Image: Mars Exploration Rover
Twin versions of the Mars Exploration Rover, shown in this artist's conception, are due for launch in 2003 and should be rumbling around on the Red Planet by early 2004.
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msnbc.com

If everything goes right, the year 2003 will usher in a new generation of sentinels on Mars. If everything goes right, the year 2003 will set the stage for the “Star Wars” dream of missile defense to become a reality. But as the year 2002 illustrated, expecting everything to go right makes for a pretty big “if.”

Alan Boyle
EARTHLY QUESTIONS dogged most of the developments having to do with space during 2002: Would cosmic ambitions have to be scaled down to cope with post-9/11 realities? (Yes.) Would the international space station have to go crewless due to Russian money troubles? (Probably not.) Would ’N Sync singer Lance Bass become the youngest human to fly in space? (Not in 2002.)

When it came to rocket science, the successes and the failures balanced out, leaving a cloud over some of the grand space schemes being planned for 2003. Throw in the potential impact of war in Iraq — a war in which the military’s space resources could play a pivotal role — and you’ve got a cliffhanger worthy of a “Star Wars” sequel.

As in previous years, we offer five top stories from the year that ended, and five themes for the year ahead. It’s up to you to select which are the most important, using MSNBC’s admittedly unscientific Live Vote. If you want to register a write-in vote, or simply sound off about the year in space, feel free to send e-mail to Cosmic Log. A selection of your responses will be published in a feedback file.

To refresh your memory, the top story for 2001 was “Victory at Mars,” the successful arrival of the Mars Odyssey probe after NASA’s previous failures. Privately funded space missions were voted the top trend of 2002.

2002’S TOP STORIES

Rocket ups and downs: On the plus side, Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co. both executed flawless maiden launches for their next-generation launch vehicles: Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 in August, and Boeing’s Delta 4 in November. But there were plenty of entries on the minus side as well.

NASA lost contact with its comet-chasing Contour probe in August, just as it was firing its solid-rocket motor to leave Earth orbit. This month, mission controllers tried unsuccessfully to re-establish communications.

The October failure of a Russian Soyuz unmanned rocket cast a pall over efforts to put together a financial deal for commercially funded flights to the international space station, even though the manned version of the Soyuz is much more reliable.

In November, a Russian Proton rocket failed to put Europe’s Astra 1K, the world’s largest telecommunication satellite, into its proper orbit. The nearly 6-ton craft fell back to Earth a couple of weeks later.

In December, Europe’s beefed-up Ariane 5 rocket failed — a significant reversal for Arianespace. That launch failure caused some to raise questions about January’s scheduled launch of Europe’s Rosetta comet probe on a different model of the Ariane 5, but the European Space Agency hinted that the launch would go ahead as planned.

December also marked the failure of the latest in a series of missile defense system tests staged by the Pentagon. More about that later. ...

Making space pay: In April, South African Internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth became the second space tourist to pay his own way, reportedly at a cost significantly discounted from the oft-quoted $20 million fare.

But after months of cosmonaut training and financial negotiations, the 23-year-old Bass failed in his initial bid to become the first entertainer in space, due to his backers’ money troubles.

When Moscow was left in the lurch, the Russians complained that they wouldn’t be able to support continuous manned operations aboard the international space station unless they received more money from outside sources. For now, the Russians and other space station partners have papered over their financial differences.

NASA’s vision quest: America’s space agency dealt with tighter budgets as well. Progress on the space station was cranked down to such an extent that some of NASA’s partners on the project wondered whether it would ever fulfill its promise as a platform for space research.

NASA’s budget-savvy administrator, Sean O’Keefe, signaled this month that it could take until 2006 or later to build the station’s crew up to full strength for research purposes. Meanwhile, the agency laid out its vision for human missions beyond the space station.

Martian mysteries: NASA’s Mars Odyssey sent back the first images of its mapping mission in March, including unprecedented “night-vision” infrared imagery. Some scientists said other pictures of the Red Planet showed dark streaks that could hint at flows of salty water.

On one side, there was skepticism from those who theorized that Mars was dry and cold for most of its history. And on the other side, there was skepticism from Cydonia researchers who claimed that NASA knew more than it was telling.

Celestial glories: Astronauts installed new camera equipment on the Hubble Space Telescope in March, allowing the 12-year-old instrument to send back a fresh crop of eye-popping pictures. Other highlights in the skies above included November’s Leonid meteor shower and December’s total solar eclipse, visible from Africa and Australia.

2003’S TOP TRENDS

Return to the Red Planet: Three Mars probes are scheduled for launch in 2003, including NASA’s Mars Expedition Rovers — twin missions that should leave Earth in May and July.

The last time NASA tried to send a spacecraft to the Martian surface was in 1999, when the Mars Polar Lander and its piggyback Deep Space 2 microprobes disappeared without a trace. That setback forced an overhaul of NASA’s Mars exploration effort.

Compared with the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover, the new twin rovers look like souped-up sport utility vehicles. If they touch down successfully in January 2004, they could roll around the Red Planet for three months — rambling hundreds of yards away from their landing sites to analyze Martian rocks, soil and atmosphere, and snapping pictures as they go.

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission is due for launch in June, sending an orbiter as well as the Beagle 2 lander for a December rendezvous with the Red Planet. Beagle 2 is equipped with a “mole” that will dig through the top layer of the Martian surface to learn what lies beneath.

Great observatories: After a string of delays, NASA’s Space Infrared Telescope Facility is due for launch on April 15. The latest in the space agency’s series of “Great Observatories” is designed to peer into the disks of dust surrounding distant stars to spot the signatures of planets. “SIRTF” will be given a more euphonious name after it achieves its proper Earth-trailing orbit around the sun.

Meanwhile, a “great observatory” from an earlier generation, the Jupiter-orbiting Galileo spacecraft, is due to plunge to its doom in the giant planet’s atmosphere in September 2003.

Staging “Star Wars”: The Bush administration says it intends to deploy elements of a national missile defense program by the fall of 2004 — but skeptics say the plan is unworkable, for technical as well as political reasons. This month’s failure of a missile intercept test couldn’t have given much solace to those working on the White House’s timetable.

Showtime in space: Russia’s Channel One television network says it’s working with the Russian Aviation and Space Agency on a plan to put on a game show in space — and sources have indicated that “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett and his producing partner, Conrad Riggs, could be in on the deal. But Burnett and Riggs themselves have been mum on any deal, apparently because the financial arrangements haven’t yet been solidified.

Other sources say, on condition of anonymity, that ’N Sync singer Lance Bass could still figure in those plans as well. When you’re dealing with Hollywood and Moscow, it’s hard to separate the reality from the hype. But it does seem as if there should be some space-related entertainment in 2003, even if it’s just the entertainment of watching another round of bickering and backstabbing.

Giant leap for China: Beijing holds the potential of delivering the biggest outer-space story of 2003 — that is, the first flight of Chinese astronauts. This week there are reports that a fourth unmanned test of the Shenzhou space capsule is imminent, and China-watchers say a successful Shenzhou 4 mission could clear the way for a manned flight next year.

However, China’s space effort has been hit with delays before, and another glitch — on the ground or in space — could easily set back the schedule once again.

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