This year in geek: The biggest astronomy stories of 2012

NASA
On Dec. 14, 1962, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft sailed close to Venus, marking the first time any spacecraft had ever successfully made a close-up study of another planet.

This year, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is celebrating 50 years of planetary exploration. 50 years ago on December 14, 1962, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft made history by sailing close to Venus, marking the first time we were able to study another planet up close.

Fast forward to the present and NASA continues to “dare mighty things” despite the lack of any manned space missions in the foreseeable future. It has been an amazing year in space, with new discoveries and plenty of stories for the record books. Let's take a look at just some of this year’s achievements in space exploration and beyond.

Mercury: a planet of ice and fire

NASA
Shown in red are areas of Mercury’s north polar region that are in shadow in all images acquired by MESSENGER to date.

You might think that the planet closest to our sun would be the last place in the Solar System aside from the Sun to have any water on its surface. While there is no liquid water on Mercury, there could be ice. New observations by the MESSENGER spacecraft’s neutron spectrometer have revealed evidence of large pockets of ice around Mercury’s northern pole. Scientists have long theorized the possibility of polar ice on Mercury because portions of the craters at the planet's poles are always in shadows, hidden from the intense heat of the Sun.

Voyager 1 boldly goes where no man has gone before

NASA/JPL-Caltech

On the other side of the Solar System, the Voyager 1 spacecraft is expected to become the first ever man-made spacecraft to enter interstellar space in just a few months. Since beginning its space journey in 1977, Voyager 1 has traveled over 17.9 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) away from our Sun. Scientists believe that the probe has reached the outermost region of our solar system known as the “magnetic highway,” where the Sun’s magnetic field lines run parallel to those of the interstellar magnetic field.

Look deep into space

NASA

While we still haven’t stepped foot (or space probe) outside of our Solar System, we’ve seen galaxies located as far as 13.2 billion light years away. Thanks to the Hubble telescope and some extreme photography from the last 10 years, we’ve been able to look deeper into our universe than ever before. If scientists are right about the universe being 13.7 billion years old, we could be just 500 million light years short of seeing the first stars created after the Big Bang.

Getting the big(gest) picture

ESO

The universe isn’t just deep, it’s also wide—wider than anyone could possibly imagine. Take, for instance, this 9-gigapixel photo that captured 84 million Milky Way stars. The most amazing thing about it isn’t that it's the largest digital photo ever taken or that it captured 10 times more stars than any previous study has. It’s mind-blowing because the image only captures about one percent of our entire sky.

Curiouser and curiouser exoplanets

ESO

Earth is still a unique planet in that it's the only known world confirmed to have liquid water on its surface (there's that whole life thing, too). But the universe continues to surprise us, with an exoplanet that rotate around four stars or a forever-alone planet that drifts in space by itself, or even a planet made of diamonds.

Commercial space expands to mining and trucking

NASA
View from the International Space Station of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as the station’s robotic arm moves Dragon into place for attachment to the station.

Space tourism may still happen one day, but space already makes good business sense for some companies. This year, we saw the first company to announce that it was actually planning to mine asteroids for precious minerals and metals. On the slightly more practical end of stellar commerce was the first ever commercial space freighter in the form of a SpaceX Dragon capsule, which delivered supplies to the International Space Station.

Crowdsourced projects

ESA

The most important person to contribute to space research this year was you. Yes, you. No, this is not some sort of riff on Time's 2006 Person of the Year. This year, you helped the European Space Agency better understand the universe by combing though images from the Hubble Space Telescope. In case you missed the crowdsourced research the last time around, astronomers are asking for more help to study our closest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Curiosity Mars Rover

NASA
Artist's concept of NASA's MSL Curiosity rover investigating Mars.

Of course, this list would not be complete with out at least mentioning the Mars rover Curiosity. Curiosity is pretty amazing even for a robot. It is the largest, rover to ever land on another planet, which it did with the help of an insane rocket crane system unlike anything previously attempted.

Ever since completing its badass landing sequence, Curiosity has been hard at work, using its arsenal of cameras and cutting edge laboratory equipment to find any evidence of life or water on our dusty neighbor. So far, the rover has located an ancient streambed, drilled a Martian rock name Jake , and it continues to sift the Earth-like soil every chance it get.

Even if Curiosity mission to find any evidence of life or water on Mars fails, it has already left its mark in history—and Foursquare.

A human goes supersonic

Red Bull
Wheeeee...

But a robot was not the only thing to attempt a crazy landing. Felix Baumgartner successfully completed his historic free-fall jump from 128,100 feet above Earth in nothing but a spacesuit and parachute. The incredible skydive broke three records, including the highest manned balloon flight, the highest free-fall jump ever attempted, and the first human to break the sound barrier without the aid of propulsion system. According to the Red Bull Stratos team, Felix achieved a speed of 833.9 miles per hour (1342.8 kilometers per hour) or Mach 1.24.

What do you think was the most amazing thing to happen in space this year? Leave a comment.

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