1. Focus on Mars
NASA's next generation of Mars rovers, the Curiosity, is expected to touch red soil on Aug. 6, continuing the wave of interest in the red planet and whether evidence of Martian life existed.
During the 23-month $2.5 billion mission, the SUV-sized rover will comb the dusty planet with a battery of 10 scientific instruments to collect and analyze samples for signs of ancient life.
The eight-month long trip will expose the craft to radiation levels unseen on Earth, radiation that will be the first thing measured as the rover flies across space.
(Radiation Assessment Detector) is serving as a proxy for an astronaut inside a spacecraft on the way to Mars, Don Hassler, the instrument's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. said in a statement. The instrument is deep inside the spacecraft, the way an astronaut would be. Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars.
Expect many more announcements in 2012 when the Curiosity nears and reaches Mars, releases its parachute and lands on the Gale crater.
While Curiosity will not look for signs of life on Mars, what it might find could be a game-changer about the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe, Doug McCuistion, director of the NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said in a statement. One thing is certain: The rover's discoveries will provide critical data that will impact human and robotic planning and research for decades.
2. Biotech stock predictions
The biotech market did well in 2011, a trend expected to continue into 2012, analysts say, though the pharmaceutical sector is expected to struggle as many drug patents expire. The S&P 500 Biotechnology Sub-Industry Index gained 15.7 percent in 2011 and even during the last three volatile months of 2011, gained 4.9 percent, according to data compiled from The Street.
Continued merger and acquisition activity and favorable legislation will be key growth drivers, while an aging population and environmental concerns could spur demand in the industry, wrote analysts with Karvy Global Services, a Wall Street research firm.
The analysts wrote that their top five picks for 2012 would see growth of 25 percent to 139 percent. The companies include in alphabetical order:
Gilead Sciences Inc.
United Therapeutics Corporation
In their top 10 picks, The Street Ratings included Celgene Corp., as well as:
Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Biogen IDEC Inc.
Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Dusa Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Genomic Health Inc.
Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Sciclone Pharmaceuticals Inc.
While the biotech market could gain in 2012, the outlook for the pharmaceutical industry is gloomier as drug patents continue to expire in the upcoming year. In 2011, the patent expired for Lipitor, the cholesterol drug Pfizer with 2010 sales of $13 billion.
(See a list of upcoming drug patent expirations.)
Fitch Ratings forecasted a gloomy 2012 for the pharmaceutical industry, Ashley Cloninger wrote in the Wall St. Cheat Sheet. The ratings company said that drug companies will be hurt by expiring patents, government price control measures, lower demand due to unemployment and a lack of consumer confidence.
The prediction included five of the 13 largest drug companies seeing revenue losses in 2012 because of the decline.
Despite the hurdles, Fitch still said that the pharmaceutical sector would remain one of the firm's highest rated industries in 2012, Cloninger wrote.
3. Extreme weather
The U.S. suffered 12 natural disasters in 2011 that left over $1 billion in damage. Each.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors weather, deemed 2011 a year for the record books that included blizzards across the northeast, severe tornadoes across the southeast and Midwest, Hurricane Irene, flooding, record droughts in Texas and a record storm in Alaska. And that was just across the U.S.
Extreme weather occurred worldwide, with devastating effects. For example, typhoon in the Philippines killed at least 1,000 people in December, a disaster that affected over 640,000 people. Extreme flooding occurred in Thailand and Pakistan during the disastrous rainy season in 2011 and record storms battered Scotland in December.
Other disasters such as volcanic eruptions in Chile and Iceland and the tsunami in Japan were considered natural disasters independent of weather.
Experts project more frequent hot days and heavier rains into the 21st century, according to an extreme-weather themed report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued in November.
It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur in the 21st century on the global scale, the report states.
The report goes on to state that droughts can be expected to occur nearly across the entire planet, sea levels will rise and flooding will increase.
Though costs from natural disasters are typically higher in developed countries, it's those under development that typically face the brunt of weather-related deaths.
4. More Planets, Please!
The Kepler mission - NASA's $600 million planet-hunting space satellite - launched in 2009, and two years later, the mission began to show off its discoveries, including two Earth-sized planets that orbited a Sun-like star, the first planet in a habitable zone found outside the solar system and a planet that orbits two stars.
The announcement of the two Earth-sized rocky planets some 1,000 light years away included speculation that 2012 may be the year in which astronomers may identify the first exo-Earth - a habitable planet the same size as the Earth.
5. Higgs boson
Scientists at CERN, an atom smasher in Switzerland, gave the world a tantalizing teaser in December: A maybe in finding the elusive Higgs boson, the God particle that would explain how matter has mass.
Physicists working on two experiments, the Atlas and CMS, are expected to get more data throughout 2012 and during the December announcement, some speculated that the existence of the particle could come sometime in 2012.
6. Scientists Predict the World Won't End (Again and Again...)
On Dec. 21, 2012, the world will end, if you believe doomsday devotees and apocalypse aficionados. However, scientists aren't buying into the hyped date that signifies the restarting of the Mayan calendar.
The Maya are viewed by many westerners as exotic folks that were supposed to have had some special, secret knowledge, Mayan scholar Sven Gronemeyer told ABC News in December. What happens is that our expectations and fears get projected on the Maya calendar.
The doomsday hype filled blogs and websites with fully-blow creations of how the world would end: Polar shifts, asteroids, meteors along with aligning earthquakes and planets.
Even NASA weighed in to the hype, which scientists will likely discuss more and more as Dec. 21 nears.
Nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012, NASA stated on its web site. For any claims of disaster or dramatic changes in 2012, where is the science? Where is the evidence? There is none, and for all the fictional assertions, whether they are made in books, movies, documentaries or over the Internet, we cannot change that simple fact.