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365 days in SPAAACE: An interstellar glance at 2012

Curiosity looks for Martians, we search for a habitable planet

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In a year dominated by Martian news, the pioneering Earthling spirit of one Elon Musk and the hunt for a second human home also grabbed some cosmic headlines.

Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity rover and skycrane

The year started with Curiosity's journey to the Red Planet, dodging solar flares as it thrust its way towards its mission on Mars.

Despite the brand new landing system, NASA was feeling pretty cocky as the nuclear truck neared its destination, electing to drop the rover a lot closer to the potential accident site of Mount Sharp. You would have thought the name alone would be enough to put the astronaut centre off, but NASA moved the landing site nearer and narrowed it by eight miles (13km).

Curiosity descended to the Martian surface in a whole new way for the space agency, lowering under a first-of-a-kind rocket-powered sky-crane. The team had seven minutes to get it from the top of the atmosphere to the ground, going from 13,000 miles an hour (21,000kmph) to zero in that time.

Once the rover and the sky-crane reached nearly zero velocity, the crane just let go of the truck, easing it to the ground on the end of a rope. NASA was relying on the onboard computer to tell it when Curiosity touched the ground, so that the lander could detach and zoom away to a crash landing elsewhere.

"Twenty metres above the surface, we have to lower the rover below us on a tether that's 21 feet long, and then gently deposit it on its wheels on the surface," engineer Adam Steltzner said. "It is the result of reasoned engineering thought, but it still looks crazy."

Luckily, it all went according to plan, with the "one-ton American automobile" kissing the Martian dirt precisely on schedule, leaving NASA boffins and engineers to do that most American of celebrations, hugs all round.

Once safely landed, Curiosity needed an OS upgrade big enough to give its modestly specced motherboard a full workout. The rover then raised its main antenna and gave NASA its first colour pictures of the landing site.

The nuclear Martian space-truck is packing a laser

While some have suggested that the camera equipment and beam-back tech is an unnecessary addition to science missions, Curiosity has stayed alive in the public's imagination with constant new shots of itself and the Red Planet. The rover even got in on the latest viewing craze - 3D. While trundling along on its way to the investigation site at the Gale crater, the space-truck snapped a 3D shot of its surroundings.

Curiosity self-portrait at Rocknest in the Gale Crater

But the rover is also on Mars to fulfill its primary mission - discovering if the planet has ever or could ever support microbial life. To that end, Curiosity started with its first target, the rock N165.

The science lab is equipped with all manner of instruments, including the ChemCam, its chemistry and camera tool, which happens to have its own laser. That laser beam is what explored the Martian rock, blasting it with 30 pulses over a 10-second period, each of which delivered more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.

Aside from the general coolness of having such a weapon, Curiosity's laser excites atoms to an ionised, glowing plasma, which can then be analysed with spectrometers to see what elements are inside. And of course, should the rover encounter any hostile aliens, it's always better to be prepared...

With the Martian rock thoroughly zapped, Curiosity was ready to make move at last. The first drive across the planet was just three metres so NASA boffins could check out the rover's action. The space agency gave the go-ahead for the trip despite a broken wind sensor, leaving just one sensor to assess wind speed and direction.

After the test drive, the rover's team gave out its first laser results, showing that Curiosity was sitting on a layer of basalt-like material with high levels of silicon, oxygen and magnesium as well as some titanium. Hydrogen was also detected with the first few shots, but disappeared after that, leaving the boffins to wonder it it had come from Curiosity rather than the environment.

In a detour from serious scientific endeavour, Curiosity took on a gig as an interstellar radio, playing will.i.am's Reach for the Stars. The song was beamed out to the rover by NASA as a part of an education session for kids about science, which was all to the good, even if it did involve an oddly named popstar.

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