In this final part of our look back at 2011, we focus on space, followed by transport and infrastructure.
12th April 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight – exactly half a century since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. This milestone was celebrated by space enthusiasts around the world, and gave pause for thought as to what the next 50 years might have in store.
No film exists showing what Gagarin saw from his Vostok capsule; there is only an audio recording of his observations. However, a documentary called First Orbit was filmed to mark the anniversary. By matching the orbit of the International Space Station to that of Vostok 1 as closely as possible, in terms of ground path and time of day, this movie shows what Yuri Gagarin saw on his pioneering orbital space flight. This new footage was cut together with the original Vostok 1 mission audio recordings, sourced from the Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation.
2011 saw a total of 84 orbital launches, with 80 successfully reaching orbit. 35 were conducted using Russian and former Soviet rockets, whilst China conducted 19 and the USA 18. Europe conducted five launches, India and Japan launched three rockets each, and Iran conducted one launch.
Among the most high-profile launches of 2011 was STS-135, the final mission of the Space Shuttle program before its retirement, following 30 years of service. This leaves NASA dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles to carry its astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. However, the agency hopes private companies can provide this service in five years or so.
China continued to demonstrate its proficiency in space, as it successfully docked two spacecraft in Earth orbit for the first time. These modules – Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1 – were key stages in the development of a much larger space station, intended for completion by 2022.
China also activated its Compass navigation system – a rival to the American Global Positioning System (GPS), offering navigation services on China’s mainland. Also known as Beidou-2, the system is expected to offer global coverage by 2020.
Europe also made progress towards its own independent satellite navigation system, as the first two Galileo satellites were launched by the European Space Agency.
A significant increase in the Sun’s activity was observed in 2011, with a huge solar flare in August. Solar maximum – the period of greatest activity during its 11-year cycle – will be reached in 2013.
2011 saw the first orbit of Mercury by a spacecraft (previous missions had been “slingshot” flybys only). This was achieved by a NASA probe called MESSENGER. It had already mapped 98% of the planet’s surface in 2009 – including the previously unseen far side – and in 2011 it revealed a number of new discoveries. Among these were the unexpectedly high concentrations of magnesium and calcium found on Mercury’s night side, and the fact that its magnetic field is offset far to the north of the planet’s centre. Following in the footsteps of MESSENGER, Europe and Japan will launch BepiColombo in 2014, a joint mission that is scheduled to arrive in 2020.
Venus Express – the first exploration of Venus by ESA – revealed new data in 2011. The planet was found to have an ozone layer in its upper atmosphere. Previously, ozone layers had only been detected in the atmospheres of Earth and Mars.
NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory in 2011. Scheduled to arrive in August 2012, this will deploy the largest rover to ever touch down on Mars. Nicknamed Curiosity, it will include the first video camera to be used on Mars. An HD-quality film of the probe’s descent through the atmosphere will also be recorded, giving a spectacular view of the Martian landscape below.
Meanwhile, six men emerged from the MARS-500 experiment which aimed to simulate a manned mission to Mars. The project, undertaken at a Moscow scientific institute, was intended to reveal how the human mind and body would cope with the isolation of long-duration space travel. The experiment ended with all of the participants in good physical and psychological condition.
NASA announced the development of a major new rocket in 2011 – the Space Launch System. In addition to providing transportation to the International Space Station – via the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle – it could eventually take astronauts to Mars. A first unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2017, with a manned flight around the Moon planned for 2019. This timeline is based on a “worst case” budget, meaning it could happen even sooner.
The world’s first commercial spaceport was opened in 2011 – Spaceport America, located in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico, USA. This will offer sub-orbital spaceflights to the paying public, reaching heights of nearly 70 miles (112 km), with passengers experiencing up to six minutes of zero-G. More than 400 reservations have already been made, at $200,000 per head. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is among the companies involved. In a separate development, another company announced plans for the first lunar tourist and said that it had already secured a client.
2011 saw the first orbit of Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System. This was visited by the Dawn probe which returned spectacular pictures. The craft will rendezvous with Ceres in 2015. It is hoped that this mission will reveal much about the early history and formation of the Solar System.
The Juno probe was launched in 2011. Arriving in 2016, this will study Jupiter in greater detail than was ever before possible. Placed in a polar orbit, it will analyse the planet’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field and polar magnetosphere – searching for clues about how Jupiter formed, the amount of water present in the deep atmosphere, how the planet’s mass is distributed and confirming whether it has a rocky core. It will also study Jupiter’s deep winds, which can reach speeds of 370 mph (600 km/h).
The Cassini–Huygens mission, originally launched back in 1997, continued to return data in 2011, performing over a dozen flybys of Saturn and its moons. It will continue to operate until 2017 when it is crashed directly into Saturn.
Meanwhile, New Horizons reached another milestone as it passed the orbit of Uranus. The probe is scheduled to reach Pluto in 2015 and will obtain the first close-range images of the planet, together with its moons. A fourth moon of Pluto was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope last year.
2011 was a phenomenal year for exoplanets, with a rich haul of discoveries by Kepler and other observatories. Among the many exciting finds was the first confirmed world in a habitable zone – the region around a star where a planet can maintain liquid water on its surface. 2012 looks set to be an even bigger year as thousands of candidate planets are confirmed. With telescopes becoming ever larger and more sophisticated, together with exponentially increasing data analysis and processing capabilities, part of the Drake Equation might actually be solved in the not-too-distant future. Desert planets are probably the more common type of habitable planet in our galaxy, rather than watery planets such as Earth, according to Japanese researchers.
Three astrophysicists won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their observations of distant supernovae, which provided evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Their work led to the concept of dark energy.
Progress was also made at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, where researchers announced the first clear observation of a new fundamental particle – believed to be the Higgs boson. If confirmed in 2012, this could answer one of the biggest questions in physics: how matter gets it mass.
The Large Hadron Collider made a further breakthrough in 2011 – producing a quark-gluon plasma which was the densest form of matter ever observed. This recreated the early conditions of the universe as it might have been during the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.
There were many spectacular space photos in 2011. You can view some of the best ones here.
Transport and Infrastructure
On 30th June 2011, the Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway was officially opened. This connects two major economic zones in China – the Bohai Economic Rim and the Yangtze River Delta – with trains running at 300 km/h (186 mph). It became the world’s longest high-speed line ever constructed in a single phase, with a total length of 1,318 km (819 miles). Over 130,000 construction workers and engineers were at work at the peak of the construction phase. It also includes some of the world’s longest bridges.
On the very same day that Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway was opened, another massive project was also completed – the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge. Located in China’s eastern Shandong province, this roadway bridge is 42.5 kilometres (26.4 miles) long, making it the world’s longest bridge over water by aggregate length according to the Guinness World Records. It is designed to be earthquake- and typhoon-proof.
China also announced plans for the largest airport in the world – Beijing Daxing International Airport – which will be capable of handling up to 200 million passengers a year. It has a planned completion date of October 2017, and will be connected to the centre of Beijing via high-speed rail.
Meanwhile, the Russian government approved plans for a true “mega project” – a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait that would physically connect Asia with North America. If completed by 2045, this would allow passengers to board a train in London and take a direct trip to New York City, via Moscow and Yakutsk.
Though still modest in numbers, hybrid and pure-electric vehicles saw notable growth in sales during 2011. In the UK, for example, nearly eight times as many pure-electric cars were purchased compared with 2010. More than 17,000 plug-in vehicles were delivered to the US market. At present, the main disadvantage of these cars – aside from their high cost – is the long charge times the batteries need, and their short battery life. However, a number of new technologies and materials are now emerging, such as highly porous Aluminum-Celmet being developed in Japan. The price of batteries could drop 50% by 2018, say German researchers.
Even aeroplanes are beginning to go green. In June, KLM became the first airline in the world to provide flights using biofuel. It was joined by Lufthansa and Finnair, the latter conducting a 1,500 km journey between Amsterdam and Helsinki, the longest flight to date using biofuel.
A long-range, solar-powered plane – Solar Impulse – made its first international flight, travelling a distance of 630 km (391 mi), with an average speed of 50 km/h (31 mph). It will attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 2014.
2011 saw the “topping out” of Tokyo Sky Tree, which became the tallest free-standing tower in the world. This huge new landmark stands 634 metres (2,080 ft) high. It will serve as a digital broadcasting tower for media companies in Japan, as well as providing a restaurant and observation deck for the public.
In New York, the new World Trade Center began to make its mark on the skyline. By December, it had reached the 90th floor, with construction progressing at one floor per week. The entire complex (including the other towers) is scheduled to be finished by 2014. The tower was specially illuminated to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Kingkey 100 – a supertall skyscraper in Shenzhen – was opened in September 2011. This stands 442 metres (1,449 ft) high and contains 100 floors of hotel and office space. A much taller building – the Shanghai Tower – is now under construction and planned for completion in 2014. At 632 metres (2,073 ft), it will become the tallest building in China and the second tallest in the world – surpassed only by the 830m (2,723 ft) Burj Khalifa.
Meanwhile, it was announced that a contract had been signed for construction of the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah – the first skyscraper to break the kilometre-high mark. Groundwork appears to be getting underway already, with completion expected by 2017.
Many other supertall skyscrapers were under construction or being proposed in 2011. One tower receiving particular attention was London’s Shard – a controversial project, in a city that has traditionally been associated with a low-rise skyline.