Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/12/26/space_review_of_2011/

A year in spaaaaace: El Reg looks back on 2011

Era of the spaceplane ends, robot exploration continues

By Brid-Aine Parnell

Posted in Science, 26th December 2011 10:00 GMT

Despite budget cuts and the long-running diminishment of the glamour around space exploration, 2011 saw Russia, the US, Europe and even the UK were all plan, execute and in some cases spectacularly fail to execute missions to the stars.

But the US budget cuts really made themselves felt: nowhere more poignantly than in the end of the US space shuttle programme.

Shuttles Discovery, an Endeavour and Atlantis all went out of this world in 2011, the year that marked the end of an era in space travel.

Space shuttle Discovery during its crawl to the launch pad. Pic: NASA

Space shuttle Discovery during its crawl to the launch pad. Credit: NASA

Discovery, on mission STS-133, was originally due to take off in November 2010, but was delayed till February with problems in its external fuel tank - not what you want for a manned mission.

Up to that point, Discovery had flown 38 times, spending 352 days in space. It was the first shuttle to visit Russia's Mir orbiting outpost and the craft responsible for lifting the Hubble Space Telescope.

After another hitch, this time with a feeler gauge, Discovery was cleared for launch on 24 February, a trip that went off without a hitch, delivering six astronauts and a robot - the Robonaut 2 or R2 - to the International Space Station.

Two of the six astronauts, Steve Bowen and Alvin Drew, did a couple of spacewalks for some maintenance on the ISS, before Discovery set out for its return trip on March 8.

But before that the crew had to endure were treated to a few celebrity wake-up calls, something Endeavour and Atlantis would be getting a taste of as well.

On 7 March, the crew were roused by the dulcet tones of William Shatner, in his Captain Kirk persona, saying, "These have been the voyages of the Space Shuttle Discovery", which admittedly was quite cool.

In an aptly-worded - if slightly odd - choice, on the morning the Discovery 'nauts were due to leave the ISS, they were kicked out of bed by the sound of Gwyneth Paltrow singing Coming Home, a decision made by the space station flight controllers down on the ground.

Discovery glided in for a smooth landing at Kennedy Space Center on 9 March, and was warmly commemorated by NASA shortly after on the space agency's website.

Part two of the end

Just a little over a month later, Endeavour was ready to take to the skies for the penultimate shuttle launch, with the important mission of delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to search for antimatter, dark matter, cosmic rays and other stuff that could explain the origins of the universe.

The launch was subsequently delayed by 10 days to 29 April, to make sure it didn't impede the docking of a Russian Progress supply vehicle with the ISS, then it got another 72 hours on the launchpad while engineers looked into the failure of a heater circuit, which turned into a big enough problem to require delaying until May 16.

Shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS. Credit: NASA

Shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS. Credit: NASA

Having sorted all that out, Endeavour got off the ground nicely in the end, carrying not just the AMS, but the possible beginnings of a race of Space Krakens in the form of a squadron of squid on which the effects of microgravity are unknown.

NASA haven't reported back on the state of the squid yet, but Endeavour mission specialists Drew Feustel and Mike Fincke completed two spacewalks, the second of which was the sixth-longest spacewalk ever at 8 hours and 7 minutes, before coming back to Earth on 1 June.

Endeavour spent nearly 300 days in space during her career and orbited our planet 4,671 times, NASA said in its online retrospective on the shuttle.

The final last ever shuttle

Finally it was the turn of the last space shuttle to make its final flight. Atlantis blasted off for the ISS on July 8.

The Atlantis crew spacewalked, rigged up the Robotic Refueling Mission experiment on the ISS and were treated to more celebrity wake-up calls.

Elton John serenaded the 'nauts with Rocket Man and his own personal message, while REM's Michael Stipe crooned Man on the Moon to go along with his greeting.

Paul McCartney gave Good Day Sunshine a spin, wishing the crew good luck on the mission and Beyonce belted out a bit of Run the World (Girls) along with the obligatory shout-out to women in space.

But the crew also had to get on with some actual work, which included rousing one of Atlantis' general purpose computers when it clapped out, and paying the spacecraft an awkward tribute before returning home on 21 July to really, finally end the shuttle programme.

With the programme officially kaput, over 2,000 employees of the United Space Alliance (USA) were given their pink slips. The joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin ended up reducing its staff to around 3,100, from a 2003 high of 10,500.

Upstart start-ups get a look-in

But despite all the bad that went with the closure of the programme, there was also some potential good - possible successors to the shuttle.

At first the field seemed to be opening up to commercial companies that might be able to provide rockets at significantly lower costs, such as Elon Musk's SpaceX firm. But NASA was having a hard time letting go of the expensive and lavishly-staffed way it has always done things and announced it was planning a new kind of rocket based on recycled shuttle (and Apollo) technology, the Space Launch System.

NASA wasn't completely blind to the benefits of commercial space travel, however, setting up and distributing Commercial Crew Development funding for possible manned flights to Amazon-ian Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space venture, Paypal alumni Elon Musk's SpaceX and the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Out of that lot the prize goes to SpaceX, which will have the first mission to the International Space Station by a privately built and operated spacecraft early next year, NASA announced. The Dragon capsule, sitting on a Falcon 9 rocket, will (hopefully) deliver supplies to the ISS.

The Dragon capsule with 'Draco' rockets in action. Credit: SpaceX

The Dragon capsule with 'Draco' rockets in action. Credit: SpaceX

Nonetheless NASA isn't quite ready to let go of the old days, sending some of the commercial crew funds the way of United Launch Alliance - basically the entire existing US rocket business amalgamated into a huge monopoly. ULA is a joint venture of guess who? Yes, Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

ULA's offering for commercial manned flights is the trusty Atlas V rocket, which is to be man-rated to send astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

Plenty of Atlas Vs have already flown with unmanned missions - for instance carrying Juno, NASA's Jupiter probe, into space.

Artist's impression of Juno at Jupiter. Pic: NASA

Artist's impression of Juno at Jupiter. Credit: NASA

Juno, which will be busily unlocking the secrets of the early solar system when it eventually makes it to Jupiter in 2016, launched in August.

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.

Are you out there, Phobos-Grunt?

The global earth-to-space communications network is pretty sparse and space boffins had to wait until Phobos-Grunt passed over a point where it could send and receive messages, and then quickly try to establish contact.

The Russians enlisted the help of the European Space Agency, but things were looking pretty bleak, inspiring the cranks to come up with some wild theories as to what had happened to the craft and prompting the question - if it does drop out of the sky, will it hit someone?

Galactic Ghoul seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope

Was Phobos-Grunt eaten by the Galactic Ghoul? Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Less than a week after they lost contact with the craft, the head of Roscosmos felt moved to reassure the public that the flaming wreckage of the probe wasn't going to come raining down on anyone.

"There are 7.5 metric tons of fuel in the aluminium tanks on board. We have no doubts that they will explode [and destroy the probe] upon re-entry,” Vladimir Popovkin said. “It is highly unlikely that its parts would reach Earth.”

Meanwhile, space experts were suggesting that if the probe didn't have enough gas left for a trip to Mars, perhaps the moon or a near-earth object would be a good plan B?

But as the window of opportunity to send Phobos-Grunt on its original mission closed, there seemed to be little hope left.

The probe stubbornly continued to hang on in there in orbit, even mysteriously rising for a little while, but still no word.

Then, randomly, two weeks after it had first been lost, the ESA managed to get a signal from the craft at its tracking station in Perth, Australia.

Hopes for reviving the craft and salvaging some sort of mission were short-lived though. After sending some garbled messages and one lot of decipherable telemetry data, Phobos-Grunt once more went dark.

After a few more days of trying, the ESA gave up on the stranded probe and then the Russians announced they expected the craft to crash through the atmosphere sometime in January.

Oh, and maybe it won't all burn up after all, there might be the small matter of 20 to 30 remnants that could hit the Earth's surface, but they're not sure where yet.

Russian boffins sweat under Medvedev's gaze

And as if the Russian space agency wasn't depressed enough, their president, Dmitry Medvedev, suggested he might criminally prosecute those responsible.

"Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty," Medvedev told reporters in televised comments.

"I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment," he said.

While definitely a harsh measure, Medvedev's frustration was understandable; Phobos-Grunt wasn't the only public failure for Russia's space programme.

Following NASA's retirement of the space shuttles, astronauts were now relying on Russia's Soyuz rockets to get them to the International Space Station and back.

Concerns started early in the year, when Russia pushed the launch of Soyuz TMA-21, due to carry cosmonauts Andrei Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyayev and astronaut Ronald Garan to the station, because of "technical problems".

However, a short time later, Soyuz TMA-01M safely carried three 'nauts off the ISS and back to Kazakhstan, leaving three others to await the delayed crew members.

Then, the delayed TMA-21 got up and docked with the ISS without incident and the TMA-20 brought three more crew members safely home in May.

The Soyuz TMA-21 just before docking with the International Space Station. PIC: NASA

The Soyuz TMA-21 just before docking with the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The accident, where thankfully no-one was hurt, happened in August, when an unmanned Russian supply truck, a Progress, crashed in Siberia when the rocket failed after launch.

Progress supply vessels are powered by Soyuz-U rockets, the same booster that pushes the manned Soyuz crafts, so if there was a problem with them, then 'nauts couldn't go up to the ISS anymore.

After an investigation, the Russians successfully sent another Progress cargoship to the ISS at the end of October (incidentally carrying the first fondleslabs in space), which cleared the way for the next manned mission.

Crew captain Anton Shkaplerov said before lift-off that there was "no nervousness" in the crew and they had no doubts about the technology, and was proved right when the rocket launched without a hitch.

Despite the recovery, the Russians are definitely having their issues, which may well stem from the general belt-tightening of all governments in the current climate.

The truth is out there

For all those who want extraterrestrials to be able to pick up the phone to us whenever they want, the biggest hit had to be the cancellation of funding for SETI.

The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence was forced to put its Alien Telescope Array to bed in April because it no longer had the readies to run the radio dishes that searched the night sky for little grey men.

Luckily, celebrities like the prospect of a close encounter as much as the next human, so a fundraising drive by SETI bagged the $200,000 it needed to restart ATA by August, with kind donations from people like science-fiction author Larry Niven and actress Jodie Foster.

Jodie Foster in Contact

Thousands of Americans thought an easier, cheaper and quicker way to find out we're not alone in the universe might be to ask the US government to admit they'd been hiding the fact for years, and signed two e-petitions to try to force that to happen.

The democratic process did get an answer, but not one that was likely to shut the conspiracy theorists up.

"The US government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye," government stooge space policy White House spokesman Phil Larson said.

Meanwhile, the search for aliens continued, mostly by looking for microbial Martians and the fountain of all life - water.

In March, a NASA scientist claimed he'd found evidence of fossilised bacterial remains in an ancient meteorite, though it's not the first time that's happened.

The Journal of Cosmology, where the study was published, said they respected Dr Richard Hoover, but were open to other boffins giving their opinions since the findings were quite controversial.

Scientific eyes were still trained on Mars for some sign of the elusive H20 many seem sure is, or was, there.

An ESA satellite captured a shot of what appeared to be the meandering channels of a dried-up river on the surface of the Red Planet and the US' Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took some snaps of streaks in the sand that look like the remains of flows of briny water.

HiRISE images showing possible water flows on Mars. Credit: NASA

HiRISE image showing possible water flows on Mars. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile one of NASA's old rovers, the Opportunity, sent back a shot of what boffins reckon could be a vein of gypsum, which could only really have been formed by flowing water.

And water was not just potentially flowing on Mars, scientists also reckon that a huge water lake on a Jupiter moon could harbour alien life. The lake lies underneath an ice cap covering Europa, but the boffins found evidence that the ice is mixing with the water (rather than blocking it off), pushing up the probability of life in the depths below.

Whether or not Marvin the Martian (or Jane the Jovian) is there, NASA is also searching for habitable planets, just in case we need a handy spare to run to in the event of some form of Armageddon brought on by our complacent destruction of Earth.

The first possibility has already been spotted by NASA's Kepler mission. Kepler 22b is in the 'habitable zone' around a star - the area where water could exist on the planet's surface - and it's 600 light years away.

And the US Air Force's Space Command is making sure there won't be any nasty surprises if and when we get there, giving SETI some more funding to check out the habitable worlds found by Kepler.

Apocalypse now, or next year

With 2012 just around the corner, the possibility of the Apocalypse seems more likely than ever to some, and some who should know better, like NASA, weren't doing too much to quell the potential panic.

Despite framing each of their releases as a story of the lack of threat to the planet, the US space agency nonetheless managed to convey just how precarious a position the Earth can find itself in.

In August, for no apparent reason, NASA released a statement that denied that Comet Elenin was on its way to destroy the planet.

Since most people weren't aware they had claimed it was, the strident denial was something of a worry.

"Comet Elenin poses no threat to Earth," NASA said, going on to say that it was too small to do anything and anyway wasn't going to pass close enough to the Earth to worry about.

The comet did in fact break up on its way to Earth, reducing its total insignificance even further, and in no way making people wonder if a crack team had to be dispatched to deal with the apocalyptic asteroid so that the rest of mankind could continue their lives in ignorance of the close shave.

Speaking of apocalyptic asteroids, NASA also issued the results of multi-year survey the agency undertook of near-Earth objects, using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

The agency reassured folks that there were fewer asteroids big enough to be Earth-threatening than boffins had previously thought. However, it couldn't help adding that strictly speaking, there was still plenty of them.

NASA also said that the chances of a large asteroid hitting the Earth before scientists could find it and warn about it were "substantially reduced". Just what we would do with such a warning (panicking? rioting? looting? blissful ignorance at the hands of a government that wants none of those thing?) was not a point the agency elaborated on.

Just a few months later, the ominous-looking 'asteroid' YU55 headed towards a close brush with the Earth. NASA said the rock - a gigantic, spinning, black sphere - was expected to make a close pass by the planet, coming well inside the orbit of the Moon.

The agency subsequently felt the need to again insist that the asteroid would pass Earth safely, as the extremely unusual-looking asteroid came closer to us.

Not content with concerning itself with what might fall on us from above, NASA was also keen to let us know that supervolcanoes right here on Earth were "unlikely".

The agency couldn't deny that super-volcanoes had laid waste to the planet in the past, or that they would happen again at some point or another, but it was at pains to say that there was no way to forecast that it would happen in 2012.

However, since scientists can't predict accurately when a supervolcano might erupt, it could just as easily be next year as any other time ... Comforting.

Returning to celestial death raining down from above, NASA also wanted to clear up the whole issue of solar flares, a common explanation for the Mayan calendar's predicted end of the world next year.

Solar flare from sunspot AR1339

Solar flare from sunspot AR1339. Credit: NASA/SDO

NASA said that there just "isn't enough energy in the Sun to send a killer fireball 93 million miles to destroy Earth". However, solar flares are a problem, in "the same way hurricanes are a problem" – which is a not insubstantial problem. But not to worry, "one can protect oneself with advance information and proper precautions".

Space is cool

Apart from boldly going where no one has gone before, finding us somewhere to go when Armageddon hits and trying to make contact with whoever, or whatever, is out there, the more immediate benefits of space exploration were also evident throughout the year, as spacecraft, satellites, telescopes and other tech expanded mankind's scientific understanding and gave us cool pictures to look at.

We had more than one glimpse of the scientific wonder of black holes, whether supermassive or garden-variety.

One was beautifully pictured by international boffins by melding together images from telescopes across the southern hemisphere.

Particle jets belching from the supermassive black hole at the centre of Centaurus A. Credit: ESO/WFI (visible); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (microwave); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)

Particle jets belching from the supermassive black hole at the centre of Centaurus A. Credit: ESO/WFI (visible); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (microwave); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)

While two independent research groups found a cloud of water vapour around this specimen.

Stargazers at the European Southern Observatory spotted a supermassive black hole gobbling up a huge gas cloud and in the process showing that things do go bendy and stretchy around a singularity.

And just this month, space boffins discovered the supermassive black hole – a behemoth with nearly ten billion times the mass of our Sun and an event horizon that would stretch five times further than the orbit of Pluto – enough to swallow the entire solar system.

Also breaking records, NASA's Voyager space probes continued to fly towards deep space, into never-before-seen void beyond the edge of the Sun's influence on our solar system.

Voyager 1 reached the very edge of the heliosheath – the skin of the 'bubble' of our star's power – on 5 December and NASA boffins are saying we won't have long to wait until we see "what the space between stars is really like".

Artist's impression of Voyager 1 and 2 in the heliosheath Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist's impression of Voyager 1 and 2 in the heliosheath Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As previously mentioned, NASA has a keen interest in asteroids, whether Earth-killing or not, and so kept the world updated throughout the year on the progress of the Dawn probe, dispatched in 2007 to check out the asteroid belt giant Vesta.

The first of many pictures from the probe found its way back to Earth in May, quickly followed by a second snap as it headed into orbit around the second-largest object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn image of Vesta's dark side. Pic: NASA

Dawn image of Vesta's dark side. Credit: NASA

Once up close, Dawn was able to pick up features on the surface of the asteroid, including large ridges running along for miles, which boffins are currently pondering.

Dawn was also able to pick up information about the composition of Vesta, discovering that the asteroid was much more like a planet than the usual kind of rocks floating around out there.

"The distinct compositional variation and layering that we see at Vesta appear to derive from internal melting of the body shortly after formation, which separated Vesta into crust, mantle and core," the deputy principal investigator, Carol Raymond, said.

Sharing space in space

The US and Russia are unquestionably still the main players in our universe, but other countries are starting to take more of an interest in the wonders of our galaxies as well.

The European Space Agency is fast becoming an important player in the space (pun intended), helping out their Russian boffin mates with contacting Phobos-Grunt and sending astronauts and very heavy space trucks up and down to the International Space Station, but that's not all it's been busy with.

The agency announced in July that it had finished a billion-pixel camera for use in its Gaia mission to chart a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way, due to start in 2013.

Aboard the ISS, with a little help from NASA astronaut Ron Garan, the agency shot the first 3D footage in space on a futuristic camera developed by the ESA.

The ESA is also hoping to get a space probe closer to our Sun than any other craft has ever managed.

The Solar Orbiter is aiming for a 2017 launch on a NASA-provided Atlas rocket, after which it will pass within just 26 million miles of the Sun.

solar_orbiter_esa

Artist's impression of the Solar Orbiter. Credit: ESA

China's Martian satellite went down with the Phobos-Grunt, but it doesn't seem to have dented their enthusiasm for space too much.

This year saw the Asian nation become the third country after America and Russia to master the art of docking.

The Shenzhou-8 unmanned capsule set out at the start of November on its trip to the Tiangong-1 or 'Heavenly Palace' module, which had been orbiting since September.

The craft then succeeded in coupling with the module not once, but twice, before returning safely back to Earth.

China is planning Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 for next year, and hoping to man (or woman) at least one of them after the docking success.

All of these missions are stepping stones towards China's very own space station, which the space agency is hoping to have aloft sometime this decade.

Meanwhile, the UK is also getting in on the act with its very own space agency - the UK space agency (good name).

The new body got the go-ahead in April this year and so far seems mostly interested in satellites.

To be fair, it's not a good time for any government-related body to be sticking its hand out for money in Blighty, so small ambitions are probably good for now.

These include the CubeSat mission, lots of teeny-tiny satellites made from off-the-shelf components leading, the agency hopes, to more and cheaper launches. The design for UKube-1, the first of the microspacecraft, was approved in November.

Sticking with satellites, George Osbourne's Autumn Statement on the UK's budget included funds earmarked for science, part of which will go on a British-built satellite constellation.

Artist's impression of a NovaSAR satellite over Earth

Artist's impression of a NovaSAR satellite over Earth. Credit: SSTL

"NovaSAR will keep us at the forefront of space technology, and will drive growth and innovation as governments and businesses across the globe develop scientific and commercial uses for the data," science minister David Willetts enthused.

However, the cash is still conditional on agreeing a business case and "other contract terms".

Anyway, the UK can't expect to be taken seriously as a proper space agency until it gets some telescopes on the go to send back amazing shots of our cosmos, a task the Hubble Space Telescope has been doing for 21 years this year.

To celebrate the anniversary, NASA released a suitably awe-inspiring image from the space observer that showed a spiral galaxy the agency decided looked like a galactic rose.

Arp 273 - a

The galactic 'rose'. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

It also shows just why it's so worth it for governments to find the budget to keep sending spacecraft to the stars. ®