As the year draws to a close, many of us send out cards to friends and loved ones. If NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., were to write such a letter, there would be no shortage of highlights to share. Gathered below are just a few of the shining moments from the Goddard "household" in 2012, from us to you!
Glimpses of 'Stuff' Beyond our Solar System (Jan. 31)
IBEX has directly sampled multiple heavy elements from the Local Interstellar Cloud for the first time. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center › Download video
A great magnetic bubble surrounds our solar system as it cruises through the galaxy. The sun keeps the bubble "inflated," by pumping the inside full of solar particles. At the bubble's edge (known as the heliosheath), these particles collide with material that fills the rest of the galaxy. Outside the bubble, electrically charged particles from the galactic wind blow by and rebound off the heliosheath, never to enter the solar system.
But some particles saunter effortlessly across this boundary, and after a 30-year journey of 7.5 billion miles (that's about 475 miles per minute, on average), our sun's gravity catches the interstellar material and slings it around.
That's where the IBEX spacecraft waits. IBEX counted those atoms in 2009 and 2010 and has now captured the best and most complete glimpse of the material. The results? It's an alien environment out there: The material in that galactic wind doesn't look like the stuff that makes up our solar system.
'You Are Here' -- But Where Exactly is 'Here?' (Feb. 23)
Geodesy is a field of study that deals with the measurement and representation of Earth, and NASA contributes to this field with radio telescopes, ground surveys, satellites and more! Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center › Download video
Before GPS devices can tell us where we are, the satellites that support them need to know exactly where they are. For that, GPS satellites rely on a ground-based network of locations that serve as "you are here" signs posted across Earth. The catch is, the "signs" don't stay in exactly the same places because they're on a planet that isn't at rest: Earth is a shapeshifter. Land rises and sinks. The continents move.
NASA is helping to lead an international effort to upgrade the four systems that supply this crucial location information, which ensures the accuracy not only of dashboard GPS devices, but also of space-based satellite observations of Earth.
The Goddard-managed Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia launched five sounding rockets within five minutes on March 27. Each rocket released a chemical tracer that created milky, white clouds at the edge of space. Tracking the way the clouds move can help scientists understand the winds some 65 miles up in the sky. That can lead to better models of the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems.
The launches and clouds were reported to be seen from as far south as Wilmington, N.C.; west to Charlestown, W. Va.; and north to Buffalo, N.Y.
On June 5-6 2012, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, collected images of one of the rarest predictable solar events: the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. This event happens in pairs eight years apart that are separated from each other by 105 or 121 years. The last transit was in 2004 and the next will not happen until 2117.
Scientists have made a biological discovery in Arctic Ocean waters as dramatic and unexpected as finding a rainforest in the middle of a desert. A NASA-sponsored expedition punched through three-foot thick sea ice to find waters richer in microscopic marine plants, essential to all sea life, than any other ocean region on Earth.
The finding reveals a new consequence of the Arctic's warming climate and provides an important clue to understanding the impacts of a changing climate and environment on the Arctic Ocean and its ecology.
Hubble, Swift Detect First-Ever Changes in an Exoplanet Atmosphere (Jun. 28)
This artist's rendering illustrates the evaporation of HD 189733b's atmosphere in response to a powerful eruption from its host star. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center › Larger image
An international team of astronomers using data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has made an unparalleled observation, detecting significant changes in the atmosphere of a planet located beyond our solar system.
The scientists conclude the atmospheric variations occurred in response to a powerful eruption on the planet's host star, an event observed by NASA's Swift satellite.
Extreme Summer Heat Events Linked to Global Warming (Aug. 6)
Earth's Northern Hemisphere over the past 30 years has seen more "hot" (orange), "very hot" (red) and "extremely hot" (brown) summers, compared to a base period defined in this study from 1951 to 1980. This visualization shows how the area experiencing "extremely hot" summers grows from nearly nonexistent during the base period to cover 12 percent of land in the Northern Hemisphere by 2011. Watch for the 2010 heat waves in the Middle East, Western Asia and Eastern Europe, and the 2011 heat waves in Texas, Oklahoma and Mexico. Credit: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio › Download visualization
A new statistical analysis by NASA scientists has found that Earth's land areas have become much more likely to experience an extreme summer heat wave than they were in the middle of the 20th century.
The statistics show that the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave that afflicted the U.S. Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming, according to lead author James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York.
This image was captured by ESA and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory on July 22, 2012, at 10:48 p.m. EDT. On the right side, a cloud of solar material ejects from the sun in one of the fastest coronal mass ejections (CMEs) ever measured. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO › Larger image
On July 23, 2012, a massive cloud of solar material erupted off the sun's right side, zooming out into space, passing one of NASA's spacecraft along the way. Using the data, scientists at Goddard clocked this giant cloud, known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME, as traveling between 1,800 and 2,200 miles per second as it left the sun.
Conversations began to buzz and emails flew: this was the fastest CME ever observed by STEREO, which since its launch in 2006 has helped make CME speed measurements much more precise. Such an unusually strong bout of space weather gave scientists an opportunity to observe how these events affect the space around the sun, as well as to improve their understanding of what causes them.
This imprint shows the right rear foot of a nodosaur (a low-slung, spiny leaf-eater) apparently moving in haste, as the heel did not fully settle in the cretaceous mud, according to dinosaur-tracker Ray Stanford. Credit: Ray Stanford
NASA's satellites and telescopes spend a great deal of time looking out into space and studying our planet on a global scale, but sometimes the amazing discoveries are literally in our own backyards.
Such was the case this summer, when fossilized dinosaur footprints, perhaps 110 to 112 million years old, were revealed on Goddard's campus.
This LRO image of the Apollo 11 landing site was released March 7. Captured from just 15 miles above the surface, it provides LRO's best look yet at Tranquility Base. Credit: NASA Goddard/Arizona State University › Read more
LRO, launched in 2009, continues that legacy of lunar exploration. Apart from returning the highest quality imagery ever taken of the moon's surface, such as the Apollo 11 landing site view shown above, LRO has detected helium in the tenuous lunar atmosphere and possible indications of water ice in the sides of a shaded crater.
Arctic Sea Ice Hits Smallest Extent In Satellite Era (Sept. 19)
Satellite data reveal how the new record low Arctic sea ice extent, from Sept. 16, 2012, compares to the average minimum extent over the past 30 years (in yellow). Credit: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio › Larger image
Arctic sea ice cover naturally grows during the dark Arctic winters and retreats when the sun reappears in the spring. But the sea ice minimum summertime extent has been decreasing over the last three decades as Arctic ocean and air temperatures have increased.
On Sept. 16 this minimum extent reached a new low: 1.32 million square miles (about five times the size of Texas). The low beats the previous record of 1.61 million square miles (September 2007), and comes on the heels of unprecedented Greenland ice sheet melting.
Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; HUDF09 Team › Larger image
Like photographers assembling a portfolio of best shots, astronomers assembled a new, improved portrait of mankind's deepest-ever view of the universe. Called the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, the photo was assembled by combining 10 years of NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
NASA Pursues Atom Optics to See the Imperceptible (Oct. 18)
Goddard physicist Babak Saif, along with researchers from Stanford University and AOSense, Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, has received NASA funding to advance a potentially revolutionary technology to detect theoretically predicted gravitational waves. Credit: NASA Goddard/Pat Izzo › Larger image
Einstein predicted gravity waves in his general theory of relativity, but to date these ripples in the fabric of space-time have never been observed.
A pioneering technology capable of atomic-level precision could change that.
In November 2008, Hubble astronomers announced "Fomalhaut b" as the first exoplanet (a planet outside our solar system) ever directly imaged in visible light around another star. The object was imaged just inside a vast ring of debris surrounding but offset from the host star. The planet's location and mass -- no more than three times Jupiter's -- seemed just right for its gravity to explain the ring's appearance.
Recent studies have claimed that this planetary interpretation is incorrect. Based on the object's apparent motion and the lack of an infrared detection by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, they argue that the object is a short-lived dust cloud unrelated to any planet.
A second look at Hubble data, however, brings the planet conclusion back to life.
The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Webb telescope will provide images of the first galaxies ever formed and study planets around distant stars. It is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Launch is currently scheduled for 2018.
Curiosity Shakes, Bakes, Tastes Mars (Dec. 3)
This is a view of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by the 1.6-inch-wide (4-centimeter-wide) scoop on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in October 2012.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS › Read more
Months later, NASA's Curiosity rover has analyzed its first solid sample of the Red Planet with a variety of tools, including the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. Developed at Goddard, SAM is a portable chemistry lab tucked inside the rover. SAM examines the chemistry of samples it ingests, checking particularly for chemistry relevant to whether an environment can support or could have supported life.