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Year in space: Meteor blows up, comet dies — and rovers are on a roll

A meteor streaks through the skies over Siberia on Feb. 15, creating a damaging shock wave and drawing attention to the risks posed by near-Earth objects.Nasha Gazeta via AP file

The stage has been set for space ventures that will occupy our attention here on Earth for years to come — thanks to a meteoric blast over Russia, a couple of rovers on the moon and Mars, and the rise of private enterprise on the final frontier.

The top space stories aren't just about what happened in 2013: They're also about global trends in scientific discovery and technological competition. For example, China's successful moon landing could point to larger geopolitical shifts. The progress made in spaceflight by ventures such as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic could point to new economic opportunities. 

Every December since 1997, we've reviewed the top stories of the previous 12 months and the trends likely to dominate the next 12 months in space science and exploration. And we've left it up to you to decide what should lead the list. To refresh your memory, 2012's top story was the Curiosity rover's landing on Mars, and 2013's top anticipated trend was SpaceShipTwo's flight to outer space

That Virgin spaceflight hasn't happened yet, but it could be on tap for 2014. Take a look at these rundowns for the year behind and the year ahead, cast a vote for your favorites, and tell us what we're missing in the comment section:

Top stories of 2013

Meteor blast sets off alarms: A 60-foot-wide asteroid enters Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 15 and blasts apart over Chelyabinsk in Russia. The shock wave injures more than 1,200 people and triggers car alarms. It also triggers alarms for policy planners, who warn that under current circumstances, the best we can do if a large asteroid comes toward us with just a few weeks' notice is to pray. Experts offer the United Nations a plan to deal with near-Earth objects — a plan that's still under consideration. 

Mars rover points to life-friendly past: In March, the scientists in charge of NASA's Curiosity rover lay out evidence that the environment where the probe landed on Mars could have sustained life billions of years ago. Later in the year, further findings firm up those claims. Scientists also work out a method for identifying places where the evidence of ancient life has the best chance of being preserved. That will come in handy during 2014, when Curiosity is expected to reach its prime destination, a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) peak called Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp.

Voyager enters interstellar space:
After almost a year of debate, NASA confirms in September that its Voyager 1 spacecraft has become the first human-made object to reach interstellar space. Voyager is still in the sun's gravitational sphere of influence, so it would be a stretch to claim that it's left the solar system. But researchers could be busy for decades to come studying the characteristics of this strange new region through which Voyager is voyaging. 

Space science squeezed: Like other federal agencies, NASA felt the bite of October's government shutdown. The space agency also had to cope with other financial challenges: Budget sequestration forced cutbacks in education and public outreach. Rising costs for the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope led to painful budgetary choices. Planetary scientists lodged protests early in 2013, and pleaded for more funding in 2014.

Chinese rover lands on the moon: China notched another success in its human spaceflight program with its Shenzhou 10 orbital mission in June, but its biggest space achievement came in December when its Chang'e 3 robotic lander touched down on the moon, delivering a rover to the lunar surface for the first time in four decades. The Yutu rover is well into its three-month exploratory mission, and China is already planning its next lunar landing in 2017. All this has not gone unnoticed in Congress, where some are calling on the White House to pay more attention to space policy in general — and the moon in particular.

Five more: Other top stories include the perils faced by the planet-hunting Kepler probe (and perhaps its future revival), first flight of Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo spacecraft, Planck's latest baby picture of the cosmos and the Cassini orbiter's portrait of Saturn and our own "pale blue dot." This time last year, some expected Comet ISON to flare into the "comet of the century" — and although ISON fizzled, it's still expected to provide a scientific bonanza.

Top trends of 2014

Will Earth's twin be found? Even with the (hopefully temporary) loss of the Kepler spacecraft, 2013 was a banner year in the search for planets beyond our solar system. Scientists now suspect there are billions of habitable Earth-sized planets in our Milky Way galaxy, and they're getting closer to the goal of detecting an Earth-sized planet in an Earthlike orbit around a sunlike star. This time last year, some thought that milestone would come in 2013. We're not there quite yet, but will 2014 be the year? 

Will SpaceShipTwo go into space? Virgin Galactic's prototype spaceship went through its first rocket-powered test flights this year, but those flights haven't yet come anywhere close to 100 kilometers (62 miles) in altitude, the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. In 2014, will SpaceShipTwo match the height reached by its predecessor, SpaceShipOne, a decade earlier? And how much progress will other suborbital spaceship developers, including XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin, make in the coming year?

Will Maven be a hit at Mars? NASA's Maven orbiter got a great send-off to Mars in November, but the hard part comes next September, when it's due to slip into orbit for an unprecedented study of the Red Planet's upper atmosphere. If the orbital insertion maneuver works, Maven will join two rovers and three orbiters at Mars — potentially in time for Comet Siding Spring's close encounter in October.

Will NASA's Orion lift off? NASA's next-generation spaceship is scheduled for its first test flight in September. This robotically piloted version of the Orion capsule is slated to lift off atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, rise to a height of 3,600 miles, then come back down for a 20,000-mph plunge through the atmosphere and a Pacific splashdown. If the Orion works as hoped, the mission will set the stage for an unmanned flight around the moon in 2017, and eventually for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit. 

Will Rosetta put a lander on a comet? The biggest mission of the year for the European Space Agency focuses on the Rosetta probe, which is due to catch up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and drop a lander to the surface of the comet's nucleus in November. The feat has been compared to landing a parachutist of a mountaintop. "Nobody has ever done this before," says Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at the ESA.

Five more: Other trends to watch include Mars One's progress on a privately backed Red Planet exploration program aimed at sending colonists on one-way trips. If NASA's Opportunity rover is still rolling at the end of January, 10 years after its landing on Mars, that'll be a cause for celebration. Also next year, NASA will choose the spaceship companies that could send astronauts to the International Space Station starting around 2017. Skywatchers will ooh and ahh over a double dose of total lunar eclipses on April 15 and Oct. 8. And then there's the "will it or won't it" question for 2014: Will Comet 209P/LINEAR spark a brand-new meteor shower in May?

What did we miss? Feel free to weigh in with your comments about 2013's highs and lows, as well as the cosmic wonders that could crop up in 2014.

More highlights from 2013:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.