crossed) lift off this year, and a few key dates to mark on your calendars for missions already underway.

A word to the wise: Consider these no-earlier-than dates. When it comes to rocket launches, often delayed for a host of reasons, we’ll quote Jim Free, NASA associate administrator, from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida: “Plan a week trip to Florida for vacation, and you might see a launch.”

1. Lunar lander to study moondust and more: March 2023

NASA selected commercial partner Intuitive Machines to send a lander to Schroter’s Valley, a region on the nearside of the moon. During the IM-1 mission, the lander, called Nova-C, will study how rocket exhaust and space weather affect the lunar surface. The mission is slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.

The spacecraft, a six-sided cylinder standing on six legs, will carry five NASA instruments, among other unrelated commercial pieces of cargo, and demonstrate advanced landing technology. Fun fact: The lander will stay warm in frigid space like a lot of people do — with a coat. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Intuitive Machines partnered with Columbia Sportswear to use some of its insulation material on the spacecraft.

2. Lander preps for future ice-mining mission: January — March 2023

NASA tapped Astrobotic, another commercial partner, to deliver instruments and experiments to the lunar surface. The Peregrine-1 mission is expected to leave Earth on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral in the first quarter of 2023.

Peregrine is a precursor to the lander Astrobotic will eventually use to send NASA’s VIPER rover to drill for ice on the moon. It will carry versions of instruments the space agency wants to test before that important, crewless water-hunting mission, targeted for 2024. The boxy four-legged Peregrine will touch down on the “Lake of Death” region, a lava plain in the northeastern part of the moon’s nearside.

3. SpaceX’s Starship to embark on first orbital spaceflight: 2023

SpaceX testing Starship rocket

SpaceX stacked the Starship rocket at its South Texas launchpad in advance of a company update on the project in February 2022.
Credit: JIM WATSON / AFP Via Getty Images

Standing 400-feet tall, SpaceX’s Starship, an entirely reusable stainless steel contraption, could have about twice as much launch power as NASA’s mega moon rocket.

The Starship is a super-heavy-class rocket and spaceship that NASA plans to use for shuttling astronauts from its future lunar-orbiting base to the moon’s surface. That’s in addition to Elon Musk’s vision to use a fleet of Starships to one day build a settlement on Mars.

When will Musk debut this monstrous machine for its first orbital spaceflight? In true SpaceX fashion, the company is keeping the rest of us on a need-to-know basis. During a PR event last February, Musk said it would happen before the end of 2022.

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4. Japan to send its own spaceship moonbound: April 2023

Not all of these uncrewed moon missions will leave from Florida’s Space Coast. The Japanese space agency, aka JAXA, will send its own lander to the lunar surface to demonstrate advanced precision landing with a small explorer.

The SLIM mission, short for Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, is a rideshare flight carrying various payloads. It’s expected to launch from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.

5. India gets do-over for failed moon mission: June 2023

India’s space agency will try again to send a lander and rover to the highlands of the moon’s south pole, following the Chandrayaan-2 mission, in which the spacecraft crashed as it tried to land in 2019.

During this next Chandrayaan-3 mission scheduled for mid-2023, the Indian Space Research Organization plans to use a similar rover as the one used in the previous failed mission but with improvements to help stick the landing. The mission will launch on an LVM 3 heavy-lift rocket from a launch pad on Sriharikota, a barrier island of southeastern India.

6. Mission to deliver a NASA moon rover: June 2023

Contractor Intuitive Machines has the added responsibility of sending a new NASA rover to the south pole of the moon later in the year. This mission, referred to as IM-2 or Prime-1, is to land and test a drill and mass spectrometer, a device that identifies the kinds of particles in a substance.

As currently planned, another spacecraft, NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer, will hitch a ride on this flight. The small satellite will orbit the moon to map out the locations of lunar water. The mission will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than June from Cape Canaveral.

7. Russia to ship its first moon probe since the ’70s: July 2023

A Russian Soyuz 2-1B rocket preparing for lift off

A Soyuz 2-1B rocket prepares to launch a French spacecraft in this December 2006 photo.
Credit: STR / AFP via Getty Images

The former Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, sent many robotic spacecraft to the moon, but the upcoming Luna 25 will be the first lunar mission in post-Soviet Russian history.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, wants to send the lander to a region of the moon’s south pole. It will study the moon’s soil and atmosphere and help develop landing technology. The spacecraft will launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket with a Fregat upper stage from a Vostochny Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the European Space Agency was expected to partner on the mission by providing a camera that would assist with landing. But Europe pulled out of the deal, along with its other Russian space collaborations, because of the geopolitical conflict.

8. NASA to scope out its first metal asteroid: October 2023

Psyche flying through space

NASA’s Psyche mission will explore a metal asteroid for the first time.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

And now for the palate cleanser from all of those moonbound missions: For the first time, NASA will study an asteroid mainly composed of metals, like iron and nickel, from orbit.

The space rock 16 Psyche has long-intrigued planetary scientists, some of whom think it is all that’s left of an ancient planet after collisions that stripped away its rocky exterior.

But hold onto your hats. If the spacecraft leaves on schedule in October 2023, it won’t reach its main asteroid belt destination until August 2029. The orbiter requires a gravity assist from Mars about three years into its journey. NASA plans to launch the mission on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral.

9. European mission heads to Jupiter’s moons: 2023

Spacecraft exploring Jupiter's system of moons

The European Space Agency plans to study Ganymede and other Jupiter moons.
Credit: Illustration by ESA

The European Space Agency has its sights set on a mission to Jupiter, where it will fly by three of its icy moons and orbit one in particular, known as Ganymede.

The so-called “Juice” mission (a stretch to call an acronym for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, though maybe it’s fitting for Ganymede’s mythological namesake, who served as Jupiter’s personal cupholder), is intended to focus its research on Ganymede as a potential habitat, looking at its ocean layers and atmosphere.

ESA wants to launch the spacecraft on an Ariane 5 rocket from its spaceport in French Guiana on the South American continent. After a seven-year space cruise, it will use gravity assists from Earth and Venus to orbit Jupiter in 2031. The spacecraft will also check out Jupiter’s moons Callisto and Europa along the way.

Other 2023 space mission events

  • June 20, 2023: The European Space Agency’s Bepi-Colombo mission is expected to make its third Mercury flyby.
  • Aug. 21, 2023: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe should make its sixth Venus flyby on its sun-studying mission.
  • Sept. 24, 2023: NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission will return to Earth following its long voyage to the carbon-based asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft, which collected samples in October 2020, is expected to land at the Utah Test and Training Range, west of Salt Lake City.

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