Mars Mission Leads a Year of Space Milestones

By Charlene Porter

Staff Writer

The U.S. space agency delved into the secrets of other worlds in 2012, developed and tested new technology to reach those worlds and pursued these goals in partnership with space agencies from many other countries.

The car-sized rover Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars in August, as an Internet audience of millions worldwide watched in wonder and fascination.

Curiosity, equipped with the Mars Space Laboratory, is the fourth motorized vehicle NASA has landed on the Red Planet and the most sophisticated. Its mission is to look for signs that a habitable environment existed on the planet at some time in its past.

“We landed right on an ancient riverbed,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, at an early December briefing. Water-worn pebbles photographed by Curiosity in its earliest days assured that a primary element for life flowed across the now-dry surface at one time.

Curiosity has a two-year mission on Mars. Mission headquarters at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will soon start the rover on a trek toward a nearby mountain in search of more signs of an environment that might have supported life.

The scientific instruments aboard the craft are collecting data on multiple features of the landscape. An environmental monitoring station built and provided by Spanish scientists records information about daily and seasonal changes in Martian weather. Finland’s Meteorological Institute contributed to this scientific instrument.

Collecting a Martian year’s worth of environmental data will provide critical information for NASA planners and engineers, who look toward how to sustain the first human crew to land on Mars in the decades ahead.

Mars has very little atmosphere, leaving the surface exposed to high radiation levels from the sun and space, and that’s a major concern for a future crewed mission. Germany’s space agency has contributed to the design and construction of the radiation assessment device that will track that critical element of conditions surrounding Curiosity.

The Russian Federal Space Agency contributed an instrument critical to the detection of water, the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, which can detect water bound into shallow underground minerals.

Bill Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev arrived on the ISS in 2000, beginning 12 years of continuous habitation.

SPACE STATION

The International Space Station (ISS) has been at the forefront of scientific collaboration between NASA and other space agencies. That partnership celebrated 12 years of permanent human habitation on ISS in early November. The international residents rotating through the station have tended more than 1,500 experiments, many of them producing results that further human knowledge of medicine, environment and the universe.

ISS research findings released in August identified techniques for helping crew members retain more bone density during months in a no-gravity environment. The deterioration of bone in a weightless environment is another risk to space travelers if they are to voyage farther and farther from the home planet.

SOLAR SYSTEM

International scientific collaboration in space is also enlarging our understanding of planet Earth. Data supplied by NASA and the European Space Agency are helping experts produce what the space agency calls “the most comprehensive and accurate assessment to date of ice sheet losses in Greenland and Antarctica.” Melting and separation of these ice masses is linked to climate change and a resulting sea level rise. NASA research announced in November found that Greenland and Antarctica are losing more than three times as much ice as they did in the 1990s. The German Aerospace Center was a partner in the study.

Ice on Mercury is another important NASA discovery in 2012. An unmanned spacecraft arrived at the innermost planet in March 2011 and this year provided “compelling support” for the theory that Mercury stores significant water ice in its polar craters, which never turn toward the sun. How much ice? About enough to put the 177-square-kilometer city of Washington under more than 3 kilometers of ice, NASA says.

Even with all these activities under way, NASA looks toward the future. In July, the space agency marked a milestone in manned spaceflight with delivery for testing of the Orion capsule, the next-generation vehicle to take humans to space. NASA said Orion will become the most advanced spacecraft ever designed, capable of sustaining life for its crew on long flights through space and then re-entering a planetary atmosphere.

NASA and private-sector partners are also advancing development of the new space launch system that will provide the power to lift Orion beyond the bonds of gravity and explore targets in the solar system.

In early December the space agency announced a long-range plan for Mars exploration. Several more robotic science missions will provide further understanding of the Red Planet before a crewed mission takes off in the 2030s.

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