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Mir, Mars, meteors highlight year in space

Doomed Mir flies over its watery grave.
Doomed Mir flies over its watery grave.  

By Richard Stenger
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- One space station drops into the ocean and another rises in the sky. A probe lands on an asteroid while a second bids farewell from deep space. A tourist goes into orbit. A NASA chief calls it quits.

These are just some of the big stories that came from the heavens in the year 2001, which witnessed a dramatic expansion in our scientific understanding and a sobering contraction in space funding.

Ten of the most significant space stories since the Earth last reached its current position in orbit around the sun, in no particular order, are as follows:

The aging Russian Space Station Mir in March circled the Earth for a final time and, following a descent controlled by flight managers in Moscow, plunged into the Pacific Ocean. During its 15 years of service, the modular complex had survived a large fire and major collision. It also hosted a stream of cosmonauts and astronauts and broke an unprecedented number of space flight records.

The Near-Shoemaker touched down in February on the surface of the asteroid Eros and radioed back to Earth, despite having no landing gear. The unlikely docking followed a yearlong orbit of the Manhattan-sized space rock, during which the probe beamed back thousands of photos, flyover movies and data that promise to puzzle researchers for decades.

NEAR-Shoemaker beams back one final image as it lands.
NEAR-Shoemaker beams back one final image as it lands.  

California investment fund manager Dennis Tito paid for perhaps the most expensive vacation in this or any other universe, parallel or otherwise: an almost $20 million excursion to the international space station. The onetime NASA rocket scientist weathered blistering criticism from his former employer. But Tito had arranged the trip with the Russian space agency and tagged along with two cosmonauts to the station in April.

The international space station has experienced smooth transitions between four different crews during the past year. But with billions of dollars in cost overruns and NASA facing increasingly shrinking budgets, the unfinished space station Alpha will probably fall far short of the original designs, a gloomy prospect that particularly worries other nations involved in the project.

The longest-serving NASA chief stepped down in November. Dan Goldin weathered serious highs and lows while at the helm, the fruition of the international space station and the disappearance within months of two Mars probes. He advanced the mantra of "faster, better, cheaper," but his successor Sean O'Keefe, a veteran budget cutter for GOP administrations, thinks the agency has not worked cheaply enough.

The third time was the charm for NASA. After the loss of the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter in late 1999, the agency succeeded in October in placing the Mars 2001 Odyssey in orbit around the red planet. The satellite, which joins the Mars Global Surveyor in the Martian skies, should soon begin mapping the surface mineral composition and searching for evidence of water.

Solar eclipse sports a 'diamond ring.'
Solar eclipse sports a 'diamond ring.'  

The search for distant worlds became much more sophisticated in 2001. Astronomers spotted at least eight new extrasolar planets with circular orbits. Moreover, for the first time, they observed the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system and detected evidence of watery bodies in another star system.

Deep Space 1 was mothballed in space after it successfully tested one dozen advanced technologies. Many could prove instrumental to future space travel, in particular, an ion-drive engine that powered the NASA probe during its three-year scientific mission, which culminated in September when it flew within 1,350 miles (2,160 km) of comet Borrelly.

The Leonids roared over much of the world one unforgettable night in November. This edition of the annual meteor storm, perhaps the best of a generation, sent thousands of streaking points of light across the sky each hour in some places, including a handful of monsters bright enough to read by.

The first total solar eclipse of the millennium awed onlookers across central Africa in June. In some places totality extended beyond three minutes. Some veteran eclipse watchers said the sun and moon combo produced one the longest "diamond ring" effects they had ever seen.




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