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The year in space

NASA / ESA / Hubble
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Review the top space images from 2009, including this Hubble view of a nebula.

The highest highlight of 2009 was clearly the revival of the Hubble Space Telescope, a mission that blended moments of beauty and brute force 350 miles above the earth.

Or was it?

Maybe the top story was the reassessment of NASA's plans for human spaceflight. After all, tens of billions of dollars could be at stake. Or maybe it was the series of victories in NASA-backed competitions that had gone unwon for years.

For scientific significance, it's hard to beat this year's confirmation that the moon holds significant reserves of water. And if you're looking for Hollywood flash plus a touch of drama, you just might choose the unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.

Every year since 1997, we've reviewed the top space stories of the previous 12 months and looked ahead to the trends to watch in the 12 months to come. It's up to you to choose which story from 2009 and trend for 2010 should lead the list. Here's this year's lineup:

Hubble gets final upgrade: After years of debate and planning, NASA launches the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle Atlantis' crew members do virtually everything they set out to do, although sometimes a little brute force was required. A collision event on Jupiter puts the new, improved Hubble to an early test. Weeks later, a post-servicing picture album proves that Hubble is back and better than ever.

Space vision reassessed: Even before new leaders take the helm at NASA, the Obama administration calls for a review of plans to send humans back to the moon by 2020. Some say NASA should stay the course, but an independent panel says that's not possible under current budget limitations. There's increasing talk about a "flexible path" approach that can be adapted for targets in space other than the moon. Meanwhile, a prototype for NASA's controversial Ares I moon rocket gets its first test in October.

NASA prizes finally won: After years of trying, Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace succeed in carrying out rocket demonstrations that earn them $1.65 million of NASA's money. Other NASA challenges produce winners as well: $900,000 for LaserMotive in the Beamed Power Challenge, $750,000 for three teams in the Regolith Excavation Challenge, and $350,000 for two teams in the Astronaut Glove Challenge.

Moon probe detects water: NASA sends a probe called Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, crashing into the moon. Weeks later, scientists report that an analysis of the impact debris confirms the existence of "significant" reserves of water ice. This was judged one of the top science stories of the decade, so it's gotta be on this year's list.

SpaceShipTwo unveiled: Virgin Galactic's plan to send passengers to the edge of space finally gets off the drawing board when the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane rolls down the runway at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Freezing weather didn't put a damper on the ceremony, but just a couple of hours later, billionaire Richard Branson had to end his post-rollout party early due to high-wind warnings. The day-after scene looked like something from "Gone With the Wind."


Now it's time to select the top trend for 2010. Think of this as your turn to try your hand at the crystal ball. For what it's worth, you selected the transition in NASA's leadership as the top trend last year, over the Hubble Space Telescope's revival. I'm thinking the space agency's transition still ranks as the top trend for next year, but that's up to you. Here are the five choices I'm laying out:

Transition time for NASA: So which path will the White House choose for NASA's future spaceflight? Will the space agency continue to work on the Ares I booster, or go on to its Plan B? Is the moon still the next frontier for humans in space? How much money will NASA get for its space vision? There have been rumblings about which path Barack Obama will choose, but indications are that the president still hasn't made up his mind. (The outlook doesn't look good for the Ares I, however.) Obama himself is expected to make the announcement sometime between now and February. Another big part of the transition is the retirement of the shuttle fleet, which may or may not take place during 2010.

The planet boom: The science team for NASA's planet-hunting Kepler mission is due to unveil its first results next month, and the announcements are likely to kick off a years-long series of revelations about worlds beyond our solar system. Meanwhile, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer should be reporting loads of asteroids and maybe even a brown dwarf or Planet X over the next year and a half. Other research projects are likely to report further news about extrasolar planets like the "water world" and other super-Earths discussed last week. 

Rover reality check: The saga of the Spirit rover will continue into the new year, as the mission team tries to get the machine out of its Red Planet sand trap. The effort will either mark the greatest escape ever for an interplanetary rover, or the beginning of the end for the long-lived rovers. Don't sell NASA short when it comes to machines on Mars. Some folks are even thinking the Phoenix Mars Lander just might rise again once the Martian winter is over.

Private rockets take flight: SpaceX's planned launch of the Falcon 9 rocket could have a powerful effect on the debate over NASA's future. If it works, SpaceX could help fill the gap between the shuttle's retirement and NASA's next-generation spaceship. Heck, the Falcon 9, or Orbital Sciences' Taurus, or some other private-sector rocket could essentially be NASA's next-generation spaceship. But if NASA's private-sector initiatives founder, that will add to the need for the Ares 1 ... or make America's space effort more dependent on foreign rockets.

Solar sail succeeds at last: The Planetary Society's effort to put a CubeSat-based solar sail into orbit could be a dark-horse candidate to make headlines, if the mission is a success sometime next year. A similar effort in 2005 ended in failure, which would just add to the story's "if at first you don't succeed" appeal.


There's always the chance that I've missed something, so you can cast a write-in vote as a comment on the ballot, or in the space below. I'll add a note to this item recognizing your choices when the year truly ends.

For historical background, here are the "Year in Space" roundups from the past eight years. (Unfortunately, the annual reviews from previous years have disappeared into the ether - although if you happen to find them on, let me know.)

Update for 9 p.m. ET Dec. 21: Almost forgot to mention that NASA has its own "Year in Review" recap, leading with the space agency's new leadership team.

Correction for 1 p.m. ET Dec. 22: I've done some silly things over the past few years, but confusing Earth and the moon is a new one. I've fixed the reference to NASA's planned return to the moon. Thanks to everyone who pointed out the error.

Update for 7 p.m. ET Jan. 5, 2010: The results are in, and there's not much question about your preferences for the past year's top story and the coming year's top trend.

2009's top story: NASA sends a probe called Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, crashing into the moon. Weeks later, scientists report that an analysis of the impact debris confirms the existence of "significant" reserves of water ice. This was judged one of the top science stories of the decade, so it's gotta be on this year's list.

2010's top trend: SpaceX's planned launch of the Falcon 9 rocket could have a powerful effect on the debate over NASA's future. If it works, SpaceX could help fill the gap between the shuttle's retirement and NASA's next-generation spaceship. Heck, the Falcon 9, or Orbital Sciences' Taurus, or some other private-sector rocket could essentially be NASA's next-generation spaceship. But if NASA's private-sector initiatives founder, that will add to the need for the Ares 1 ... or make America's space effort more dependent on foreign rockets.

It's worth noting that you're not alone in your assessments: VOA called LCROSS' moon-crash mission and its outcome "possibly the biggest space story this year." And this week, Aviation Week named "the space entrepreneur" its Person of the Year.

For another perspective, here are NBC News space analyst James Oberg's stories to watch during 2010:

Most space activities this year will be "more of the same" – applications satellites, research satellites, International Space Station, etc. – but there are a number of first-ever (or last-ever) space-related events that are clear on the crystal ball. Here’s my take:

1. The last space shuttle mission (probably). The year starts with a triple ripple-fire of all three orbiters: Endeavour (24th flight, Feb. 7), Discovery (38th flight, March 18), and Atlantis (32nd flight, May 14) for STS-130, 131, and 132. Then Endeavour goes again (STS-134, July 29), followed by nominally the "last" flight, of Discovery (STS-133, Sept. 16). For that mission, Atlantis will be standing by for "STS-336," to launch Dec. 2 if Discovery’s heat shield is fatally damaged during ascent and the crew is stranded on the ISS.

If there’s no emergency, the STS-336 mission, crew and vehicle become "surplus." But momentum is building to use the hardware and fly this mission (as STS-135) in early 2011 anyway, for delivery of more consumables – and accept the schedule impact if a stranded crew needs to be evacuated via Soyuz missions over the following six months. And although external tank production has stopped with the tank for STS-336, there reportedly is a spare test tank that can be converted for an additional supply flight (STS-136) in March-April 2011 if desired.

2. X-37B, The first flight of a military space plane. Sometime in April, the five-ton automated X-37B orbital space plane will be sent into orbit atop an Atlas booster, conduct maneuvers, and then glide back to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base. Expect some political and diplomatic fireworks over what this spacecraft is actually intended for – anything from "engineering development" to military space missions including combat.

3. Interplanetary probes keep on cruising, and occasionally pass interesting small objects. In July, the European probe Rosetta passes the relatively large asteroid 21 Lutetia, while NASA’s ion-drive asteroid mission Dawn continues to align itself for an orbit of the major asteroid Vesta in July 2011.  The mothership of the now-concluded Deep Impact mission, renamed EPOXI, will pass Comet Hartley 2 on Nov 4, while the Stardust probe, its primary mission successfully accomplished and its name changed to NExT, lines up for a fly-by of the interesting Comet Tempel 1 in February 2011. New Horizons, meanwhile, coasts up and out toward Pluto-Charon and ice worlds beyond, while Messenger swoops close to the sun to prepare for entering orbit around Mercury on March 19, 2011, when it will be able to observe the planet’s polar craters and search them for ice deposits thought by some astronomers to exist there. Other probes continue orbiting and observing Mars, Saturn, Venus and the moon.

4. SpaceX's Falcon 9. Elon Musk’s ambitious entry into private space transportation, this large space booster is on schedule for a flight from Cape Canaveral in March or soon afterward. The single-engine version failed three times before racking up two orbital successes, so the odds of the first flight of the nine-engine version don’t seem promising – but the rocket team is talented and devoted to learning by doing. [This week, SpaceX reported a successful full-duration orbit insertion test firing of the Falcon 9's second stage at its Texas test site.]

5. Will Phoenix revive? This probe landed on Mars on May 25, 2008, and had a very successful mission prior to arrival of winter way up north where it searched for water. It was last heard from on Nov 2, 2008,  as a dust storm cut solar power levels and winter darkness set in. The craft was tested at minus 55 degrees Celsius, the expected coldest temperature while there was enough sunlight for electrical power - but the Martian arctic winter temperatures can go down to as much as minus 126 degrees Celsius, where components can thermally contract to the point of fracturing, and carbon dioxide ice ("dry ice") on the power panels might get heavy enough to snap them off.

However, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, the company that built the craft, also integrated what it called a "Lazarus Mode" into it, which is basically the ability for Phoenix to re-energize itself if given the proper conditions. And those conditions are now improving, so NASA will start sending "hello?" signals to the probe by the middle of this month.

6. Will Hayabusa, the plucky Japanese interplanetary probe, get back to Earth – and what (if anything) is in its sample chamber? Despite limping along on only one and ‘two halves’ of its original four ion thrusters, the Japanese probe now seems well enough to reach Earth (and its landing zone in Australia) this June. But the suspense remains – when it twice touched down on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005, did its scoop pick up any soil samples at all? Success or not, the ambitious probe has been an inspiration to space explorers of all nations.

7. “Mars-500” ground simulation. The Napoleonic-era Russian general Suvorov’s favorite saying was “Battle is easy – training is hard”. For the modern Russian space program, shaking out the psychological challenges of an isolated, high-hazard interplanetary mission is best done before you start the trip – by simulating it on Earth. Sometime this summer, a joint Russian and European Space Agency team of six male astronauts will be locked into a chamber in Moscow and will pretend they are flying to Mars. Past sessions – but none this long – have revealed unexpected stresses that, after all, are best discovered in such pre-flight runs.

8. Will solar sail rise at last? LightSail-1 is supposed to fly by the end of 2010, according to its sponsors at the California-based Planetary Society. Previous attempts both by NASA and by private groups have foundered on budget cutbacks and the unreliability of military-surplus space boostersl More than half a century after it was first imagined, it’s incredible that this promising interplanetary technology has not yet actually been achieved. This year, at last – maybe.

9. Russia's GPS. GLONASS is a network of two dozen navigation satellites built by Russia to replace its own military’s embarrassing dependence of the American GPS network. The first attempt to deploy a network in space collapsed with the Soviet Union, but by the end of this year enough satellites with long-enough lifetimes ought to have been deployed to provide continuous worldwide coverage. But Moscow faces two astronomical problems back on Earth in promoting civil use of the system: Its domestic industry has proven incapable of producing the electronic components needed for affordable handsets, and its national maps are still not digitized in accurate-enough format following decades of Soviet-controlled falsification of cartographic data. Nevertheless, by the end of the year you can expect big national bragging about the eventual "completion" of the still mostly-useless space network. After all, the European Union’s own alternate to GPS, the Galileo system, is even more deeply mired in delays and diplomatic squabbles over the distribution of the work among European states.

10. SpaceShipTwo. After a gala unveiling ceremony last month (at which desert winds tore down the tents and sent guests scurrying), the first commercial spaceship begins flight tests this year, and by the end of the year should have begun reaching its maximum altitude of 65 miles, just across the legal boundary of outer space. If all goes well this will clear the way for passenger-carrying missions in 2011. And this vehicle may not be the only one of its class flying by then.

11. Russia's space workhorse upgraded. Russia will again be upgrading its venerable Soyuz crew spaceship in the fall with a new digital control system that replaces all the old analog control circuits and actuators with computer-commanded links. Late this year or early next, it will also launch a pair of Luch communications satellites to provide round-the-world space-to-space-to-Earth relay communications with the Russian segment of the International Space Station. NASA inaugurated this capability with its Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system in 1983, but a prototype Soviet system for Mir had barely been started when the Soviet collapse bankrupted the project. On the space station today, the Russians do use sporadic space-to-ground radio when over in-country tracking sites but mostly rely on (and barter for access to) the U.S. communications net, a dependence they are eager to reduce.

12. [Insert surprise vehicle here]. There are more players lurking out there, some known but tight-lipped about their plans, others still unknown. They will pull some big space surprises, to be sure – but the only prediction is that these feats cannot yet be explicitly predicted.

Don't miss the "Year in Science" and "Decade in Science" reviews from last week, and stay tuned for the Weird Science Awards later this week. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."