Curiosity’s unprecedented landing on Mars with the ‘seven minutes of terror’ is my favorite accomplishment for the year. Such a complicated landing sequence from 13,000mph to a near pinpoint accuracy soft landing in 7 minutes. Nasa got some needed PR aided by the Mohawk Guy and the parody of We Are Nasa and We Know It which hopefully encourages youngsters that space, science and engineering is cool.
Next for me is SpaceX’s Dragon capsule being the first private company to delivery cargo to the ISS. How many debates have had over possible private space adventures only to see it come true. Sure Nasa had a prominent roll, but that should be expected.
The Air Force should get notable credit for the OTV-2 (mini shuttle) in orbit for 468 days and landing back on earth all on its own, something no other vehicle has ever accomplished.
China’s recent milestone with the Chang’e 2 probe extended mission to Toutatis and taking photos elevating Beijing was impressive and deserves honorable mention.
The SDSS three dimensional map of the universe is amazing and warrants a look giving a better insight to the structure of the universe.
And for photos check out Phil Plait’s best pics of 2012. Hard to pick one that stands out as #1 but I’m going with Rotating Gas Cloud because of the process. Of course you might have your own favorite photo.
I’ll leave the discovery accomplishments for someone else.