The Year in Review 2012: Scientists look outward and inward, forwards and backwards

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International  |  Dec. 22, 2012 at 4:01 AM
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2012 saw science looking from the cosmically large to the infinitesimally small, from the end of some efforts -- like the Space Shuttle era -- to the beginnings of others, with the search for fundamental physical particles.

The year saw NASA find new homes for its retired space shuttle fleet with Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis taking up permanent residence in exhibition spaces where the public can get up close and personal with the large icons of America's space program.

All had flown their final space missions in 2011, but made their final voyages to new homes in 2012, with Atlantis going to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Discovery to the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, and Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

With the shuttle retirement, much of America's space program will be in the hands of private enterprise, and in May the Dragon spacecraft built by SpaceX became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.

Other countries were busy in 2012 with their own space programs, and in June China successfully launched its manned Shenzhou 9 spacecraft on a mission to its own orbiting space station, the Tiangong-1. Shenzhou 9 carried a crew of three, including China's first female astronaut.

But the biggest space news of the year was undoubtedly the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. Launched in November 2011, in touched down on the Red Planet's surface on Aug. 6, successfully negotiating NASA's well-publicized "seven minutes of terror" for a perfect landing watched on television and the Internet by an international audience.

NASA named the landing site "Bradbury Landing," in honor of American science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who died in June.

A more "fundamental" story climaxed in July when physicists at CERN, the European nuclear research center, announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, the long-sought "God particle" considered to be the elementary foundation of the standard model of physics.

First predicted in theory in the 1960s, the search proved difficult, and took the immense energies of CERN's Large Hadron Collider to reveal it. Further studies of the LHC data will be needed to absolutely confirm the discovery, although physicists say the data indicates is only one chance in 3.5 million that they are mistaken.

Other scientists looking at the very small -- in this case the human genome -- announced in September the most detailed analysis of the genome to date. The research suggested much more of our genetic code is biologically active than previously thought, and largely disproving the notion of junk DNA, portions of the genome long considered redundant or inactive.

The scientific pursuit of life also looked outward, as astronomers continued their search for alien "exoplanets" around distant stars that might have conditions where life could exist. In October they announced the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting Earth's nearest star neighbor, Alpha Centauri, just two months after the discovery of two exoplanets orbiting a binary star -- the first-ever such observation.

The Alpha Centauri planet proved too hot to sustain life, but astronomers said the system may contain other planetary bodies, including potentially Earthlike ones, as the exoplanet search continued.

Climate change was a subject much in the news in 2012, with some people going so far as to suggest the "superstorm" that became Hurricane Sandy in October was a consequence. What was undeniable was that when Arctic sea ice has reached its minimum extent for the year, it set a record for the lowest coverage since satellite records began in the 1970s. The same was true of the summertime melt of the Greenland ice sheet, keeping global warming firmly in the year's headlines.

Looking backward rather than forward, paleontologists announced the discovery of what is thought to be the oldest known dinosaur. Dubbed Nyasasaurus parringtoni, scientists said it lived 10 million to 15 million years before the previous earliest known dinosaur specimens.

And finally, one of 2012's last science events was worrisome to some as North Korea conducted its first successful orbital launch, placing a satellite into low Earth orbit in what the United States and other countries say was a thinly disguised test of an intercontinental ballistic missile system.

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