Rocket Cranes and Curiosity
It was like something out of a science fiction film. Scientists shot a rocket toward where Mars would be in several months. On that rocket was a capsule containing a 1-ton (0.9-metric-ton) rover. The capsule detached from the rocket and made its way to the upper atmosphere of Mars. Then the really crazy stuff happened.
After the capsules descent to Mars's surface slowed, first by encountering the relatively thin atmosphere of the red planet and then by deploying the largest parachute ever built by NASA, the sky crane and rocket boosters took over.
With rockets firing, the sky crane lowered the rover down to the surface on cables. Just after the rover touched down, the sky crane cables separated from the rover and the crane flew off to crash a safe distance away. And the entire procedure happened automatically with no human control -- in fact, the rover had been sitting on the planet's surface for several minutes before we knew for sure that it had worked.
The landing was a marvel of science and engineering. And this was just the beginning of the mission! The rover has since begun to explore its surroundings and send data back to us about the conditions on Mars.
Honorable Mentions: It was a big year for space missions! In 2012, we also saw the successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon vehicle, which rendezvoused with the International Space Station. A secondary mission to place a prototype communications satellite into orbit failed when safety parameters fell below NASA's criteria. And in October, Felix Baumgartner broke several world records as he skydived from a balloon floating higher than 127,000 feet (38,710 meters), prompting many to refer to his accomplishment as a space jump.