Best and Top of Everything : Top 10 Space Moments of 2012

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Top 10 Space Moments of 2012

10. The Moon Implicated in the Sinking of the Titanic


There may have been an unindicted co-conspirator in the sinking of the legendary Titanic: the moon. In a paper published in March, two physicists from Texas State University made that case, beginning with an improbable convergence months before the Titanic set sail—on Jan. 4, 1912, to be exact. On that day, the sun and the moon lined up with the Earth in such a way that their combined gravity led to a cycle of unusually high and low tides. By itself, the phenomenon is not that uncommon. But at the same time, the moon just happened to make its closest approach to Earth in 1,400 years. Worse still, on Jan. 3, the Earth made its closest approach to the sun, which happens every year at that time. So the tides on Jan. 4 were not just high, but higher than they’d been in many hundreds of years. The iceberg that claimed the Titanic might have been among many old ones that had become grounded in the relatively shallow waters around Labrador and Newfoundland. The historic tides would have freed a number of them, turning the shipping lanes into the deadly minefield they became that April. And one of those mines—in the wrong spot at the wrong time—sent the Titanic to the bottom, and into history


9. NASA Gets Two New Hubbles–For Free

The Hubble Space Telescope makes one orbit around Earth every 97 minutes.

It hardly bears mentioning that the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most extraordinarily successful scientific instruments of all time. All good things come to an end, however, and the Hubble is nearing the final years of its useful life. But hold the funeral dirges: In June, the National Science Foundation revealed the existence of not one but two pristine, Hubble-class space telescopes still in their original wrappings in a warehouse in Rochester, N.Y. The pair were originally built for the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency in charge of spy satellites, to look down at Earth rather than up into space. But the NRO has moved on to bigger and better instruments, and decided to hand the telescopes over. It’s not clear what NASA will do with this astonishing gift—how they’ll upgrade the telescopes or when they’ll launch them. For now, they’re still trying to wrap their brains around the fact that they own the things at all. “It just blew me away when I heard about this,” said Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, when the gift was announced. “I knew nothing about it.”

8. Nanoparticles in the Moon’s Soil

The supermoon of March 19, 2011.

Even before astronauts landed on the moon, they knew the soil would be something special. With no atmosphere to intercept incoming micrometeorites, it has been subjected to a 4.5 billion year bombardment that has produced a layer of dust far finer than confectioner’s sugar. That dust, the Apollo crewmen found when they went out to play in it, did some strange things: it rose above the surface when disturbed and hung there far longer than could be explained by the moon’s weak gravity; it crept deep into the weave and cracks of virtually anything it touched and clung there as if adhesively attached. What’s more, it was filled with exquisitely fine green and orange glass beads — products of the superheated melting and cooling that followed impacts. In 2012, Geologist Marek Zbik of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, used a nanotomograph—which didn’t even exist when the Apollo crews flew—to study a soil sample brought back by one of the missions. He found that those microscopic beads are filled with nanoparticles, with an electrostatic charge that accounts for the soil’s tendency to float. The particles are also chemically active and electrically sticky, which explains  why they could never simply be brushed off of an astronaut’s uniform. Even forty years after the great lunar flights, the science just keeps on coming.

7. North Korea’s Satellite Flop

North Korea Rocket Launch

North Korea rarely has much to show off. Every 20 years or so, they upgrade to a new Kim, and the product rollout is pretty much the crazy, hermit-state equivalent of the iPad 3 launch. In 2012, however, Pyongyang had a whole different kind of launch in mind and took the unheard of step of polishing up the Dear Leader statues and throwing open the doors to the international press, as the country attempted its first satellite launch. It was a dud. According to U.S. and Japanese defense officials, the rocket failed mid-flight, breaking up in the atmosphere. The satellite the North intended to launch was barely above the hobbyist level—a 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) cube covered with solar panels and topped by a high-definition camera. But the rocket, a long-range Unha 3, was a formidable piece of ordnance—more than suitable for carrying warheads if not spacecraft. So don’t snicker at L’il Kim’s sword-rattling—but don’t be too impressed by his wrong stuff space program either.

6. Geysers on Mars

An artist's rendering of Martian geysers.

The rule for space aesthetics has always been clear: First comes the science, then comes the art. This year, that idea was proven again with sensational images shot by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) showing the predictable — if beautiful — rusty dunes of the Martian surface, sculpted like snowdrifts from the planet’s tenuous but persistent wind. The scene is broken up, however, by strange, black, spidery blemishes scattered randomly about the surface. The dark splatters show up seasonally and are thought to be a form of carbon dioxide geysers, which erupt out of the ground as the CO2 turns from ice in the Martian winter to gas in the summer. The pictures exploded on the Internet—and people became smarter for reading the accompanying stories, reconfirming the power of the beautiful to help popularize the technical.


5. Ocean on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

Ring shadows line the face of distant Saturn, providing a backdrop for the brilliant, white sphere of Enceladus

There’s something innately enchanting about the Enceladan Ocean—if only because of its lyrical name. But don’t expect to go sunning yourself on its banks anytime soon. It’s located 888 million miles (1.4 billion km) from Earth on Saturn’s bitterly cold moon Enceladus. Oh, and the ocean is buried beneath a thick rind of surface ice too. But the discovery of the body of otherworldly water—made by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004—was nonetheless big news. Enceladus is intermittently squeezed and stretched by the gravitational pull of its sister moons Dione and Tethys as they pass. This leads to ice volcanoes and constant resurfacing of the moon’ frozen crust. Cassini images of that crust revealed cracks known as tiger stripes that come from the constant flexing. All of this suggests a world that’s so elastic that the conclusion that the moon is home to a massive water ocean—perhaps a globe-girdling one—became inescapable. Such a warm (at least above freezing) body of water could well be an incubator for life, provided you’ve got enough time. And the 4.5 billion years Saturn and its moons have been around ought to be more than sufficient.

4. Discovery of Earthlike Planet Around Alpha Centauri

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B

Exoplanets can be hard to keep straight. The eight planets in our solar system are nothing next to the 2,300-plus possible planets astronomers have discovered circling other stars. But that mass anonymity changed in October, with a major new discovery announced in Nature. A team of exoplaneteers based at Switzerland’s Geneva Observatory spotted an exoplanet orbiting in the Alpha Centauri starsystem — our sun’s nearest celestial neighbor, and a favored destination for generations of sci-fi writers. Just four light years from Earth, Alpha Centauri could be reached, in theory, within a human lifetime—provided the right technology were invented. What’s more, the planet—dubbed Alpha Centauri Bb—is approximately the same size and perhaps the same composition as Earth. The hitch: it orbits only 3.72 million miles (6 million km) from its home star, compared to Earth, which stands at a cooler—and more life-sustaining—remove of 93 million (15 million km) from the sun.

3. Dawn Spacecraft Geads Off to Ceres

Artist concept showing the Dawn spacecraft at Ceres.

It’s easy to forget about the massive swarm of asteroids that orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter. There’s a river of them after all, and the overwhelming majority are little more than rocks. But Ceres and Vesta are different—the size of Texas and Arizona respectively. Ceres is so big, in fact, that it qualifies as a dwarf planet, the same as Pluto. In July 2011, the Dawn spacecraft went into orbit around Vesta and stayed there until September 2012, after which it blasted away on a course to Ceres—which it will reach in February 2015—becoming the first ship of its kind to orbit two bodies. Actually “blasted away” is not quite accurate. In truth, Dawn just putt-putted away, relying on a thin stream of propulsion from its innovative ion engine. The spacecraft’s mission is thus equal parts important science and exceedingly nifty engineering—a NASA twofer if ever there were one.

2. Dragon Spacecraft Docks with International Space Station

SpaceX's Dragon

American space shuttles and Russian Soyuz ships have docked with the International Space Station (ISS) any number of times, but until last May, a guy named Elon had never done it. Elon is Elon Musk, the founder of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation—or SpaceX. And while he’s no space traveler himself, his Dragon spacecraft became the first-ever private ship to dock with the ISS, beginning a scheduled dozen unmanned resupply missions, with plans for manned missions to follow. If Musk does launch crews—he says it will happen by 2015—the long-discussed and always-deferred manned commercial conquest of space will at last have begun.

1. Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars

surface of Mars

Americans have put machines on Mars before, but never one as big or ambitious as the SUV-sized Curiosity rover that touched down in GaleCrater in August. The landing, a live-streamed global event, was an improbable bit of daredevil flying. The descent pod came to a near-full stop a dozen or so yards above the surface, and the one-ton car was lowered on cables like an extraterrestrial marionette. Curiosity has two years of driving and investigating ahead of it, but just by getting where it was supposed to go in the first place it has marked itself a triumph.