By Charlene Porter, IIP Digital Staff Writer

Curiosity sent home this self-portrait from the Martian surface

Washington — 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.

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.


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.

This article originally appeared on the U.S. Department of State’s IIP Digital website.