The top 11 flying machines of 2011 (images)

It was a monumental year for aircraft and spacecraft, as Boeing's Dreamliner carried passengers for the first time and the space shuttle landed for the final time. Plus: drones, drones, drones.

Jon Skillings
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
1 of 11 NASA

Shuttle Atlantis returns home

Here at CNET, we're big fans of things that go zoom through the skies. It doesn't much matter whether the flying machine hovers close to the earth, soars across the stratosphere, or heads off in the farther reaches of space, we'll always stop to gaze and to reflect upon the marvel, even after all these years, of breaking away from the embrace of Mother Earth. So without further ado, we give you a look back at some of the most significant aerospace events and accomplishments of 2011.

After 30 years and 135 missions, NASA put an end to its space shuttle program with the final mission of the Atlantis, seen here landing in Florida on July 21. "Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, it's place in history secured, the space shuttle pulls into port for the last time, its voyage at an end," mission control commentator Rob Navias said on that occasion.

Like many shuttle missions before it--Discovery and Endeavour also recorded their final missions this year--this flight of the Atlantis ferried supplies to the International Space Station. Over the decades, the five shuttles in NASA's fleet took more than 3.5 million pounds of cargo into orbit, ranging from humble provisions to the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttles remain the only reusable manned spacecraft ever built.

2 of 11 Boeing

Boeing 787 Dreamliner enters service

In October, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner finally went from a dream, a prototype, a test plane, and a show-off to a fully functional, passenger-carrying commercial airliner. On October 25, it flew a charter flight, in the service of All Nippon Airways, from Tokyo to Hong Kong with around 230 passengers tucked into its upholstered seats. That milestone was supposed to have been reached in May 2008.

With some justification, Boeing has proclaimed the 787 the "first all-new airplane of the 21st century," despite its rather conventional design. A lot of that has to do with the heavy use of composite materials in its main structure, along with a bevy of high-tech features including sensors and controls designed to minimize turbulence. The Dreamliner is also designed to be notably quieter and significantly more fuel-efficient.
3 of 11 Iranian TV via BBC/Screenshot by CNET

RQ-170 in captivity

As the year wound down, the biggest aviation story centered on a much smaller machine, and one that until that point had been as much in the shadows as the space shuttle and the Dreamliner were in the limelight. In early December, a drone aircraft, apparently an RQ-170 Sentinel that the U.S. Air Force describes as a "low observable unmanned aircraft system" designed for reconnaissance and surveillance, made an unplanned landing in Iran.

For the U.S., it was an unwelcome turn of events for a stealthy UAS that would seem to have been on a furtive intelligence-gathering mission. For Iran, it was a chance both to boast about the country's tech credentials--an Iranian engineer told the Christian Science Monitor that the aircraft had been brought down intentionally through a hack of the aircraft's GPS technology--and to bolster them, as the RQ-170 gets poked, probed, and perhaps eventually reverse-engineered.
4 of 11 NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars rover in transit

The saga of NASA's next-generation Mars rover began on November 26 with the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, the all-encompassing name of the mission that centers on a six-wheeled, nuclear-powered vehicle called Curiosity. Much, much, much remains to come. The Curiosity rover won't arrive on the Red Planet until August, but the project is already under way. Even as it's packed in a spacecraft (see artist's rendering above) for the 350-million-mile interplanetary journey, Curiosity is already taking measurements that NASA says will help lay the groundwork for human missions to Mars that lie much further in the future.

An instrument aboard the rover called the Radiation Assessment Detector is monitoring high-energy atomic and subatomic particles from the sun and beyond. "RAD is serving as a proxy for an astronaut inside a spacecraft on the way to Mars," Don Hassler, RAD's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement. "The instrument is deep inside the spacecraft, the way an astronaut would be. Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars."
5 of 11 NASA

Visions of an Earth-like planet

When, for the first time ever, astronomers confirm the existence of an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a sunlike star, the spacecraft that makes such a moment possible is almost an afterthought. As December got under way, NASA revealed that its Kepler space telescope had detected telltale signs of a planet in the presumably habitable zone of a star 600 light years from Earth.

Given its proximity to that star and given the star's size and heat, the planet Kepler-22b could be balmy indeed. "If the greenhouse warming were similar on this planet, its surface temperature would be something like 72 Fahrenheit, a very pleasant temperature here on Earth," NASA researcher Bill Borucki said. That's hardly the only if. NASA still needs to determine, for instance, whether Kepler-22b is rocky like Earth, rather than gaseous or liquid.
6 of 11 U.S. Navy

Up, up, and away the electromagnetic way

Here again, the news is less about a specific vehicle than about something else: in this case, a catapult.

This isn't the medieval kind of catapult that launches big rocks against castle walls; rather it's the kind used on aircraft carriers to help get jet fighters and other planes up in the air from a very short runway. And this isn't the traditional steam-driven carrier catapult. This is the EMALS, the all-new electromagnetic aircraft launch system under development for the U.S. Navy for eventual deployment on the next-generation aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

In late November, for the very first time, this ground-based test version of the cutting-edge EMALS launched an F-35C, which is itself a next-generation (and wildly expensive, technologically challenged) strike fighter aircraft.
7 of 11 Northrop Grumman

X-47B takes to the air

Also due for a rendezvous with an aircraft carrier is the X-47B drone, being built by Northrop Grumman. The U.S. Navy wants to demonstrate in 2013 that an unmanned, tailless, strike fighter-size aircraft, capable of autonomous flight, can land on and take off from a carrier. (A year after that, it also wants to demonstrate unmanned aerial refueling with the X-47B.) The first step--or leap--along the way came in February 2011, when the first X-47B prototype made its debut flight, a 29-minute event that took place at the dry-land location of Edwards Air Force Base in California.
8 of 11 U.S. Air Force

X-37B, space plane of mystery

Don't let the similarity in names confuse you--the X-47B of the previous slide is very different from the X-37B, above. True, both are unmanned flying machines, but the U.S. Air Force's X-37B is designed to venture all the way into space. (If it strikes you as reminiscent of the space shuttle, that's no coincidence, really. Once upon a time, it was a NASA program, with roots in the space agency's lifting-body research, much like the shuttle.)

In 2010, the X-37B became the first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own. In March 2011, it went up again on an equally mysterious mission, and it remains there today--its flight having been extended beyond the 270 days originally intended.
9 of 11 NASA

UARS in happier days

In September, NASA's decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite obeyed one of the most primitive laws of physics: what goes up must come down. The 6.3-ton UARS had been in orbit some 20 years, having been delivered there in 1991 by the shuttle Discovery. (The photo here shows the satellite being deployed via the shuttle's Remote Manipulator System arm.) There was much hand-wringing and hype ahead of its return to Earth. But in the end, the ozone-layer-studying UARS--or rather, pieces of it--seem to have been strewn uneventfully about the Pacific Ocean.
10 of 11 Boeing

KC-46A: Fueling the future

Strictly speaking, aerial tankers aren't considered combat aircraft. But for the better part of a decade, the U.S. Air Force's quest for a next-generation tanker had settled into a kind of bureucratic trench warfare pitting U.S.-based Boeing against the Europe-rooted EADS North America. Hostilities finally ceased in March after the Pentagon picked Boeing and EADS conceded defeat. Under a long-term arrangement that could eventually be worth $30 billion, Boeing will eventually build 179 new KC-46A tankers. (See the artist's rendering above, which also shows an F-35 approaching for refueling.) Among the selling points of the KC-46A, Boeing cites a "modern, digital flight deck" that's based on the electronic displays in its 787 Dreamliner.
11 of 11 Stratolaunch

Countdown to Stratolaunch

With the space shuttle fleet now in retirement, NASA is looking to the private sector to pick up where the government agency left off in delivering astronauts and cargo into orbit. Against that backdrop, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan in December unveiled their new company, Stratolaunch, and its massive mothership-rocketship combination.

Their plan calls for the twin-fuselage, six-engine aircraft to fly to an altitude of 30,000 feet, then launch a SpaceX rocket that would go the rest of the way into space. Allen and Rutan, you may recall, were behind SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the $10 million Ansari X prize as the first private-sector manned vessel to reach space and return. Allen says the goal is to get the new spacecraft into orbit by the end of the decade. In the bigger picture, the goal is to create an object of national pride: "It will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow's children something to search for in the night sky and dream about."

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