When it comes to the American space program in 2011, there’s plenty to reflect back on. There was the historic end of the space shuttle program. There was the four-month battle over the James Webb Space Telescope and its resulting exposure of NASA’s problems. There was the enormously successful launch of the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover, even as the Mars program faces its own budget woes. But space science is about looking forward, not backward, and there’s plenty of American space science to be excited about in the year 2012. (There’s also plenty happening internationally, but we’ll stick with the United States for the purpose of this piece.) Here is a by no means all-inclusive look at five things, in no particular order, to keep an eye out for this year.
1. MSL/Curiosity landing on Mars. Slated for August 2012, the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory will set a new record in technical prowess and mark the beginning of an exciting era of Mars exploration. In order to land at the desired spot, scientists developed more precise landing equipment than has ever been utilized. Curiosity will explore the Gale crater, an area ripe for possibilities in the search for previous — or potential — life.
2. Beginning of science phase for GRAIL mission. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission launched in early December and reached lunar orbit just as the new year arrived. The mission features two crafts that are orbiting the moon in tandem, one slightly behind the other. They will transmit radio signals to each other, helping scientists map the moon’s gravitational field. Though the craft are orbiting now, the science phase won’t begin until March 2012, and we’ll surely be getting some exciting lunar news soon after.
3. Possibility of Voyager craft leaving the solar system. This year, NASA’s Voyager mission, launched in 1977, reached a new area in a kind of “cosmic purgatory,” a mysterious area called the heliosphere. The twin probes are still healthy and beaming data back to Earth. Scientists aren’t sure when exactly the craft will exit the heliosphere and reach interstellar space—the first human object ever to do so—but, according to a December 2011 press release, data indicates it could be from within a few months to a few years. Keep an eye out.
4. MESSENGER probe to begin extended mission. NASA’s MESSENGER (Mercury, Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) mission, launched in 2004, became the first craft to enter Mercury’s orbit on March 18, 2011. It was designed to work until March 17, 2012, but NASA gave the go-ahead for it to continue operating. Details are still being worked out, according to a November press release, but it’s certain that MESSENGER will continue investigating the mysteries of the tiny, hot planet closest to the sun.
5. First SpaceX launch to the International Space Station. This, quite simply, is big. As NASA re-evaluates its role and its future, it’s incorporating more work from the private sector. In early December, NASA cleared SpaceX for a second Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration, pending completion of final safety reviews. NASA will also allow SpaceX’s Dragon craft an unmanned launch to rendezvous with the ISS; if it’s successful, it will present the United States with a possibility for manned and unmanned launches to the ISS, which it currently lacks due to the end of the shuttle program.
Bottom line: EarthSky space blogger Laura Dattaro picks her top 5 most exciting things to look forward to in space science in 2012.
Laura Dattaro came to EarthSky from the Baltimore City Paper, where she remains an associate editor, and from @ldattaro on Twitter. She is a 2009 graduate of University of Delaware with degrees in English and music and sees science as a way to unite humanity behind a greater good, besides being simply the coolest thing to read and write about. She currently lives in Baltimore.