The Countdown, a collaboration between Scientific American and YouTube's Spacelab, is a biweekly video show highlighting the best stuff happening in space, astronomy and physics. The companion Countdown blog features links to all of the stories mentioned in the show and more. Science journalist Sophie Bushwick is the show's host.
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The Countdown, Episode 12 – Top 5 Space Stories of 2012!
[The text below is a modified transcript of this video.]
2012 is almost over and it’s time take a look back at the top space stories of the past year. We’ll find out what happened in the weeks and months after the news broke. And, hey, don’t forget to tell us your top five in the comments.
5) Nearby Exoplanet
In October, an exoplanet was discovered in one of the closest star systems to the Earth. Orbiting around a star called Alpha Centauri B, the planet has a mass similar to Earth’s, but the proximity to its star makes the temperature too high to support life. This is the closest exoplanet we’ve discovered so far. So what’s stopping us from going there and exploring a new solar system?
In late November, scientists discovered water on a planet beginning with the letter M–just not the one we were expecting. Data analyzed from the Messenger probe indicates the planet Mercury probably has water, in the form of ice, at its poles.
Launched in 2004, the Messenger spacecraft moved into orbit around Mercury in 2011. So far, it has orbited the planet 1000 times and produced over 100,000 images leading to numerous discoveries. As the data keeps pouring in we can probably expect more news on Mercury in 2013.
With the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, Dragon became responsible for resupplying the ISS. Although SpaceX signed a contract with NASA back in 2008, Dragon didn’t make its first official run until October of this year. But the capsule’s isn’t limited to supply runs. Dragon can also act as a free-flying spacecraft and could someday carry humans: In August, SpaceX won funding from NASA to develop Dragon for human transport.
The Dragon capsule is only one of many successes for SpaceX. With NASA and US military contracts, and plans for a colony on Mars, this company will continue to expand the private sector’s presence in space. The ascendency of SpaceX raises the question: Is the future of space travel in commercial hands? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
2) Curiosity on Mars
Private companies like SpaceX may be thriving, but NASA is hardly twiddling its thumbs. The agency pulled off a major success when the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity rover, touched down perfectly on August 5. While we celebrated from NASA to Times Square here on Earth, Curiosity got right to work, and boy has it been busy.
And Curiosity’s success has inspired new plans for Mars exploration. Now, NASA wants to send another rover to the planet, and even to bring samples of Martian soil back to Earth. Stay tuned for 2020, when the new rover is scheduled to launch.