We evolved from, as Carl Sagan put it, "Star Stuff." From there, we grew bigger and swam far and wide, through the world's oceans pressing onward toward the shore. After sliding, crawling, and walking up the beach, we moved deep into the landmasses, across entire continents and oceans again. We created machines and took to the oceans once more, as well as the skies above. We rose above the clouds and raced to the moon. We are a race driven by a need for adventure and a desire for discovery. What lies beyond? Where did we come from? How did this - all of this - begin? Our pursuit of knowledge continues; our need to explore, stronger than ever.
We've put together our list of the greatest planned space explorations of 2012. It's more than just a list of launch dates, companies, and endeavoring countries; it's a schedule of the latest steps towards answering that ultimate question.
Summer 2012: Falcon 9 and Dragon Spacecraft
We may not know when, but Cape Canaveral could eventually see the launch two of the coolest sounding spacecraft ever. The Falcon 9 Rocket and Dragon Capsule, created by SpaceX, will be zooming off to rendezvous with the International Space Station for a single flight. This is will be the first time NASA has allowed SpaceX to do so, pending completion of safety reviews and other tests, so keep your fingers crossed - this one has a reasonable chance of delay.
March 14, 2012: Pegasus XL
Incredibly, Pegasus vehicles are flown to a height of 40,000 ft by a carrier aircraft then, launched into space in a thrilling display of aviation. Pegasus crafts have a rich history of sending explorers like the GALEX, WIRE, and IBEX into the unknown where they feed back information that expands our understanding of the universe around us. The Pegasus XL is the next phase of the human pursuit of knowledge. On March 14, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, that's NuSTAR to you, will be launched into space where it will conduct a deep survey of black holes using high energy X-rays. This expedition could, in theory, teach us something about the acceleration of particles in active galaxies and the way elements are created in the explosions of stars.
March 29, 2012: Soyuz TMA-04M
Following the departure of the Soyuz TMA-22, the Soyuz TMA-04M will carry three new Expedition crew members to the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
April 27, 2012: ISS Progress 47
It's the circle of life! ISS Progress 46 from January is replaced and the bittersweet poetry continues for expendable freighter spacecraft.
May 2012: Russian Proton
Rocketing from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Russian Proton will deliver the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (with European Robotic Arm) to the International Space Station. This component will be used to replace the Pirs docking compartment.
May 2012: Cygnus and Taurus II
Assuming all goes well for the Taurus II or "Antares" in February, expect to see another such launch vehicle to take the experimental Cygnus spacecraft on a demonstration flight. Cygnus is an advanced, unmanned, maneuvering resupply spacecraft which isn't really new; we've seen them since 2000 from Russia, Europe, and Japan. Cygnus simply marks the first domestic model utilized by NASA. Expect to see the Antares launch in late May from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
June 1, 2012: Soyuz TMA-05M
Three more crew members launch from the Balkonur Cosmodrome to join the International Space Station.
August 23, 2012: Atlas V-401
The Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission is a mission with some serious ambition! The Atlas V-401 is set to launch from Cape Canaveral and send two probes into the highly hostile radiation belt. This is a region of space that all other spacecraft have tried to avoid. In fact, every other craft that drifted through the belt has had to be turned off in order to survive. As of the writing of this article the outer belt is a complete mystery. Why does it fluctuate so much? The data we hope to gather from this mission will illustrate how the radiation belts are affected by the Sun. Ideally we will even be able to predict how electrons and ions respond to changes in solar wind and activity after this mission is complete. This knowledge will forever change the way we design future spacecraft to travel through the radiation belts and much, much more.
October 2012: Soyuz TMA-06M
It's that time again! Three crew members venture to the International Space Station.
November 2012: Soyuz TMA-07M
If you guessed this mission was to bring three more crew members to the International Space Station, give yourself a gold star.
December 1, 2012: Pegasus XL
It's time for yet another stellar Pegasus launch, this time from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. The mission is to send a solar telescope and spectrograph to investigate the chromospheres of the Sun. Solar wind, energy transport, and stellar atmospheres will all, in theory, be better understood as a result of this mission and the results of which will shape the future of heliophysics spacecraft.
December 2012: Atlas V
The 2012 launch schedule ends with the Atlas V in Cape Canaveral. The payload? Boeing's TDRS-K, the next generation in tracking and data relay satellite systems. This new constellation of satellites will increase the time spacecraft like shuttles, and the Hubble Space Telescope can communicate with the ground and increase the amount of data that can be transferred. This will not only better NASA, but all control and data processing facilities on the ground.
NASA Launch Schedule Resources:
- NASA Human Exploration & Operations
- Forbes Science and Technology
- Cygnus Advanced Maneuvering Spacecraft
- NASA Edge Video
- Space Science and Astrobiology at Ames
- Boeing.com: Defemse. Space & Security
- NASA: Tracking and Data Relay Satellite K / L