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A year in spaaaaace: El Reg looks back on 2011

Era of the spaceplane ends, robot exploration continues

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The Martian marathon

Jupiter probe notwithstanding, the main focus for the big space agencies over this year has been the race to the Red Planet.

NASA, Russian space agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency are all keen on all things Martian, and all of them undertook various steps in the journey to getting space-boots on the ochre sands.

The ESA had locked six men up in a fake spacecraft for 520 days to (sort of) prove that astronauts could possibly one day go to Mars. They emerged towards the end of this year, after their months of captivity and a four-day simulated descent to the 'surface' of the Red Planet.

NASA was also looking towards Mars, with the launch of its biggest and baddest rover yet, Curiosity, whose mission it is to find out if the Red Planet ever sustained microbial life and/or the elusive water that could make that possible.

The small-SUV-sized truck, boasting cameras, a robotic arm, a drill and a powerful laser for vapourising rocks/hostile alien life-forms, only had one delay of one day to its proposed lift off and took off without a hitch on 26 November.

Once up and away, the launch was a little less smooth, punctuated with repeated brief losses of data from the vehicle. However, the telemetry losses soon evened out and 36 minutes into the flight, NASA reported nice, clean info making its way to mission control.

Curiosity should be touching down in the Gale crater sometime in August 2012.

While NASA's Martian mission was coming together nicely, the Russians once more suffered an inexplicable smackdown for its Mars ambitions.

The dud Martian probe

The now-famous Phobos-Grunt probe was due to make a trip to Mars, circle the planet gathering data and then land on Martian moon Phobos to collect samples.

Hitching a ride with the craft was Chinese satellite Yinghuo-1, which should have been left in Mars orbit to study magnetic and gravity fields, ionosphere and surface details - China's first interplanetary mission.

The craft launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 8 November and reached orbit around Earth with no problems.

As soon as it got there though, the problems started. Phobos-Grunt's two engines failed to fire to send it on its way to the Red Planet, leaving the craft stuck circling the planet.

To add insult to injury, the Russians couldn't even figure out what went wrong, because they couldn't contact the probe.

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