WASHINGTON – It was a year of lasts and firsts in space exploration. The American shuttle program ended after 30 years with no clear plan for sending future astronauts into orbit and beyond. For now, astronauts are hitching a ride to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Despite the hiatus in American manned spaceflight launches, there was a growing list of space firsts during 2011 that have greatly accelerated man’s understanding of the universe. These ranged from the successful retrieval of dust from a distant asteroid to precise placement of the first spacecraft into orbit around the inner-most planet, the overheated rock we call Mercury.
There were also two launches targeting our nearest neighbor, Mars. A high-profile Russian probe called Phobos-Grunt was to attempt the retrieval and return of dust from the Martian moon Phobos.
However, the probe remains stranded in earth orbit and is expected to fall back to Earth by the end of the year. Some observers think the failure may spell the end Russian planetary exploration.
NASA has so far had better luck with its SUV-size Mars Science Laboratory, which is headed for a landing near Gale Crater on Mars next August. Launched from Cape Canaveral on Nov, 26, the state-of-the-art rover called “Curiosity” is so big that it will be lowered to the surface by a rocket-powered sky crane, a never-before-attempted landing technique reminiscent of the U.S. lunar landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. If the $2.5 billion mission succeeds, the plutonium-powered Curiosity will provide high-definition pictures of the Martian surface and near real-time video (signals from Mars take about 10 minutes to reach Earth).
Besides range and power, Curiosity’s biggest enhancement over its little brothers, the plucky Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity, is an on-board science lab that can zap rocks with a laser to analyze samples for signs of organic compounds that are the stuff of life.
If you’ve look up at the night sky recently, you’ve seen the target of NASA’s Juno probe launched in August. "Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system," says Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (San Antonio, Texas). "It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined, and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us.”
Expected to reach Jupiter by mid-2016, Juno will conduct by far the most extensive survey ever of the gas ball giant, including a search for a rocky core. As of Nov. 21, mission controllers reported that Juno was nearly 40 million miles from Earth (about the same distance as Mars) traveling at a velocity relative to Earth of 31,700 miles per hour.
As NASA tries to figure how to resume manned space flights from Cape Canaveral, the next big test of a U.S. commercial rocket that could eventually carry humans has been rescheduled for early February. SpaceX has already delayed the next launch of its Falcon 9 rocket several times this year. The rocket is scheduled to lift a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in order to demonstrate the system’s ability to ferry supplies to the orbiting laboratory.
SpaceX is among several contractors vying to replace the U.S. shuttle program. NASA announced plans in September to develop a new deep space rocket to send humans beyond Earth orbit. So far, the Space Launch System (what happened to inspiring names like Apollo?) is for now only a concept. Like the ill-fated Constellation program before it, it’s not certain the SLS will ever actually make it to the launch pad.
What follows is our list of the top ten space developments of 2011:
The space shuttle era ended in July with the 135th and final flight of the U.S. space shuttle. Besides helping to build the International Space Station, shuttle astronauts deployed dozens of satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope. One of the highlights of the program was the 1993 repair of Hubble’s faulty optics. Fourteen astronauts were killed during shuttle flights: seven each in the 1986 Shuttle Challenge explosion and the 2003 breakup of Shuttle Columbia. Source: NASA
A panoramic view of Earth from the space station’s cupola window installed by shuttle astronauts in February 2010. Source: NASA