A Whole Lot More Curious: The Year in Space Exploration
From NASA landing a new rover on Mars to a space-jumping Austrian breaking the speed of sound, it’s been an exciting year in space on all fronts. There was rarely a week in 2012 when space wasn’t making the headlines somehow – here are some of the highlights.
January began with somewhat of a dismal start. After failing to leave the Earth’s orbit and having been out of contact for two months, the Russian probe Phobos-Grunt burned up in the atmosphere above the Pacific. The probe had been designed to return rock samples from the surface of Mars’ moon, Phobos. Phobos-Grunt becomes the latest in a string of failed Russian attempts to reach Mars, which had led some to believe that the nation is jinxed.
In March, the two NASA Grail spacecraft began the science phase of their mission: to produce highly detailed gravity maps of the Moon. Upon completion of this, both spacecraft were later crashed into the lunar surface.
In May Space X made history by becoming the first private company to resupply the International Space Station. Its unmanned Dragon spacecraft are expected to continue this role in the future, following the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles. Also in May, NASA’s Dawn probe sent back images of the asteroid Vesta confirming that is a probably a small “planetoid”, an ancient remnant of the early solar system. Following this, Dawn departed for the dwarf planet Ceres in September.
August had many glued to their TVs as the Curiosity rover made its final approach to Mars, after an eighth month long journey. Curiosity, or more formally, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), successfully landed in Gale Crater, becoming the largest ever rover to land on the Martian surface. Its two year mission (which has since been extended indefinitely) involves looking for signs of microbial activity and accessing the role of water on Mars.
More records were broken in September as the Voyager 1 spacecraft approached the outer edges of the solar system, known as the heliosheath. Originally launched in the 1970s, Voyager is already the furthest man-made object – 18 billion kilometres from the Earth and still going. It is expected to leave the solar system entirely sometime between 2013 and 2015.
In October, an Austrian man became the highest man to space jump down to Earth. Felix Baumgartner rose more than 39 kilometres above the surface of the Earth in a balloon – before jumping out. The free fall took just over four minutes and Baumgarnter crossed the speed of sound before finally releasing his parachute.
Finally, NASA ended the year by reporting in November that its Messenger spacecraft had detected traces of water ice and organic compounds on the poles of Mercury. Mercury’s orbit is such that its poles escape soaring temperatures of over 400C, allowing these molecules to stably exist.