December 13, 2012
NASA Highlights In 2012: Historical Year For Space Exploration
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
The year 2012 has proved to be a historic one on the space exploration front, with many accomplishments across the board at NASA.
During the past year, the space agency landed the most sophisticated rover on Mars, carried out the first commercial mission to the International Space Station, and work has gone underway for NASA's next generation spacecraft and rocket.
After surfing through space for nearly nine months, NASA's Curiosity rover completed its "Seven Minutes of Terror" landing on Mars inside Gale Crater.
Since August, Curiosity has been performing the beginnings of two-years worth of experiments to search for whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. The rover has checked out its 10 science instruments, sent back detailed photos and weather observations, and has scooped up some soil to perform an analysis of what that red surface is made up of.
NASA said some key mission findings during the first three months of exploration include conglomerate rocks bearing rounded pebbles as evidence of vigorous ancient stream flow; mineral composition of Martian soil similar to soils in Hawaii; and the first assessment of the natural radiation environment that future astronauts will encounter upon walking on the surface of Mars.
For the next two years, Curiosity will be exploring and assessing a local region of the surface of Mars as a potential habitat for life, past or present.
Curiosity's landing on Mars was historic in itself, accomplishing a feat no other rover has done before with its unique Sky Crane technique.
To continue Martian exploration, NASA also announced plans for a multi-year Mars program, including a new robotic science rover based on the Curiosity design set to launch in 2020. This portfolio includes the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, two NASA spacecraft, the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter; and participation in ESA's 2016 and 2018 EXoMars missions.
NASA said that the 2020 mission will be another step towards being responsive to high-priority science goals, and the next challenge would be sending humans to Mars orbit in 2030s.
While the accomplishments of exploring another planet are indeed historic, another milestone in humanity was reached this year with SpaceX's Dragon capsule.
The Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station in May, becoming the first commercial vessel to do so. Later, Dragon successfully resupplied the International Space Station, and returned cargo back to Earth in October, becoming the first NASA contracted cargo delivery flight.
SpaceX will fly at least 12 cargo missions to the space station with the contract it was awarded by NASA. The Dragon capsule launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying 882 pounds of cargo. Dragon returned back to Earth with almost twice that amount of cargo.
Moving certain aspects of what NASA used to do towards the commercial realm is how the space industry is changing before our eyes. And, while NASA will be contracting companies out for ferrying its astronauts to the ISS in the future, the space agency is also making plans to explore beyond our reaches as well.
This year, NASA made strides in working towards a new generation of spacecraft and rocket for itself, that would be capable of taking man to Mars or an asteroid.
NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida welcomed the arrival of the agency's first space-bound Orion capsule back in July, which was a major milestone in the construction of the spacecraft. Orion will become one of the most advanced spacecraft ever designed, capable of sustaining astronauts for long-periods of time, providing safe re-entry from deep space, and emergency abort capability.
The Orion at Kennedy will launch on Exploration Flight Test-1, which will be an uncrewed mission in 2014. During this test, the spacecraft will fly 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface, which is 15 times farther than the International Space Station's orbital position.
NASA also made progress on the Space Launch System this year, which is a new heavy-lift rocket system that is the largest rocket ever built.
During 2012, SLS underwent tests that broke duration records and pushed the engine design to its limits.
The Orion, SLS and Ground Systems Development and Operations program reached their critical milestones this year with an approved system requirement review and system definition review. These steps allow these programs to move from a concept, into preliminary design phase.
While 2012 has proved to be a historic year for exploring beyond our planet, the best is still yet to come.