10 Important Scientific Discoveries and Achievements of 2012

In 2012, private companies flew to space, NASA landed on Mars, and driverless cars hit the roads.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, and SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk, view the historic Dragon capsule that returned to Earth on May 31 following the first successful mission by a private company to carry supplies to the International Space Station.
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Private Spaceflight: In May, California's SpaceX became the first private company to successfully fly a spaceship to the International Space Station. The achievement could free NASA to focus on designing spacecraft that can leave low-earth orbit while private companies focus on ferrying supplies and humans to the space station and other nearby targets. Last week, the company successfully tested its reuseable Grasshopper rocket to a height of about 12 stories. If successful, the rocket could greatly reduce the cost of spaceflight.

Ocean Exploration: In March, Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron became the first human to reach the Mariana Trench—the deepest known part of the ocean—in a solo mission. Cameron became the first human to explore the nearly 7-mile-deep trench since Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard took the trip in 1960.

Driverless Cars: Nevada, Florida, and California all passed laws allowing self-driving cars on their roads. Internet giant Google has been extensively testing its autonomous car and has driven more than 300,000 miles without incident.

Diamond Planet: Scientists discovered a "carbon-rich" exoplanet in October—which turns out to be very hot, perfect for turning carbon into diamonds. The so-called "diamond planet" is 40 light-years from earth and is twice earth's size—but because of its diamonds, the planet is more than eight times earth's mass. According to an analysis by Forbes, the planet is likely worth $26.9 nonillion dollars, which is $26.9 followed by 30 zeros—or enough to finally put this fiscal cliff issue to bed for millions of years.

Antarctic Exploration: This year was a big one for Antarctic exploration—after more than a decade of drilling, Russian scientists bored through more than 2.5 miles of ice to reach Lake Vostok's liquid waters. Preliminary tests for life there didn't turn up much, but in Western Antarctica, a team of American researchers found life in the subfreezing waters of Lake Vida. That discovery suggests that life could potentially survive in seemingly inhospitable environments in space.

Controversial Flu Research: In June, researchers in the Netherlands and Wisconsin published a highly controversial study of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus in which they were able to genetically modify the virus to be transmittable between mammals. The newly-created virus has been called "scarier than anthrax" and led the World Health Organization to call for a moratorium on synthetic flu virus research.

New Skydiving Record: After years of false starts and delays, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner broke the 50-year-old skydiving record when he jumped from a capsule more than 24 miles above Earth's surface. In doing so, he became the first human to break the sound barrier outside of an aircraft and proved the effectiveness of the full-body pressure suit, which could one day help astronauts survive if they have to abort a mission.

Antibiotic-resistant Superbugs: Both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization warned that gonorrhea could soon join HIV as an "uncurable" disease as the bacteria is quickly developing resistance to most known antibiotics. The disease is estimated to infect more than 100 million people per year and can cause infertility, painful urination, and birth defects in babies born to women with the disease.

Higgs Boson: On July 4, scientists at Europe's CERN announced they'd found a particle that could be the famous "Higgs boson" particle, which is believed to be responsible for all mass in the universe. The discovery of the particle has been called the "final missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics," which is used to describe every known thing in the visible universe.

"We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature," CERN Director General Rolf Heuer said of the discovery.

Curiosity Rover: In August, NASA cashed in on one of its biggest gambles of the past decade when it successfully landed the $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity Rover on the red planet. In what had been dubbed the "seven minutes of terror," the rover detached from its space capsule and was lowered onto the surface via a hovering "sky crane." Since landing, the rover has taken high-definition photos of Mars' surface and has begun analyzing soil samples—it has even found evidence of an ancient stream that "once ran vigorously" on the planet's surface.