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The Year in Space: Politics could steer space explorers in 2015

In 2014, NASA cut some ties with Russia and announced ambitious plans for sending humans to space

Human beings and their robots continued to explore space and other planets in 2014, but they did so as Earth’s politics and economics began playing an increasing, sometimes negative, role on how they will reach space in 2015 and after.

The countdown is on to when the U.S. will exhaust its contract — the end of 2017 — with Russia for seats on its Soyuz shuttle craft on trips to the International Space Station (ISS), a $100 billion research lab that flies about 260 miles above Earth.

Moscow charges $70 million each for six roundtrip tickets until the contract is up. The ISS is a cooperative effort between 15 countries, with the U.S., Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency as the main participants.

That contract is virtually the only place in space exploration Russia and the U.S. are still cooperating. The U.S. hopes to have its own shuttle ready before the contract ends, according to NASA.

NASA’s need for another shuttle became more urgent in the spring, when the U.S. cut most extraterrestrial cooperation with Russia to punish Moscow for its involvement in Ukraine’s ongoing conflict, banning all contact between NASA officials and Russian counterparts unrelated to the ISS.

But even after U.S. sanctions on Russia were put in place, Washington cut a $457 million check to Moscow in April for six seats on the Soyuz. 

All the nations involved in the ISS project want to keep their citizens aloft in the orbital lab. Its discoveries and research have paid off in industrial design, medicine and satellite communication.

Among the notable successes and discoveries in 2014, India, a newcomer to space exploration, put a satellite in orbit around Mars at a cost of about $74 million, a feat that other, better-funded space programs, like Russia’s, have not been able to pull off.

In another first, the European Space Agency (ESA), which launched the satellite Rosetta in 2004, deployed a lander named Philae on Nov. 12 from the craft onto the icy comet, which was about 327 million miles from Earth at time of publication as it traveled through the solar system.

Scientists were hoping to better understand the origins of the solar system by examining the surface of Philae. Although the lander died after shadows blocked its solar cells, the ESA still considered the decade-long project a success as Rosetta can take care of most of the research.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning private-sector space industry saw some tragedy and rocket failure in 2014.

Because NASA retired the shuttle fleet in 2012, the agency hopes this industry can help replace its reliance on Russia for access to orbit. The agency has already signed multibillion dollar contracts to make it happen.

The United States puts more money into space than any other country. In the spending bill Congress passed Dec. 14, NASA received $500 million more than the year before, no small windfall for a budget of about $18 billion. Russia is the world’s second biggest spender, with a reported budget of about $5.6 billion.

Relatively new SpaceX, founded in 2002, and century-old aerospace manufacturer Boeing won contracts earlier this year to develop a ship to take humans to the ISS. Boeing received $4.2 billion, while SpaceX got $2.6 billion.  

On Oct. 28, Orbital Science’s fifth launch of Antares rocket for NASA exploded 15 seconds after liftoff, injuring nobody but destroying more than 5,000 pounds of supplies for the ISS. NASA had signed a $1.5 billion contract with Orbital Sciences Corp. in 2011 and some believe an outdated Russian-made engine for the American-designed rocket was to blame for the launch-pad accident.

A deadly crash marred Virgin Galactic’s year, when a suborbital flight killed a test pilot and injured one other flier. The company has vowed to press on in 2015.

NASA also successfully tested its Orion spacecraft in December.The agency plans to send the Orion capsule carrying astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and then on to Mars by the mid-2030s.

The craft, similar to Apollo capsule design from the 1960s, but with 21st century technology inside, went up, orbited twice and made a bull's-eye splashdown in the Pacific, much like its Cold War space race predecessors.

Astronomers also made triumphant discoveries, increasing the number of planets confirmed to be outside our solar system from about 1,000 to almost 1,700. Scientists are on a treasure hunt for a planet that resembles Earth in the “Goldilocks zone,” a certain distance from a blazing star that’s not too hot or too cold to be home to liquid water. They have found a growing number potential candidates since scientists started cataloging exoplanets in the late 1990s.

The American Maven mission to Mars, which entered the planet’s orbit in September, will continue to survey the red planet from above as the Curiosity rover explores the surface. NASA announced Dec. 16 that Curiosity had detected methane on Mars this fall — a sign of possible life. Scientists are deciphering what the data means.

There also might be giant diamonds floating in the atmospheres of nearby gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Companies are drawing up plans to mine asteroids for rare earth minerals.

And a Russian experiment that sent geckos aloft to study effects of weightlessness on lizard mating ended on Sept. 1, with the loss of all geckos aboard.

It's unclear if Russia and the U.S. will resolve their differences and broaden their cooperation — India's increasing interest in space exploration, with plans to launch five more satellites, could affect those decisions.

But the private sector's interest in space exploration shows no sign of abating, with teams vying for Google's $30 million Lunar X prize, which dares space enthusiasts and start-ups to launch and land a rover on the moon, accompanied by a live broadcast.

The teams’ deadline is Dec. 31, 2016.

Editor's note: This story was amended after publication to make clear that 'Philae' was the name of the Rosetta lander and not the comet itself. There was also an inaccuracy relating to the rocket used to test launch the Orion; it was not the Space Launch System as previously stated.

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