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2012: The year in space exploration

Landing on Mars, meteor showers and fixing the space station with a toothbrush – it’s been quite a year.
Dec 25th 2012, 2:00 PM 4,612 6

THANKFULLY THE MAYANS were wrong about the world ending in 2012 so we still have many years ahead of us to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations and to boldly go where no man has gone before.

As it is, we’ve already made huge progress, particularly in 2012. We finally landed on the red planet, we witnessed unique eclipses that will never happen again in our lifetime and were given some spectacular images of how our world looks from space. Here’s our round up of the most significant discoveries and astronomical events of 2012.


In August, after eight years of hard work and more than €2 billion, the Mars Curiosity rover successfully touched down on the red planet.


Within hours of landing, the clever bot started sending back incredible images of its surroundings to earth.

In a bizarre turn of events, Brittany Spears and the Mars Curiosity rover had a bit of a chat on Twitter. No really.

Possibly inspired by its musical discussion with Spears, the Curiosity rover broadcast Stars by on Mars. This was the first song ever played on another planet. That we know of…(queue X-Files intro).

They grow up so fast. Just last month Curiosity took its first MySpace-esque selfie. The popular space bot now has over 450,000 Facebook friends.

(Image: NASA Goddard)

International Space Station

It’s been a busy year for the space station. In April the crew on the ISS showed us how they see earth with this gorgeous timelapse:


The ISS had a close call in September when a serious power problem left the station in a vulnerable position. The clever astronauts on board managed to fix the power with a makeshift tool made from a toothbrush.

With the toothbrush incident out of the way, it was back to business on the ISS. In October a commercial cargo ship arrived with 1,000 science experiments and a freezer full of chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream.

Sun and Moon

For the last time until 2117 Venus passed in front of the sun, so if you missed it you’ll never see it again. Unless you watch this lovely video.

(YouTube/Camilla Corona SDO)

In July the Hubble telescope spotted a tiny fifth moon near Pluto. It was given the not altogether striking name ‘S/2012’ but we’ll work on that in 2013.

Sad news this year as legendary astronaut, and the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, died aged 82. Armstrong made the historic “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” speech as he set foot on the moon’s surface on 20 July 1969 during the Apollo 11 mission.

In February we were told that there’s a piece of moon rock worth $5 million in Dunsink dump in Dublin. Get digging!

In May, the European Space Agency announced plans to launch a new mission to Jupiter’s moons. Granted, it won’t be launched until 2022 but it’s still exciting news.

Astronomy in Ireland

Apart from news about the highly valuable piece of moon rock in Dunsink, we actually caught a glimpse of several astronomical sights in our skies.

In February astronomy enthusiasts had an opportunity to see Jupiter in Venus as both planets appeared in the night sky.

Then in March, Mars was visible from Ireland. Astronomy Ireland set up giant telescopes around the country for the public so they could see the red planet up close.

The International Space Station made an appearance in Irish skies in April and then again this month . The ISS, which is about the size of Croke Park, looks like a star moving across the sky from right to left and is 100 times brighter than the brightest star in the sky, according to Astronomy Ireland.

Mooching in on the NASA action, it was announced this year that Ireland is to become the first international research partner of the US space agency. This will allow Irish science undergraduates to work at NASA’s research facilities and could eventually lead to Ireland’s first astronaut being sent into space.

We witnessed several meteor showers in Ireland in 2012 but this was the one everyone was talking about. The fireballs lasted some 20 seconds which is unusual for meteor showers and experts said they were travelling at about 17,000 miles per hour.

Other notable space events

In February astronomers discovered a new type of planet – one made of water and surrounded by  a steamy atmosphere. The planet is located in the direction of the Ophiuchus constellation and is about 40 light-years away from Earth.

In March NASA captured dramatic images of activity on the surface of the sun after a new active region on the giant star came into view.


European astronomers found an earth-sized planet just outside the solar system. The planet is so hot its surface may be like molten lava so it’s not very likely that it contains life.

In November scientists confirmed a vast amount of ice at the north pole of Mercury despite its proximity to the sun. There’s enough polar ice at Mercury to bury an area the size of Washington, DC, by two to 2½ miles deep according to experts.

And who could forget Felix Baumgartner’s parachute jump from space. The mad yoke.


Just this month NASA went Gangnam Style:


NASA, we love you.

And now for a slideshow…

We may not have been able to join these scientists, astronomers and space explorers on their adventures but they gave us some incredible images to enjoy. It’s almost* like being there (*not really).

So to sum that all up…NASA’s own 2012 review:


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Michelle Hennessy


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