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365 days in SPAAACE: An interstellar glance at 2012

Curiosity looks for Martians, we search for a habitable planet

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Where should we park our asteroid? That Moon looks handy...

SpaceX is looking pretty good financially though. NASA, which has said that public-private partnerships are the future of space exploration, handed the firm $440m from the third development round of the Commercial Crew programme. That cash will go in the tidy pile from the NASA contract to make deliveries to the ISS, which comes in at $1.6bn.

Musk has also managed to get his foot in the door with the US military for two science projects, a deal that will offer SpaceX the chance to show its stuff and get possible further contracts of the black variety. The company announced the win of two contracts from the US Air Force, science missions in 2014 and 2015, which are likely to be testing grounds for the hugely lucrative spy-sat launch market.

Musk isn't the only former tech exec/billionaire that wants to get into space. James Cameron, a swarm of advertising tycoons and a pride of tech kingpins announced this year that they were getting into the asteroid mining biz.

Asteroid mining

The adventurer/film-maker is teaming up with Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, former Microsoftie Charles Simonyi, space tourism biz founder Eric Anderson and spacebiz visionary Peter Diamandis to send a robot ship out to the closest handy Near Earth Object (NEO) and tug it on in to orbit around the Moon.

There are some actual boffin types on board with the new firm, Planetary Resources, including former astronaut Tom Jones, former NASA JPL engineer Chris Lewicki and planetary scientist Sara Seager, who are all advisors, but the whole idea still sounds pretty madcap.

First off, the company has to find an asteroid with enough valuable metals to make the whole thing worth it, which a NASA study estimated would have to be at least 10 per cent of the space rock. And that's without the cost of the mining, refining and transportation of the ore, metals and equipment between Earth and lunar orbit.

Mining water to be used by astronauts while they're in space would seem like a much more cost-effective idea, but the technology to do that isn't around quite yet either.

Nevertheless, Planetary Resources (PR) has already engaged the services of Virgin Galactic for payload services. PR has said it will use Virgin's LauncherOne booster to blast a series of robot craft into space, including the telescopes to search out suitable NEOs.

While we can hope that this proactive hiring is a hint that PR has something amazing up its sleeve, there's always someone who will tell you that no amount of amazing is going to get this plan off the ground.

To heaven and back again

Artist's impression of the ExoMars lander

ESA's ExoMars lander and rover. Credit: ESA

All the space action this year wasn't just US-based; China and Russia were also getting on with some cosmic exploration. China led the way with its first ever manned space docking mission, which coupled with the country's Heavenly Palace space laboratory in June.

Three taikonauts floated into the Tiangong-1 lab module after the successful eight-minute docking of the craft. Two male and one female 'naut made the trip, giving China its second first, in the shape of Liu Yang, the first woman China has sent into space.

The country had already successfully docked an unmanned craft with the module, but it was the first time anyone has been onboard for the berthing. Once on Tiangong-1, the taikonauts completed a first ever manual docking, clearing the way for the extension of the Heavenly Palace into a space station, a plan China hopes to carry out in 2020.

China also has plans for Mars and the Moon, including astro-farms on both. The country is running tests in a closed cabin called the controlled ecological life support system (CELSS), which in time could be used by taikonauts on extraterrestrial bases.

Chinese space boffins want to send the country's first rover vehicle to the Moon in 2013 as well, and is considering getting its first people on the Moon after 2017, to be followed one day by a colony.

Meanwhile, Russia has stepped into the breach left by NASA in the ExoMars mission. The ESA was stuck without a partner for the Martian missions to send a satellite to look for methane and other trace gases in the atmosphere and then to send Europe's own rover, after NASA dropped out. But Roscosmos has offered its own Proton rockets to blast the missions to the Red Planet.

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