The race to space may recall memories of 1950s Cold War America, but the truth is that the world is still making not just steps but leaps and bounds for mankind. Here are the top 11 coolest space events of 2012.
The car-sized rover driving around Mars is a technological marvel, seeking to answer whether the Red Planet once harboured life. The concept isn’t new, but the rover pushes the limits of what is technologically possible in space exploration. It sets the stage for delivering habitable modules to Mars in the future, and what advanced robotics might be able to do by then as well.
The Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station on October 10. Elon Musk is among the first generation of privateers in space, making a business out of delivering goods and people into Earth's orbit cheaply with reusable rockets. Now we can say that it can be done. Even with heavy NASA support and the government as a primary contractor, SpaceX is only the first step in the commercialization of Space.
3. Voyager I
As the most distant man-made object in Space, Voyager I is expected to exit the solar system within the next few years and enter interstellar space. Currently, it is in a region of the heliosphere where the sun’s emitted particles and forces noticeably interact with the forces and particles outside the solar system. The former grow weaker and the latter stronger, and within 40,000 years, the probe is expected to finally pass 1,6 light years from the star AC+79 3888. Its plutonium-powered generator should provide power until at least 2020, and the first data about the extra-solar environment.
This year, the surviving shuttles Endeavour, Discovery and Atlantis flew their last missions to their final resting places in museums around America. As a testament to manned space flight, the shuttles represent the end of one area of exploration and the beginning of another.
Advances in observation technologies have given unprecedented sensitivity to the ability of telescopes to detect small planets, based on the faint different in the output of starlight, as a planet orbits around its parent body. While many of these discoveries might be Earth-like planets, further advances will be needed to determine the viability of these planets to support life. Regardless, it is an important step in mapping out potential new homes.
6. Supermassive black holes
Weighing in at a mere 10-40 billion solar masses, it is still unknown how this class of black holes co-exist with their galaxies. Conversely, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is only 6,4 billion solar masses. The twist in all this is how common these black holes are and the upper limit of how massive they can get – maybe 100 billion solar masses.
Located 13,3 billion light years away, this galaxy is the grand-daddy of all the later galaxies we see. It is 600 light years in diameter (Milky Way is 150,000 by comparison), and shows a point in time when the Universe was only 420 million years old in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Still, we must keep in mind that the light reaching us is almost as old as the Universe – in fact, when it was only 3% of its current age – and in real time, this galaxy-let could already be all grown up.
What you’re looking at are 1,5 million galaxies, with an average of 300 billion stars inside each one, at distances from one another of millions and billions of light years. If any civilization is able to traverse these distances, it would be remarkable. Regardless, it still makes us the amoeba of the universe.
China is growing by leaps and bounds, and so is its space program. This year saw the flight of the first Chinese woman in space, a docking of three astronauts to the Tiangong 1 space station, and the development of more powerful rockets for future long-range missions. Overall, Beijing is at the helm of a program that may well drive by the best of ours like a road sign in a decade’s time.
Lasers have long had civilian applications and they are gradually working their way in the military realm to the point where they could supersede missiles by mid-century. Long held to be science fiction, space-based, solar-powered arrays acting as vessels for lasers that can be focused on threatening asteroids can also be used to initially change their trajectories. Later models could just turn them into harmless shooting stars.
Probably the coolest thing on this list, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) commissioned a study to examine the viability of constructing a vessel able to traverse the distance from star to star within a century. Mentioned above, on inertia alone, Voyager I will take 40,000 years to accomplish the job, so a century is an ambitious technological challenge. There is hope, however! We went from the horse and buggy to the moon in the confines of a century, which means our accelerated rate of technical progress might make this possible within decades, if we keep it up.