Slideshow: A year of space firsts
George Leopold 12/6/2012 11:45 AM EST
From Mercury, to Mars to the edge of the solar system, our space machines made unprecedented discoveries this year. We offer a list of the greatest space feats of 2012.
WASHINGTON – After several years adrift, the U.S. space program provided several technical firsts in 2012 that will soon extend beyond our solar system. Meanwhile, China demonstrated that it is a serious space-faring nation by taking the first steps toward establishing its own space station.
Few space feats since the Apollo moon landings captured the imagination of Earthlings like the Aug. 6 landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover at Gale Crater.
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab rocket engineers arguably pulled off the most spectacular and nerve-wracking landings since the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down at Tranquility Base in 1969. JPL’s risky, untested sky crane technique worked perfectly after mission controllers endured a now famous “Seven Minutes of Terror” as the Curiosity probe blaze through the thin Martian atmosphere (view video below).
"We [now] have a priceless national asset" on Mars, a jubilant Pete Theisinger, the Mars Science Laboratory project manager, declared after Curiosity landed.
Building on the early success of Curiosity, the space agency announced this week a new multi-year Mars exploration program that includes a more sophisticated rover set to launch in 2020. Between now and 2020, a series of Mars mission will study the Martian atmosphere and interior while relay satellites are launched to provide data links for future missions.
There were other space firsts in 2012, including the arrival of the first commercial cargo ship to the International Space Station, the first Chinese female taikonaut and China’s initial effort to build a space station.
Elsewhere in the solar system, a U.S. probe found frozen water on the scorched inner-most planet, Mercury. And a pair of U.S. probes heading out of the solar system discovered a “magnetic highway” that connects our heliosphere with interstellar space.
Read on for more.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 are approaching the edge of the solar system and will soon become the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space. In July, scientists detected a "magnetic highway" at the point where Voyager 1 (the upper spacecraft in this artist’s conception) reached the edge of the solar wind. The "magnetic highway" is believed to be allowing the solar wind to escape the heliosphere while allowing cosmic rays to enter.
Fire and ice
Nearer the center of the solar system, scientists reported in November that NASA’s Messenger probe had discovered ice in shadowed polar craters on Mercury. The discovery is remarkable given the surface temperatures of the inner-most planet. But because there is little or not tilt in Mercury’s axis, polar craters often remain permanently shadowed. Water was likely brought by asteroids crashing into Mercury during the formation of the solar system.
(Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
China space station
China’s ambitious space program moved another step closer this summer to establishing a permanent presence in orbit. It’s fourth manned mission in June carried three taikonauts, including Liu Yang, the first female taikonaut, into orbit on a 13-day mission during which the crew docked with a space station testbed called Tiangong 1. China expects to complete construction of a space station like the one shown above by about 2020.
Dragon cargo ship
In May, Space Exploration Technologies Inc., or SpaceX, became the first commercial company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, then return to Earth. SpaceX duplicated that feat in October under a new NASA contract that calls for 10 Dragon flights to ferry cargo to and from the space station. The capability to return cargo replaces the U.S. space shuttle. which was retired last year. Astronauts still must hitch a ride to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX says Dragon could some day carry as many as seven astronauts to Earth orbit.
Curiosity sniffs, probes
The Mars Curiosity Rover and its array of sensors continue to probe the Martian surface and sniff the Martian atmosphere in search of conditions favorable to past microbial life. Mission scientists reported in early December on preliminary results of soil tests that may show the presence of organic materials. But they are being extremely cautious about drawing any conclusions from early samples. Still ahead for Curiosity: The long trek to the base of Mt. Sharp., the central peak of Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed in August.
(Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)
See a related slideshow on Curiosity’s sensors here.
The other Mars rover
NASA reported on Dec. 4 that one of two smaller Mars rovers, Opportunity, had just completed a "walkabout" on a Mars crater rim. Opportunity is nearing its ninth anniversary exploring the Martian surface. What is lacks in technical sophistication when compared to Curiosity, it more than makes up for with endurance.
Lunar gravity map
NASA also said this week (Dec. 5) that its twin orbiting probes of the moon have generated the highest resolution gravity field map of any celestial body. The new map created by the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory spacecraft gives scientists a better understanding of the moon’s internal structure and composition.
Galileo sends nav signals
The third and fourth satellites of Europe’s Galileo global navigation system were lofted into orbit in October, joining the first pair of satellites launched a year ago to complete the validation phase of the Galileo program. On Dec. 4, the third Galileo satellite transmitted its first test navigation signals back to Earth across all three Galileo bands.
Engineer of the year?
Thousands of JPL engineers worked on the Mars Science Laboratory and the Mars Curiosity Rover. But the face of the program was JPL’s Adam Steltzner (shown), a high school underachiever who one night looked up at the stars and was inspired to earn a doctorate in engineering physics. Steltzner and his JPL team came up with the sky crane concept that delivered Curiosity to the Martian surface. Many, including many EE Times readers, thought Steltzner was crazy. But like a good test pilot, Steltzner weighed the risks, eliminated as many unknowns as he could think of and ultimately did what he said he would do.