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.