Curiosity On Mars, Sugar In Space and Ice On Mercury: Biggest Space Stories Of 2012

 @rpalmerscience on December 28 2012 6:59 AM

While there was certainly a lot of news on Earth in 2012, a lot more was happening this year besides the events on one relatively insignificant planet located in the backwoods of the Milky Way galaxy.

Curiosity (And Gravity) Didn't Kill The Mars Rover

In probably the most-watched space story of the year, NASA scientists performed a very precise interplanetary maneuver in slingshotting the new Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity, to the Red Planet's surface. Whereas previous rovers and landers were small enough to be packed in the high-tech equivalent of bubble wrap and flung directly at the surface of the planet, the car-sized Curiosity required a softer landing.

Thus, the space agency and spectators were on the edge of their seats for the “seven minutes of terror” as Curiosity descended through the Martian atmosphere. First, the spacecraft carrying the rover had to use rockets to help it decelerate. Then, when it had gotten down to a relatively pokey 900 miles per hour, the spacecraft deployed a parachute. After the heat shield separated, the rover was conveyed close to the surface by a platform equipped with retrorockets to slow the descent even further. When the platform got close to the surface, Curiosity was gently lowered by a “sky crane” to the ground.

Curiosity is only a few months into its two-year mission, and it hasn't found any big revelations yet. But the mobile laboratory has already begun to probe the Red Planet deeper than ever before, and the data the rover gathers from Martian soil and rocks will help scientists figure out whether one of Mars' many craters could have ever supported extraterrestrial life.

No matter what Curiosity finds, its successful landing of Curiosity is already boding well for future exploration. Earlier in December, NASA announced that it will be sending another rover to Mars in 2020.

Mercury Rising

While everyone's attention was on Mars and Curiosity, the plucky Messenger orbiter relayed some news that may have caught casual space enthusiasts a bit off-guard – Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, appears to have water ice at its north pole.

Though temperatures on the innermost planet can rise up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit, ice can persist because Mercury has almost no rotational tilt. Earth is tilted on its axis, which means that its poles get a dose of daylight – a lot in summer, very little in winter – but because Mercury is almost rigidly straight as it spins, its poles are virtually untouched by the sun.

Mercury may hold as many as 1 trillion metric tons of water ice trapped in its shadowy north pole, trapped underneath a dark material that seems to be made of complex organic compounds containing carbon, the most essential chemical building block for life as we know it. It's not very likely that our sun's nearest neighbor supports life, since oxygen levels are quite low and the planet's extremely thin atmosphere means it's virtually unprotected from asteroid bombardment. But we won't know for sure until we get there!

One Small Step For SpaceX, One Giant Leap For Space Industry

NASA wasn't the only player in space this year. With the space shuttle program mothballed since 2011, private companies are moving to fill the niche left open by the government. California-based SpaceX proved its mettle in May, when it ferried a payload to the International Space Station with its Dragon spacecraft.

In late December, SpaceX put another feather in its cap when its “Grasshopper” rocket successfully lifted off, traveled 12 stories up, then landed back on the ground. The Grasshopper rocket was being tested as part of the company's plan to develop reuseable launch vehicles that could make orbital flights much less expensive.

But of course, focusing on the year in our solar system is still very local news, universally speaking. 2012 also yielded many discoveries far away from us, too many to list in full:

The Sweet Spot In The Stars

Turns out infant stars have a bit of a sweet tooth.

In August, scientists from the Niels Bohr Institute examining an area of space in the constellation Ophiuchus picked up signs of glycoaldehyde, the simplest possible sugar in nature. This sugar is an ingredient in several key chemical recipes, including the formose reaction, which begins with formaldehyde and ends with the production of sugars.

The sweet spot the researchers found is in a “stellar nursery,” or star-forming cloud, near the star Rho Ophiuchi. The stellar nursery is a bit chilly -- 10 degrees above absolute zero, which is the equivalent of roughly -440° Farenheit. In this space freezer, gases like carbon monoxide and methane are frozen, allowing them to interact in ways they normally could not.

Finding signs of glycoaldehyde could help scientists determine whether the essential ingredients of life are commonly made early on in the formation of planets and stars, and at what point they usually become integrated into newborn planets.

“This could potentially tell us something about the possibility that life might arise elsewhere and whether precursors to biology are already present before the planets have been formed,” Niels Bohr Institute researcher Jes Jorgensen said in a statement in August.

Black Hole Suns

Though here on Earth we can take heart that the black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, is a relatively tame beast, other parts of space are not so lucky. Pity any poor inhabitants of the galaxy NGC 1277, where researchers recently found what could be the most massive black hole ever discovered.

The black hole's diameter is more than 11 times as wide as Neptune's orbit around the sun, according to the University of Texas at Austin team that discovered it. It would take a beam of light around four days to make a trip equal in distance to the black hole's width. The monster black hole is also 17 billion times as massive as our sun.

Meanwhile, researchers from Virginia Tech and the Isaac Newton Group in Spain said they'd found the most powerful quasar discovered yet. A quasar is a very bright galaxy powered by a central black hole that accelerates the material outside of its event horizon -- the “point of no return” beyond which it is impossible for matter to escape the grip of the black hole -- as it pulls matter into its center.

Hugely energetic quasars are predicted by theoretical simulations, but the discovery of the new object, SDSS J1512+1119, is the first time such an object has been seen in reality.

Aliens Next Door?

Scientists are finding more and more evidence that Earth isn't exactly an outlier in the universe. The list of planets found outside our solar system, or exoplanets, keeps growing, and 2012 was no exception.

In December, a team led by University of Hertfordshire astronomer Mikko Tuomi announced they'd found evidence for what could be a five-planet system circling Tau Ceti, a star just 12 light years away from Earth. One of the five planets seems to lie in the habitable zone, where the temperature is mild enough for liquid water to persist.

Tau Ceti's satellite could just be one of billions of potentially habitable worlds in the Milky Way galaxy alone, according to a European research team. In March, the group published a paper estimating that about 41 percent of red dwarfs contain at least one super-Earth in the habitable zone. With an estimated 160 billion red dwarfs in the Milky Way, tens of billions of such planets potentially exist.

Since science builds upon all the discoveries of the past, we can only expect that 2013 will bring even stranger and more fascinating stories from the depths of space.

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