At the intersection of science and technology, 2007 was overrun by robots and space adventures.
NASA was in the spotlight this year, as scientists around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of space flight. In the 1950s, Russia's Sputnik satellite kicked off the space race, the formation of NASA, and some of the technologies that touch our lives every day. That reflection brought on questions about the future of space exploration and NASA itself--will we find other life in the universe in the next 50 years?
Meanwhile, the space agency developed future robotic and manned missions into space, including exploring asteroids and sending astronauts back to the moon by 2020. And NASA plans to test-fly the space shuttle replacement, Orion, as early as fall 2008. Robotic space probes like New Horizons, a craft that's due to arrive at Pluto by the summer of 2015, also rendered new discoveries about the solar system's largest planet, Jupiter.
The private space industry also got further off the ground this year. Private space companies including Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Robert Bigelow's Bigelow Aerospace, and Elon Musk's Space X all pulled off successful tests of their space vehicles. And tourist companies like Peter Diamandis' Space Adventures kept selling multimillion-dollar tickets to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.
NASA supported these and other experiments in the private sector. Among other prize competitions, NASA sponsored the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge, a contest to build and fly an efficient so-called air car, and the $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge, a race to build and fly a lunar rover. Next year, someone might actually win the lunar challenge, but contestants now can opt to compete in the privately funded Google Lunar X Prize.
The year's highlight in the field of robotics was clearly the DARPA Urban Challenge, the third in a series of robot car races sponsored by the defense department. Carnegie Mellon University, which raced a modified Land Rover, won the $2 million prize for first place, performing the cleanest and fastest, driving on roughly 60 miles of urban terrain. It was a milestone in the development of autonomous vehicles.
Scientists and futurists also thought about the road ahead for artificial intelligence and the potential for machines to one day outthink humans. In the meantime, iRobot and other start-ups plan to keep developing robots that can help people with everyday chores--and maybe a few scientific breakthroughs.
The Urban Challenge's competitive drama seeds the idea in people's minds that self-driving cars are possible.
Photos: DARPA Challenge
The only team competing failed to complete more than two flights, leaving the challenge unmet for another year.
Photos: X Prize rocket contest, expo
Technologies developed for planes and rockets have led to some of the most important commercial innovations to come out of California's heartland of the tech industry.
The space race started with a little thing called Sputnik. Since then, the heavens have only gotten more crowded. In this multipart series, we take a look at the state of space exploration 50 years on.
Scientists ponder next 50 years of space exploration
The space race taking shape in the private sector today is due in large part to boyhood dreams of astronauts.
Rapid advances in robot development are leading to a whole new generation of tools and toys.
The search giant, known for supporting science projects, backs a private robotic race to the moon.
Photos: Touting the Google Lunar X Prize
Technologists head to San Francisco to discuss the benefits and risks of AI and how to deal with computers that are smarter than humans.
Space agency says it's making great progress on the successor to the space shuttle, which could ultimately take astronauts back to the moon.
Images: Orion prepares for moon landing
From MIT professors to high school dropouts, humans are the driving force as the urban challenge draws closer.
Photos: Teams tune up for Urban Challenge
NASA releases details about its robotic flyby, which rendered rare glimpses of the solar system's biggest planet and one of its moons.
Images: New findings from Jupiter
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