To boldly go

From space to the Marianas trench to Niagara Falls, 2012 had daredevils galore

<p>NIAGARA FALLS, CANADA &#8211; JUNE 15:  Aerialist Nik Wallenda tighropes over the Niagara Falls June 15, 2012 in Niagara Falls, Canada. Wallenda walked across the 1,800 foot long, 2 inch-wide wire Friday night as the first person to cross directly over the falls from the U.S. into Canada. Wallenda, 33 and a father of three, is a seventh generation member of the famed Flying Wallendas who trace their roots to 1780 Austria-Hungary, when ancestors traveled as a band of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, animal trainers and trapeze artists. ABC televised the event and insisted the daredevil wear a teathered harness to prevent live coverage of a potentially deadly fall 190 feet into the churning torrent below. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)</p>

John Moore/Getty Images

John Moore/Getty Images

A fine balance

More than restoring grandeur to the family name, Nik Wallenda established himself as the world’s pre-eminent daredevil on June 15 with his high-wire walk across Niagara Falls—a feat that summoned the attraction’s legacy of stunts and showmen even if the 33-year-old was not really at risk of falling.

Wallenda, a member of the centuries-old Flying Wallendas circus family, was forced by jittery U.S. network executives to wear a safety harness lest he fall to his death on live TV. But his 550-m journey was a success in every way, drawing 20 million North American viewers at its peak and launching Nik Wallenda as an international brand. “From here on,” he said before he left town, “Niagara Falls will be a huge part of who I am.” Three months later, he obtained the necessary permits to walk across the Grand Canyon. This time, there won’t be any harness.

Boundless Curiosity

What’s powered by plutonium, weighs one tonne, and can vaporize a rock from 10 m away? Curiosity, the most advanced robot ever built, landed on Mars Aug. 6 after blasting off from Earth almost nine months earlier. In a few short months, NASA’s minivan-sized explorer has changed our understanding of Mars, beaming back gorgeous, high-resolution, colour images to reveal an alien world that looks startlingly like our own. The robot has already found evidence that water once flowed on Mars, and where there’s water, there can be life. This rover’s mission has just begun, and Curiosity knows no bounds.

In fine feather

Canadian paleontologists announced a stunning discovery in October: after studying three 75-million-year-old dinosaurs dug up in the Alberta badlands, they concluded that these specimens, named Ornithomimids, once had feathers and wings. Until now, feathered dinosaurs have almost exclusively been found in China, like the massive Yutyrannus huali, also announced this year, a distant relative of the T. rex. This marks the first time such creatures have been discovered in the Americas, and raises the possibility that we’ll find more. Ornithomimids looked a bit like an ostrich, and may have weighed more than 330 lbs. It is unlikely, however, that they ever cruised the skies: their plumage was all for show to attract potential mates.

Astronaut strikes a Canadian chord

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who grew up on a corn farm near Milton, Ont., is scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station on Dec. 19, and in March he will become the first Canadian to command what he calls the “world’s spaceship.” Hadfield, a former military fighter pilot and skilled guitar player, will spend about five months in space, making him the second Canadian (after Robert Thirsk) to undertake a long-duration mission. “I’ve devoted my whole life to being in a position where somebody would say, ‘We want you to command our spaceship,’ ” he told Maclean’s before taking off in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Hadfield is making this Canada’s mission: there’s even a Canadian-made guitar on board the ISS.

The real skyfall

On Oct. 14, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner was carried into the sky above New Mexico in a capsule dangling from a gigantic balloon. At an altitude of 38 km, he jumped. Wearing a pressurized suit, “Fearless Felix” plunged through the stratosphere as millions watched, breaking three world records—and shattering the sound barrier—to land back on Earth 10 breathtaking minutes later. “Trust me, when you stand up there on top of the world, you become so humble,” 43-year-old Baumgartner, whose plunge was sponsored by Red Bull, told the New York Times. “It’s all about coming home.”

Intergalactic voyage

Thirty-five years ago, NASA launched satellites, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, designed to reach the edges of our solar system. This year, as scientists celebrated their anniversary, Voyager 1 was poised to break another barrier: leaving our solar system altogether, to become what NASA calls “humanity’s first emissary to interstellar space.” Voyager 1 is thought to be about 18 billion km from the sun, with Voyager 2 slightly behind, at 15 billion km away. They’ve been called NASA’s “workhorse satellites” because of how far they’ve travelled and how much they’ve found—and they seem to be unstoppable.

Planetary influence

As little as two decades ago, we couldn’t be sure if there were any planets outside our own solar system. But thanks to powerful new instruments, like the Kepler and Hubble space telescopes, it’s increasingly clear the universe is chock full of other worlds, and this year some of the most bizarre ones yet were revealed. Among them is a “diamond planet” in the Cancer constellation, 40 light years away, where a charred graphite surface surrounds a fat layer of diamonds. Twice the size of Earth, this planet circles its sun every 18 hours; with such a close orbit, temperatures there reach a scorching 2,150° C.

Another new planet sounds like the fictional Tatooine from Star Wars. But while Tatooine famously had two suns, this one has four: it circles two parent stars and, at the same time, two other stars orbit them. (Don’t make plans to check out a quadruple sunset here: it’s a gas giant, and boils at about 340° C.)

While these planets are exceedingly strange, others sound remarkably Earth-like. This year also marked the discovery of a new “super-Earth” orbiting a dwarf star, where there could be liquid water, a stable atmosphere and climate. It’s 42 light years away, still much too far to visit, which makes another discovery perhaps the most tantalizing of all: a newfound world in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth, a mere 4.3 light years away. That particular planet is much too hot to support life as we know it, but the fact there is a planet there at all—in our own cosmic neighbourhood—suggests there are others in Alpha Centauri, maybe close enough to visit one day. One might even have the right conditions to support life.

Rolling in the deep

He’s directed blockbuster movies like Avatar and Titanic, been married five times (once to Linda Hamilton, who starred in his Terminator movies), and led underwater expeditions to shipwrecks and deep thermal vents. But in March, larger-than-life Canadian-born filmmaker James Cameron trumped himself, becoming the third human in history to reach the deepest point of the Earth’s oceans: the Mariana Trench, 11 km below sea level. (By comparison, over 3,000 people have climbed Mount Everest, Earth’s tallest peak.) Cameron took a sub of his own design, the Deepsea Challenger, and captured footage of the otherworldly bottom of the trench. The Mariana Trench trip will no doubt provide inspiration for Avatar 2, the sequel that will explore the oceans of alien planet Pandora.