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NASA Makes Unprecedented Return to Mars, Advances Commercial Spaceflight and Adds to Its Amazing Research and Discoveries In 2012

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- In 2012, NASA continued to implement America's ambitious space exploration program, landing the most sophisticated rover on the surface of Mars, carrying out the first-ever commercial mission to the International Space Station and advancing the systems needed to send humans deeper into space.


"NASA achieved historic milestones this year landing the most sophisticated rover on the surface of Mars, carrying out the first ever commercial mission to the space station and continuing to advance the systems needed to send humans deeper into space -- beyond the moon, to an asteroid and on to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "We are able to keep the United States the world leader in space exploration -- and continue to implement America's bipartisan space plan -- because of our talented and dedicated work force."

The following are some of NASA's top stories this year:


Undertaking the most complex landing ever attempted in planetary exploration, NASA successfully placed the most advanced robotic rover on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory mission carrying the one-ton rover named Curiosity, touched down in August. Almost immediately, Curiosity sent back pictures of its landing site at Gale Crater with the eventual destination of Mount Sharp in the background. Since then, Curiosity has checked out its 10 science instruments, sent back detailed photos and weather observations and "tasted" Martian soil.

Key mission findings during the first three months after the landing include conglomerate rocks bearing rounded pebbles as evidence of vigorous ancient stream flow right in the area where Curiosity landed; mineral composition of Martian soil similar to soils in Hawaii that contain volcanic glass; and the first assessment of the natural radiation environment that future astronauts will encounter on the surface of Mars.

Curiosity's planned two-year prime mission will be to explore and assess a local region on the surface of Mars as a potential habitat for life, past or present. In addition, the landing technology for putting such a large payload safely on the Martian surface could help with plans for future human Mars missions.

On Dec. 4, NASA announced plans for a robust multi-year Mars program, including a new robotic science rover based on the Curiosity design set to launch in 2020. The planned portfolio includes the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers; two NASA spacecraft and contributions to one European spacecraft currently orbiting Mars; the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere; the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars; and participation in ESA's 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 mission and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover. With InSight, there will be a total of seven NASA missions operating or being planned to study and explore our Earth-like neighbor.

The 2020 mission will constitute another step toward being responsive to high-priority science goals and the president's challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s.


A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft successfully resupplied the International Space Station and returned cargo back to Earth in October, completing NASA's first contracted cargo delivery flight.

Under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract, SpaceX will fly at least 12 cargo missions to the space station through 2016. The Dragon launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 882 pounds of cargo, including crew supplies, scientific research and hardware. Dragon returned almost twice that amount of cargo, including a freezer packed with research samples collected in the orbiting laboratory's unique microgravity environment. These samples will help advance multiple scientific disciplines on Earth and provide critical data on the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. The ability to return frozen samples is a first for this flight and will be tremendously beneficial to the station's research community. Not since the space shuttle have NASA and its international partners been able to return considerable amounts of research and samples for analysis.

SpaceX is one of two companies that built and tested new cargo spacecraft under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX completed its final demonstration test flight in May, becoming the first commercial company ever to launch, rendezvous and be docked to the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences is the other company participating in COTS. Orbital's Antares launch vehicle is on the launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in advance of a hot fire test of the Antares first-stage engines. A flight test of the Antares with a simulated Cygnus spacecraft and a demonstration flight of Cygnus to the space station are planned for 2013.

With commercial cargo flights to the space station under way in 2012, NASA took the next steps in the effort to launch Americans from U.S. soil again. The agency announced in August new agreements with three American commercial companies to design and develop the next generation of U.S. human spaceflight capabilities, enabling a launch of astronauts from the United States in the next five years.

Advances made by these companies under Space Act Agreements through the agency's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative are intended to ultimately lead to the availability of commercial human spaceflight services for government and commercial customers. The CCiCap partners are the Sierra Nevada Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and The Boeing Company.

CCiCap is an initiative of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and an administration priority. The objective of the CCP is to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. Between now and May 31, 2014, NASA's partners will perform tests and mature integrated designs. This would then set the stage for a future activity that will launch crewed orbital demonstration missions to low-Earth orbit by the middle of the decade.


NASA and its international partners celebrated 12 years of permanent human habitation on the International Space Station on Nov. 2. More than 1,500 research and technology development experiments have been conducted aboard the orbiting lab -- more than 200 of them this year alone -- many of which are producing advances in medicine, environmental systems and our understanding of the universe.

Human research studies, including new research announced in August, have shown that using the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device for high-intensity workouts aboard the orbiting laboratory, in combination with proper diets, helps astronauts lose less bone density during their stay. This could have profound effects on future space exploration, as well as the aging population on Earth. Plant-growth studies are often on the menu, as the ability to grow plants in microgravity would allow for fresh food, oxygen generation and carbon dioxide removal. This research also could help improve crop production on the ground.

Several new facilities delivered to the space station this year allow for an array of new research projects. The Japanese Experiment Module Small Satellite Orbital Deployer changes the way mini satellites now can be deployed to their optimal orbit, allowing for greater flexibility, operational control and significant monetary savings. The Aquatic Habitat received its first inhabitants, translucent Medaka fish, allowing for easy observation of their skeletal systems, which gives more insight into bone and muscle atrophy, which are medical issues for astronauts and the aging population, and radiation effects. A Gravitational Biology Lab also was delivered to station. The centrifuge allows for biological experimentation in artificial gravity -- from zero gravity to twice Earth's normal gravity -- for prolonged periods of time. This facility provides environmental control, lighting, data transfer, commanding and observation of experiments in Mars and moon gravity conditions, as well as mimicking Earth's gravity. The centrifuge is useful for biological organism research and could lead to advances in medications and vaccines, agricultural controls and discoveries in genetics -- all beneficial to people on Earth.


In July, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida welcomed the arrival of the agency's first space-bound Orion capsule, marking a major milestone in the construction of the spacecraft that will carry astronauts farther into space than ever before. Orion will be the most advanced spacecraft ever designed, sustaining astronauts during space travel, providing safe re-entry from deep space and emergency abort capability.

The Orion at Kennedy will launch on Exploration Flight Test-1, an uncrewed mission planned for 2014. The spacecraft will travel 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface, 15 times farther than the International Space Station's orbital position. The primary flight objective is to understand Orion's heat shield performance at speeds generated during a return from deep space.

NASA and its industry partners around the country also made swift progress on the Space Launch System (SLS) this year, testing and developing new components and improving on existing hardware. New construction on the largest rocket ever built is enabled by existing, proven technology, like the space shuttle main engines that will power the first stage of the rocket. The new J-2X engine, which is targeted to power the upper stage of the rocket, underwent a battery of tests that broke duration records and pushed the engine design to its limits.

The Orion, SLS, and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs also reached their critical milestones this year each with an approved system requirement review and system definition review. Those pivotal steps allowed these programs to move from concept into its preliminary design phase and all remain on target for its first flight test in 2017.


Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers announced Dec. 12 they have seen further back in time than ever before and have uncovered a previously unseen population of seven primitive galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago, when the universe was less than 3 percent of its present age. The deepest images to date from Hubble yield the first statistically robust sample of galaxies that tells how abundant they were close to the era when galaxies first formed.

The greater depth of the new Hubble images, together with a carefully designed survey strategy, allows this work to go further than previous studies, thereby providing what researchers say is the first reliable galaxy census of this epoch. Notably, one of the galaxies may be a distance record breaker, observed 380 million years after the birth of our universe in the theorized big bang.

Looking deeper into the universe also means peering further back in time. The universe is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old. The newly discovered galaxies are seen as they looked 350 to 600 million years after the big bang. Their light is just arriving at Earth now.


An international team of experts supported by NASA and the European Space Agency combined data from multiple satellites and aircraft to produce the most comprehensive and accurate assessment to date of ice sheet losses in Greenland and Antarctica and their contributions to sea level rise.

The combined rate of melting for the ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica increased during the last 20 years. Together, these ice sheets are losing more than three times as much ice each year as they were in the 1990s. About two-thirds of the loss is coming from Greenland, with the rest from Antarctica.

The study announced in November was produced by an international collaboration -- the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise -- that combined observations from 10 satellite missions to develop the first consistent measurement of polar ice sheet changes. Satellite data from NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and the NASA/German Aerospace Center's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) missions were included in the study.

This activity was a major challenge involving cutting-edge, difficult research to produce the most rigorous and detailed estimates of ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica to date.


NASA is continuing to learn more about how sound waves created by supersonic aircraft move through the atmosphere, all with an eye towards designing aircraft that generate sonic booms you can barely hear -- or can't hear at all -- on the ground below. This work could open a whole new segment of the economy for commercial aviation by making supersonic flight over land acceptable.

Following a series of research flights last year, NASA engineers in 2012 poured over information they gathered from residents near Edwards Air Force Base in California to see how well they did in generating sonic booms with NASA's F/A-18 jet that could barely be heard on the ground. The Waveforms and Sonic boom Perception and Response, or WSPR, project gathered data from a select group of more than 100 volunteers. A final report on the study is due soon.

Another phase of this research began in 2012 with the Farfield Investigation of No Boom Threshold, or FaINT. Using NASA's F/A-18 supersonic jet, project researchers will try to better understand what's happening at the very edge of the sonic boom, or just beyond. and


With a new set of Space Technology Roadmaps as a guide, NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist and the Space Technology Program continued to make great strides in creating the new knowledge and capabilities needed for NASA's current and future missions in 2012. NASA's Space Technology Program is innovating, developing, testing, and flying technology for use in NASA's future missions and by the greater aerospace community. With more than 800 projects under way, many of which are partnering with universities and industry, the program continues to meet milestones and advance NASA's technology capabilities.

This year, NASA's Space Technology Program launched and successfully demonstrated a hypersonic inflatable reentry vehicle, proving that inflatable heat shields are viable for safely slowing large-mass payloads during their fiery entry through planetary atmospheres, like those of Earth or Mars.

NASA continues to invest in and create new enabling robotic technologies that aid in future exploration while also having applications here one Earth, potentially helping paraplegics walk and aiding in other medical rehabilitation efforts. Investments in improved woven thermal protection systems also made strides this year using commercially available 3-D weaving techniques, reducing life cycle costs and allowing for sustainable and scalable space missions.

Rebuilding the bridge to new ideas and the nation's top talent, Space Technology is engaging in more than 350 activities with approximately 100 universities and academic institutions through fellowships, direct competitive awards and partnerships with NASA centers, and commercial contractors for its technology developments and demonstrations.

In addition, NASA technologies continue to create thousands of jobs and revenue while significantly improving the quality of life for millions of people here on Earth.


NASA's 2012 Summer of Innovation program continued to offer a variety of programs to provide summer learning opportunities to students and teachers. The program reached approximately 42,000 students in grades 4-9 across the country, many of whom fell within the agency's target audience of underrepresented and underserved students. The program also provided professional development for more than 3,200 middle school teachers nationwide to help them improve their ability to teach STEM content in the classroom.


NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft provided compelling support for the long-held hypothesis the planet harbors abundant water ice and other frozen volatile materials within its permanently shadowed polar craters.

The spacecraft's onboard instruments have been studying Mercury in unprecedented detail since its historic arrival there in March 2011. Scientists are seeing clearly for the first time a chapter in the story of how the inner planets, including Earth, acquired their water and some of the chemical building blocks for life.

The new data announced in December indicated the water ice in Mercury's polar regions, if spread over an area the size of Washington, D.C., would be more than 2 miles thick. Given its proximity to the sun, Mercury would seem to be an unlikely place to find ice, however, there are pockets at the planet's poles that never see sunlight.


NASA announced in January its Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft captured the best and most complete glimpse yet of what lies beyond the solar system -- observations that show our solar system is different than the space right outside it. The new measurements give clues about how and where our solar system formed, the forces that physically shape our solar system, and the history of other stars in the Milky Way.

The spacecraft observed four separate types of atoms, including hydrogen, oxygen, neon and helium. These interstellar atoms are the byproducts of older stars, which spread across the galaxy and fill the vast space between stars. IBEX determined the distribution of these elements outside the solar system that are flowing charged and neutral particles, which blow through the galaxy.

IBEX also measured the interstellar wind traveling at a slower speed than previously measured by the Ulysses spacecraft, and from a different direction. The improved measurements from IBEX show a 20 percent difference in how much pressure the interstellar wind exerts on our heliosphere. Measuring the pressure on our heliosphere from the material in the galaxy and from the magnetic fields out there will help determine the size and shape of our solar system as it travels through the galaxy.


Astronomers announced in April they were actively hunting a class of supermassive black holes throughout the universe called blazars thanks to data collected by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The mission revealed more than 200 blazars to date with the potential for finding thousands more.

Blazars are among the most energetic objects in the universe. They consist of supermassive black holes actively "feeding," or pulling matter onto them, at the cores of giant galaxies. As the matter is dragged toward the supermassive hole, some of the energy is released in the form of jets traveling at nearly the speed of light. The findings ultimately will help researchers understand the extreme physics behind super-fast jets and the evolution of supermassive black holes in the early universe.


With the final flight of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the shuttles themselves were delivered in 2012 to their new homes, where they will begin a new chapter in their careers: inspiring museum-goers of all ages to reach for the stars.

Discovery arrived at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Dulles, Virginia, in April; Enterprise was unveiled at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York in July; Endeavour was moved to the California Science Center in Los Angeles in October; and Atlantis was relocated to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida in November.


NASA's social media activities continued to evolve in 2012. With more than 3.2 million Twitter followers on the agency's flagship account @NASA, more than a million on Facebook, and a growing audience of hundreds of thousands on Google+, NASA is connecting directly with more people to share the agency's activities, people and mission.

NASA's online media teams provided live coverage of several major agency events and milestones, including this year's historic SpaceX launches to the International Space Station, the Transit of Venus and the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. In each event, the agency shattered records for new levels of online engagement with live updates of each event that reached millions, and in the case of Curiosity -- billions, of people.

During the August Mars Curiosity rover landing, NASA's website received 15 million visits and sent out 36 million webcast streams of NASA TV, breaking records that had just been set during the Venus Transit (4.2 million website visits, 7.7 million webcast streams). In October, Curiosity checked-in on Foursquare from Gale Crater, making it the first time a check-in has happened on another planet. The two events contributed to record traffic to the site, 185 million visits through Nov. 30, up from 151 million for 2011.

For the first time, visits to from mobile devices contributed a significant amount of traffic, totaling more than 10 percent of all visits. The site was honored with its fifth People's Voice Webby for best government site, and for the first time received the judges' Webby award as well. also was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 50 Best Websites of 2012.

NASA transitioned our in-person social media events from NASA Tweetups to NASA Socials, included more social media platforms and held the agency's first multi-NASA center social for Curiosity's landing. NASA's social media teams held 16 events, bringing more than 1,000 people into NASA and other facilities.

The agency also worked to integrated social media into more daily news processes than ever before. From inviting social media followers to participate in NASA news briefings and events to being able to virtually attend events held for news media, such as the Orion capsule arrival at Kennedy Space Center in July. NASA also offered more than a dozen opportunities to ask questions of agency officials using #askNASA, including in several Google+ Hangouts, providing additional direct interaction points between the public and NASA. and

A little more than a year after the final shuttle mission, NASA helped return cargo flights to the International Space Station from U.S. soil, furthered the development of U.S. commercial spaceflight systems to transport astronauts to the space station and made progress toward the first launches of NASA's new deep-space spacecraft and heavy-lift rocket. Complemented by key research and technology products to enable long journeys into space, NASA continued making the investments in 2012 required to undertake this new era of deep space exploration.

NASA Television's Video File newsfeed will include items featuring these top stories beginning at noon EST, Dec. 17. For NASA TV streaming video, schedules and downlink information, visit:

NASA's website will highlight these stories and more also starting at noon on Dec. 17. Visit:


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