In light of my rather intermittent science posts, I’ve decided to try for a brief summary of 2012 in terms of scientific and technological achievement. Of course, more happened over this last year than I could ever hope to include here, so please forgive me if I leave anything out. I’ll begin with a summary of advancements related to space this past year. This is partly because of the fact that 2012 was an excellent year in terms of outer space exploration, but also because it’s just my favorite subject to write about.
But enough about me.
2012 saw a total of 78 launches, 72 of which were successful. The leading nation in terms of total launches was Russia, with a total of 29 launches. Following behind was China, with 19 launches, the United States, with 13 launches, Europe, with 8 launches, Iran with 3 launches, and India and Japan with 2 launches each. Also of note was the first successful space launch by North Korea, which delivered the Bright Star-3 Unit 2 satellite into orbit via the Unha rocket. In February, The European Space Agency also debuted the Vega expendable launch system, ensuring European access to space for lower-weight payload classes such as small scientific or government satellites.
Government space agencies saw worrying financial troubles over 2012. NASA, facing tightening budget constraints due to the ongoing commercial crew initiative and the ballooning costs of the James Webb Space Telescope, was allotted an annual budget of $17.71 billion, down 5.4% from 2010. The agency was forced to reevaluate many of its previously planned missions, drawing up a new set of priorities for the decade. Mars exploration was especially hard hit, with NASA backing out of the joint Exo-Mars mission with the European Space Agency and postponing a potential sample return mission until the mid-2020s.
Despite the setbacks, NASA has continued on ahead with its missions of exploration. In July, the new Space Launch System, NASA’s first heavy-lift rocket since the Saturn V used in the Apollo Missions, passed a critical design review, moving on to the next stage of development. If all goes according to plan, the Space Launch system could be sending astronauts out of low-earth orbit by the end of the decade. The first definite plans for a manned mission to Mars were also put forward, with a tentative date of 2033. The Orion Space Capsule, the most technologically advanced of its kind in the world, was also unveiled. It is currently being prepped for its first unmanned mission next year. Large amounts of research and development were also put into robotics and long-term human habitation in space.
Of course, as new eras opened up, previous ones were closing. The later half of 2012 saw the remaining Space Shuttles, Enterprise, Endeavor, Discovery, and Atlantis moved into new permanent residencies following their retirement in 2011. Enterprise found a home in the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City, New York, Endeavor in the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California, Discovery in the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, and Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. The prior moves were made very public, with the shuttles driven through or flown over a number of American cities before reaching their final destinations. 2012 also saw the passing of two icons of space exploration: Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the moon, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
Other countries reached notable milestones in 2012. China, for example, successfully completed its first manual docking in outer space, between the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 research module. This accomplishment is another step towards China’s first space station, which it hopes to complete in the early 2020s. Beyond this, China has announced a number of ambitious plans for its space program, including a lunar rover planned for this year, followed by a sample return mission to the moon in 2017, and manned landings in the following decade. India, despite ambitious plans of its own, faced a setback this last year, having to push back the launch date of its second lunar probe from 2013 to 2016.
Some of the most exciting developments however took place in the private sector. California-based SpaceX made the most progress in 2012, the year company founder Elon Musk designated the “Year of the Dragon.” SpaceX completed the first successful commercial rendezvous with the International Space Station using their newly-developed Dragon spacecraft. The company is currently on contract with NASA to continue these resupply missions for the foreseeable future. Beyond this, SpaceX has plans rivaling those of most countries. Already preparing to upgrade his Falcon 9 launch vehicle to the so-called Falcon Heavy in 2013, Elon Musk announced in 2012 plans for a new “super-heavy” rocket with unparalleled lifting capabilities. Using an entirely new engine and fuel type, this huge new rocket is rumored to have a lift capacity of around 200 tons. By comparison, the original Saturn V rocket boasted a capacity of 120 tons, while the fully-upgraded Space Launch System will have a capacity of 129 tons. This could have the potential lift entire space stations or other large objects into orbit.
In December, SpaceX also successfully tested a new reusable rocket model, known as the “Grasshopper”. This vertical take-off and landing craft is hoped to be the first single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft in use, significantly reducing the cost of spaceflight and increasing re-usability. All of this action is pushing towards Elon Musk’s vision of an eventual Martian settlement, with access affordable to the “average person”.
Meanwhile, private spaceflight in general made progress in 2012. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic completed a key flight test for its SpaceShipTwo commercial spacecraft, with the first human flights planned for the coming year. The incredibly ambitious Mars One initiative was also announced in June of last year. This non-profit organization hopes to establish the first human settlement on Mars in 2023, having already signed agreements with a number of sponsors. Of course, whether or not these plans will come to fruition remains to be seen. The European company Reaction Engines ltd. also took another step towards their future Skylon spaceplane, with the craft’s engines passing a major design review. This too is a contender for the first single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft, and will lower costs significantly in the future. A proposal was even put forward by a Japanese company to construct a space elevator by 2050. Considering all this activity, it has been predicted that by 2019, private space corporations will be launching as many as 1,000 missions per year.
One of the most stunning announcements however was that of Planetary Resources. This private enterprise, backed by such famous names as Larry Page, James Cameron, Eric Anderson, and Peter Diamandis, aims to become the first commercial asteroid mining company in history. It’s founders hope that in the coming decades, their company will open up the vast mineral wealth of outer space to human use. Using fuel derived from water ice found on comets, Planetary Resources also plans to construct orbital depots capable of refueling space craft. This would allow ships to carry much less fuel into orbit, greatly reducing the overall cost of space travel.
Meanwhile, steps were taken in 2012 towards an eventual return to the moon. Russia announced that it was in talks with NASA and the ESA over establishing permanent research stations on the moon. NASA itself also put plans into motion which could eventually lead to the first manned outpost beyond the Moon, located at the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2. Interest in lunar exploration in general has been growing recently. It was speculated that there could be commercial mining operations on the moon in as little as fifty years, while one expert has claimed that by the 2080s, residential settlement will be possible for the average citizen.
A number of milestones were also made in exploring other bodies of the solar system. In April, the MESSENGER space probe settled into a sustained orbit around Mercury, from which it will operate for about a year. The probe had already completed it’s primary purpose, having arrived at Mercury in 2008, and was then beginning an extended mission. Later, in November, NASA announced that MESSENGER had confirmed the presence of water ice on Mercury’s poles.
August 6th witnessed the historic landing of the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars. This robotic probe is by far the largest and most complex of its kind ever sent to the red planet. The rover’s goals include: investigation of the Martian climate and geology; assessment of whether the selected field site has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life, including investigation of the role of water; and planetary habitability studies in preparation for future human exploration. Equipped with a high-definition camera, Curiosity has sent back a wealth of visual data and striking images. This mission also adds to the growing body of evidence that Mars was once home to large water oceans in the distant past. Plans have also been revealed for a new rover, modeled after Curiosity, to be launched in 2020. This project would utilize many of the left-over parts and designs from its predecessor. In addition, NASA also announced a smaller-scale Mars mission, InSight, set for launch in 2016 and aimed to study the interior of the Martian surface.
Scientists also turned their attention to the outer planets of the solar system in 2012. Interest has increased recently in the moons of Jupiter, Europa, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto, for their potentially vast reserves of liquid water. Scientists with the American Museum of Natural History estimated in May that there is more water to be found on Europa than there is on Earth. As a result of this and other developments, two new missions to the Jovian System were announced last year: NASA’s Europa Clipper, set to arrive in 2027, and the ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), set to arrive in 2030.
The Saturnian System provided an even larger treasure trove of scientific information in 2012. On Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, scientists found evidence of a large subsurface ocean of liquid water, while river valleys created by flowing liquid hydrocarbons were discovered on the surface. On Enceladus, NASA’s Cassini probe captured images of enormous geysers of water vapor erupting from the moon’s surface. The probe also discovered evidence that oxygen gas might be common in outer solar system bodies, based on observations of the moon Dione.
Despite all of this, some of the most exciting discoveries involved objects far outside the limits of our solar system. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Kepler Space Telescope and other programs, the number of known exoplanets has skyrocketed in recent years. In fact, it was estimated last year that planets might outnumber stars in the Milky Way by a factor of thousands. This is based on recent science showing that exoplanets may be found around most stars in the galaxy, with the total number of planets Earth-sized or larger numbering in the billions. This research has also shown that our own solar system might not be as unique as we once thought. In January of 2012, Kepler made the landmark discovery of a solar system made up of three planets, each one smaller than Earth. Later in the year, another system was found which may hold up to nine different planets; more than even our solar system is home to. Alongside this, the search for extraterrestrial life continued, with more discoveries of potentially habitable planets than there is room to report here. Other interesting discoveries included a so-called “water world” covered in exotic forms of liquid and ice water, a planet two-thirds the size of Earth and covered in magma, a massive gas giant thirteen times the size of Jupiter, and a planet largely made out of diamond.
Much like with exoplanets, research into deep space produced more information in 2012 than I could ever hope to report on here. Among other discoveries were a strange rectangular galaxy, a rare image of a dying star, an extremely large, “fat” galaxy cluster known as El Gordo, and SXDF-NB1006-2, which at 12.91 billion lightyears from Earth is perhaps one of the most distant galaxies ever glimpsed by humans. Progress was made on the theory of dark energy by a Canadian-French research team, producing some of the most detailed images yet of the mysterious substance, while physicists from the University of Melbourne came out with a new, radical theory describing the Big Bang. Most significant of all was the observation by a consortium of astronomers that star formation in the Universe as a whole has shrunk to 1/3oth of its peak, leaving only 5% of all stars that will ever exist left to be formed. This represents a significant change in our view astronomy, showing that we are in fact living in a much more mature universe than we had once thought. However, it must be pointed out that, despite the smaller total of stars expected, at current rates, star formation will not stop completely for trillions of years.
Finally, I think it’s appropriate to end with this. On September 25th, 2012, NASA released the Hubble Extreme Deep Field. This image is compiled of over ten years of previous pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a single portion of the night sky. With an exposure time of 23 days, this image offers the deepest optical view of space ever produced. It revealed over 5,500 new galaxies, looking back in time over 13 billion years. This is all contained in an area of sky less than one-tenth the diameter of the moon. If nothing else, this image should give an idea of just how massive the universe we live in truly is. Knowing this, we are all very lucky to have the opportunity to learn so much about it.