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The year in space

ESO
An image from the European Southern Observatory
shows a three-galaxy merger known as the Cosmic
Bird or the "Tinker Bell Triplet." Click on the image
for a bigger view, or click here for more from ESO.


When historians look back at 2007 - the 50th anniversary of the start of the first space race - they may well pick this date as the start of a second international space race.

The past year's developments may not have brought one event as dramatic as Sputnik's launch back in 1957. But when you start looking at the highlights, the big picture points to a complex international effort aimed at pushing forward on the final frontier.

The past year provided plenty of examples of scientific cooperation as well as strategic competition in space. Which trend will dominate in 2008? That's one of the big questions ahead.

2007 marks the 10th anniversary for our annual Year in Space roundup, in which we ask msnbc.com's users to help us pick the top developments of the past year and the top trends for the year to come. Last year, I think the voters got it exactly right: You said this year's big trend would be the proliferation of international space missions, including the first lunar probes sent out by China and Japan.

Those missions signaled a friendly space race aimed at scientific exploration. But the past year brought more worrisome developments as well, headed by China's shootdown of one of its own satellites in January. Beijing has insisted that its space aspirations are totally peaceful; nevertheless, the incident sparked fresh concerns about future anti-satellite battles.

Highlighting the strategic value of its satellites, the Pentagon conducted its own tests of a satellite rendezvous system this summer and moved forward with plans for a new generation of spy satellites. Russia's leaders, meanwhile, harbored suspicions about what the Pentagon was up to.

Speaking of Russia, that country's space program appears to be slowly rebuilding as well, fueled by oil money as well as renewed national pride, in part spurred by the Sputnik anniversary. Forward-looking highlights include last month's announcement on the construction of a new Far East spaceport and the upcoming Russian-Chinese mission to a Martian moon.

When the subject turns from global competition in space to cooperation, the best symbol is shining in the sky most nights nowadays. The international space station grew brighter over the past year, thanks to newly installed solar panels - and the orbital outpost is due to become even more international next year with the arrival of Europe's Columbus orbital laboratory and the first pieces of Japan's Kibo lab.

NASA / ESA
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The space station isn't the only place where science is going international: Ground-based and space-based astronomy is an increasingly international game as well, illustrated by the picture of a "cosmic bird" gracing the top of this page. The picture, showing a rare triple merger of galaxies 650 million light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius, was taken by a telescope built in Chile and managed by Europeans. The resulting image was fleshed out using additional data from South Africa, Finland and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

Every week brings astronomical revelations from international collaborations - ranging from the two most famous U.S.-European space probes, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini orbiter at Saturn, to what's essentially a scientific Olympic village of telescopes on Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano.

So where does the United States stand in this arena? For now, NASA is still setting the pace - but the agency's top officials are looking over their shoulders. Administrator Mike Griffin's recently observed that "China will be back on the moon before we are," and America's space effort is facing what could be a troubling spaceflight gap between the scheduled retirement of ths shuttle fleet in 2010 and the first flight of the Orion crew vehicle in 2013 or later.

Congressional watchdogs have already raised questions about NASA's plans for Orion's launch vehicle. What's more, the newly passed omnibus spending bill could cause problems for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, which is NASA's $500 million Plan B for resupplying the space station.

The worst-case scenario could leave California-based SpaceX as the only NASA-funded company building an orbital spaceship for the 2010-2013 time frame, space industry consultant Charles Lurio observed. "As much as I like SpaceX, and I like them a lot, we can't leave them in the field as the only one tackling the most ambitious and most visible symbol of a new space project," Lurio told me.

Griffin has already signaled that he won't abandon COTS.

"We will, of course, comply with the laws that are passed, but we certainly will redress this issue with Congress," he said in an agency statement. "NASA will fight for this program, which is critically important to America's future as a spacefaring nation. COTS is intended to help spur the development of commercial space capability, particularly transportation services to and from the international space station, which would enhance strategic U.S. access to Earth orbit and ultimately provide substantial savings to taxpayers."

Looking beyond COTS, I'd have to say that the past year has been tougher than expected for spaceflight entrepreneurs. July's fatal accident at a Mojave rocket test site cast a pall over Scaled Composites' efforts to develop the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for Virgin Galactic's space tourism service. The timetables for spaceship development had to be set back, not only for Virgin Galactic, but for other companies as well. Perhaps next year will be the breakout year.

And speaking of next year ...

Every December since 1997, we've presented five prospects for the top space stories of the year that's ending - and five potential trends for the year to come. It's up to you to decide the winner in each category. The international space race may have served as an overarching theme for the year, but there are plenty of highlights (and lowlights) to choose from:

Now for the top trends of 2008:

  • Assault on Mars: The Phoenix Mars lander is due to touch down in May, beginning a search for water and life's other building blocks in the Red Planet's north polar region. Meanwhile, the never-say-die Spirit and Opportunity rovers seem likely to start their fifth Earth year of exploring the Martian surface.

  • Fixing Hubble: NASA's final Hubble servicing mission, set for August or later, could be the most-watched shuttle flight ever. 

  • Space station spurt: If future shuttle flights follow NASA's timetable, the international space station will grow to include those European and Japanese laboratories by the end of the year, setting the stage for doubling the outpost's crew capacity in 2009.

  • New Space gets real? The dawning of the age of commercial passenger space travel has been two years away for at least a decade now. Will the next year bring the rollout of an actual passenger-worthy spaceship? Or will the new age still be two years away in 2009? 

  • Next step at Saturn: The Cassini orbiter's four-year primary mission at Saturn is due to end in July, and everyone expects the mission to be extended for a closer look at two Saturnian moons: Titan, which has mountains and hydrocarbon lakes; and Enceladus, which boasts geysers of water ice. Don't forget to vote for Saturn's greatest hits by Dec. 30.

  • ... And more: A total solar eclipse will draw astronomers from around the world to the Arctic, Russia, Mongolia and China on Aug. 1. After this year's partly successful test flight, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its Falcon 1 rocket on what could be its first orbital flight in early 2008, and then give the larger Falcon 9 its maiden launch later in the year. If I'm forgetting anything else, just let me know below.

Now it's your turn.

Go to our Live Vote page and register your vote for the top space story of 2007 and the top trend for 2008. I'll amend this item on Jan. 2 to reflect the winners.

I'm not planning any new postings to the Log between now and then, although I'll be checking in on the comments and passing along your perspectives - not only on the year in space, but on the Weird Science Awards and our annual science and religion symposium as well. So here's wishing you a Merry Christmas, a joyous Kwanzaa, a Blessed Muharram and a Happy New Year. And a fantastic Festivus for the rest of us.

Update for 2:45 a.m. Dec. 22: I fixed a reference to COTS to read "million" instead of "billion" - let's hope I don't get a lump of coal in my stocking because of that gaffe.

Update for 9:30 p.m. Jan. 16: I listed the winners in a different posting on Jan. 2, but just to keep the record straight, the top stories of 2007 were China's space ambitions and the explosion in extrasolar planets. The top trend to watch in 2008? Paying a final service call to the Hubble Space Telescope, naturally. Thanks to all who voted.