5 Space Breakthroughs of 2011

With the New Year comes the inevitable question of resolutions – how will you better yourself in 2012? The familiar answers of getting fit, losing weight, saving money and the like are a bit jaded, although surprisingly resolutions have been proven to make a huge difference to how we accomplish our desired goals.

With this in mind, it seemed an interesting concept to apply this to science. In particular, space – despite the budget setbacks and growing public cynicism regarding the space programme in many countries, astrophysical research has come on leaps and bounds in the last year. It could take weeks to list all the missions of future importance that took place in 2011, but here, in no particular order, is a small selection of stories that may help to answer the question: what mysteries will be uncovered in 2012?

1)    Hunting for the Higgs

Credit: CERN

This story was a particularly high-profile one during 2011, and one of long duration. CERN physicists became very excited by the first indication yet of the postulated Higgs Boson particle, the nicknamed ‘God particle’ that is key in giving all other particles mass. For a brief explanation of the Higgs and what it is and does, see our post immediately following CERN’s press conference describing their findings in December. The discovery (or non-discovery) of the Higgs has far-reaching effects on all matter and our entire standard model of particles – with huge consequences for all branches of physics.

However, despite the furore and worldwide speculation, CERN couldn’t be more conclusive than to say we were much closer towards a conclusive answer – a bit of an anti-climax! The real excitement is expected to come in 2012 when CERN scientists have had more time to trawl through the reams of data collected during particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

2)    We are not alone – another Earth?

Credit: NASA

The announcement that we had found a planet similar to our own gained quite a lot of press attention towards the end of 2011. Discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission, the planet, named Kepler-22b, has a radius of just 2.4 times the size of the Earth and exists within the habitable zone of its sun – a belt around a star in which liquid water could exist on the surface of an orbiting planet.

Parameters like ‘habitable zones’ make exoplanets tricky business – there are so many grey areas that change from star to star, planet to planet. There are innumerable extra-solar planets out there, but no direct observational way of detecting life. However, this can be done through atmospheric, gravitational and transitional techniques, to name just a few.

2011 was a fantastic year for the Kepler mission – it discovered over 1000 potential exoplanets, star-wars-esque circumbinary planets, more Earth-sized planets than ever before seen and, the cherry on top, Kepler-22b – and all this in just one year. What does 2012 hold?

3)    Faster than a speeding neutrino

Credit: cosmostv.org

A long preamble isn’t necessary to introduce the observed faster-than-light behaviour displayed by CERN neutrinos travelling from Geneva to Gran Sasso in Italy – even those with very little interest in physics were inspired by what these results may mean, if verified. Cries of ‘Einstein was wrong!’ were rife in September when neutrinos were observed to travel  60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light, and physicists were left to critique and attempt to refute the extraordinary findings.

As yet, nothing conclusive has been announced – many critiques have been presented, from energy decay issues to the synchronisation of the clocks used to measure the neutrino flight times. The experiment has fine-tuned and repeated with the same results, with several other research groups planning to carry it out independently – increasing the pressure of either confirming or refuting the observation in 2012.

4)    Destination Mars!

Credit: marsonearth.org

Launch of NASA’s Curiosity: With the last space shuttle grounded in July 2011, NASA had a tough time justifying its withdrawal from manned spaceflight. This was somewhat remedied by its leap into the modern-day space race – missions to Mars. Mars has widely been thought to be well worth investigating, and the Curiosity rover will feed back exciting data throughout 2012.

Men in a box – the fake manned mission to Mars: It’s not just the US who is eager to tap Mars’ resources – Europe and Russia joined forces for Mars 500, a mission that saw 6 men enter a windowless steel mock-up ‘craft’ to gather psychological, behavioural and physical data on how humans would cope on a long expedition to the red planet. November saw the men exit their confinement after 520 days together, paving the way to future manned flight to discover the secrets of the Martian surface.

5)    Mapping the Moon

Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s GRAIL mission (twin orbiters) will map lunar gravity and examine the moon from crust to core. Settling into orbit on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day, the orbiters will lower into a near-polar orbit and continue flying in tandem.

The excitement in knowing more about our Moon may not be as fresh as, for example, finding a habitable planet. However, examining and exploring our moons and asteroids may hold invaluable secrets about how our solar system and planets formed – the way in which the Moon formed is vital to the understanding of habitable planets. It is unknown how important a moon is in enabling life to evolve on a planetary surface, and if the creation of our moon is shown to be a unique, incredibly improbable event, this has implications on how probable it might be that life exists on other planets.

The scientific experimentation will start on the GRAIL crafts in March 2012.

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4 thoughts on “5 Space Breakthroughs of 2011

  1. I loved hearing about the fake manned Mars mission last year; I found it very interesting that they had to delay communications by 18 minutes or so to mimic the real time delay that would be experienced on a Mars mission.

  2. Yeah, it’s a fascinating idea. Still, for me there’d be one or two psychological differences between sitting in a box outside Moscow and sitting in a box 100 million km out in space ..

  3. I’m not sure there’d be too much difference after that amount of time, if you weren’t interacting with anything. Assuming that nothing went wrong, of course… 😉

    Pen, I thought that was really interesting too! Also that all the astronauts came out knowing various other languages, as there was no one shared language when they all went in!

  4. From the psychological point of view it ma be not make a big difference after all (although, thinking that I have left the Earth would make me alone a bit more insecure, than knowing I have left Moscow).
    I still wonder though how they will sort out the technical problem of the exposure of the astronauts to the solar wind radiation. Will it be screaned by the materials of the capsule or with other cautious procedures?

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