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Backwards and forwards, forwards and back

If the neutrino result stands, it means a re-writing of the basic geometry used by physicists to keep past and future in their places.

CERN's boffins have been working to understand the neutrino results but have been bumping their heads: the team that ran the original tests re-ran their experiment in November and confirmed the results. However, a group on the Gran Sasso side of the experiment refuted the results. Other scientists, according to rock-star physicist Brian Cox are going back to basics to ask whether something fundamental has been missed, such as the effect of the Earth's gravitational field on the readings.

While scientists grappled with their understanding of how the universe works, rocket men in the US and Russia struggled in their attempts to get back into space. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, told a US Congressional hearing in September that his country's space programme is "embarrassing and unacceptable".

According to Armstrong, America is losing its lead over other countries as - since the space shuttle was retired earlier this year - Americans now have no direct access to low-Earth orbit or the International Space Station. The space shuttle, the vehicle the US had been using to reach the ISS, flew its last mission in July. Atlantis landed on 21 July, marking three decades and more than 130 flights for the fleet.

To reach the ISS, or to even go further, the US now relies one of two taxi services. The Russian space program - a project that under its previous branding of the Soviet Union, America had raced to beat. Armstrong's first footsteps on the moon were the pinnacle achievement of the East-West space race. The US also relies on the rockets of the private sector, such as the United Launch Alliance's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Atlas V 541 that in November put NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) in to orbit and en route for Mars.

On board the Atlas V 541 was the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover due to reach the Red Planet next August and described as being as big as a Mini Cooper. This will be NASA's third Martian rover, joining Spirit and Opportunity. These completed their primary missions in 2004 but Spirit only ceased communications in 2010 while Opportunity is still examining craters. Popular Mechanics magazine just awarded them lifetime achievement awards.

Given this rich heritage and the surrender of the American government's space independence, it was not surprising that one of those pioneers from the early days, a man who's seen how small and blue Earth is from the outside, should go to Washington to knock heads together.

"For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable," Armstrong said.

He pointed out that NASA is caught in the crossfire between the Obama administration and Congress - "a fractious process that satisfies neither".

Space shuttle Atlantis. Pic NASA

Atlantis' last landing ended the US government's space independence

Not that Russians were exactly knocking space exploration out of the atmosphere. On November 8 Russia finally successfully launched its first planetary probe since 1996. Called Phobos-Grunt, it lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a two-stage Zenit-2SB41.1.

The mission was simple: travel to Mars, orbit the uninviting planet, land on the Martian moon Phobos, gather samples, lift off and arrive back on Earth in 2014. Coming along for the ride was a Chinese satellite Yinghuo-1 to study magnetic and gravity fields, ionosphere and the surface of Mars.

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