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.
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.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner enters service
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.
RQ-170 in captivity
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.
Mars rover in transit
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."
Visions of an Earth-like planet
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.
Up, up, and away the electromagnetic way
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.
X-47B takes to the air
X-37B, space plane of mystery
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.
UARS in happier days
KC-46A: Fueling the future
Countdown to Stratolaunch
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."