20 projects that kept NASA hopping in 2010

NASA budget, space shuttle, commercial space development just a few big projects on the space agency?s plat

Has there been a wilder year for NASA ?  The space agency has been and continues to be in a political battle to overhaul its direction . One of its largest programs, the space shuttle, is set to retire and another, the Ares project was killed. And there have been a whole host of research projects launched or being prepped for launch. Here we try to take a look at some of the projects that NASA has focused on and where they are headed in the future.

The NASA budget: Certainly there were more contentious items on the U.S. political agenda this year but the debate over the future of NASA was right up there. The problem is the debate continues today. Reports this week say that since they were unable to pass an annual spending bill in this legislative session, Congress approved a temporary government funding measure that slides nearly $300 million from NASA's expected budget and potentially limiting action on new space exploration programs. In April, President Obama took to the heart of the NASA community today to promote his vision of the future of the space program. In a speech at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Obama said his plan for NASA will send more astronauts on more missions to more places faster and at a better cost than the plan that it replaces. While many of NASA’s new programs have begun, congressional upheaval still threatens their future.

NASA and commercial space: One of the other central debates this year was the development of commercial space systems and NASA's role in their development. NASA's Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program awarded about $475,000 to Masten and Armadillo early this year to help the companies demonstrate the flight capabilities of new vehicles. NASA also paid out millions of dollars to Blue Origin; Paragon Space Development Corporation; and Sierra Nevada Corporation for commercial development .

SpaceX emerging: Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX has to be one of the feel-good space technology stories of the year. It successfully test flew its main Falcon rocket twice and its Dragon space capsule once during 2010. While there are still at least two test flights to go, the plan is that the rocket and its Dragon capsule will ultimately be the first commercial spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit. SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to bring cargo to the International Space Station.

NASA James Webb space telescope moves toward launch: While it's not scheduled for launch in 2014, the James Webb telescope is one of NASA's biggest future projects. This year NASA engineers said they have achieved previously unheard of feat: Create from scratch the structural heart of the James Webb Space Telescope -- about 900 components that can survive more than six and a half times the force of gravity, fit in a seven foot-long carlike body that weighs almost 2,000lbs and survive -411 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures. The telescope will have a large mirror, 21.3 feet in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court, NASA stated.  The Webb satellite will reside in an orbit about 1 million miles from the Earth.

NASA: What cool future passenger aircraft will look like: Quieter, cleaner, and more fuel-efficient but not necessarily avante-guard in design would describe what NASA researchers have come up with in designing future passenger aircraft. NASA in May said an 18-month study featuring teams of aircraft experts from Boeing, Northrop, GE Aviation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used all manner of advanced technologies from alloys, ceramic or fiber composites, carbon nanotube and fiber-optic cabling to self-healing skin, hybrid electric engines, folding wings, double fuselages and virtual reality windows to come up with a series of aircraft designs that could end up taking you on a business trip by about 2030.

The International Space Station role: While there has been some debate about how the space station will be used, NASA has been looking for a few good experiments to run in space. The space agency in April said it was seeking research ideas from private entities who want to do research on board the International Space Station. NASA said it was looking to expand the use of the ISS by providing access to the lab for the conduct of basic and applied research, technology development and industrial processing to private entities -- including, but not limited to, commercial firms, non-profit institutions, and academic institutions. U.S. federal, state and local government entities, and could also propose research. How it ultimately follows up on that notion remains to be seen.

NASA's Juno :When it comes to ensuring that its upcoming Juno spacecraft can survive its mission, NASA is surrounding the spacecraft's electronic innards with titanium to ward off radiation. Juno's so-called radiation vault weighs about 200 kilograms (500 pounds), has walls that measure about a square meter (nearly 9 square feet) in area, are about 1 centimeter (a third of an inch) in thickness, and weigh 18 kilograms (40 pounds). About the size of an SUV's trunk - the vault encloses Juno's command and data handling box, power and data distribution unit and about 20 other electronic assemblies, according to NASA.

The Mars mission: Mars occupies a lot of NASA's time. Key happenings this year included the space agency's Mars Odyssey satellite setting the record for longest exploration of the red planet. The orbiting satellite has been watching Mars for 3,340 days. NASA also said its twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have become the first NASA space mission to use cloud computing for daily mission operations. Spirit is stuck in the Mars mud and may be toast. Opportunity is trundling on .

The Mars mission part 2: NASA calls the Mars Science Laboratory, which is expected to operate for at least two years, the biggest astrobiology mission to Mars ever. The Mars Science Laboratory rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life. NASA says its next generation Mars rover should launch as part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2011 and land on the red planet by late 2012.

NASA funded research finds arsenic-loving bug: One of the biggest, most controversial stories of the year. NASA in December said a team of its researchers has discovered a bacteria that can live and reproduce mostly using highly toxic arsenic rather than one of the basic building blocks of life, phosphorus (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the others in case you forgot your biology). The finding could prompt scientists to rethink what their definition of "life" could be on Earth but also on what planets could be "habitable" in the solar system.

NASA's next big space rocket: NASA in November said it will spread $7.5 million across 13 companies to research the systems needed for its next heavy launch space rocket. NASA said it will use the recommendations from these companies to evaluate heavy-lift launch vehicle concepts and propulsion technologies that will help lay the groundwork for the rocket that could launch humans to asteroids, Lagrange points, the moon and Mars.

NASA wants more hypersonic spaceship research: NASA in November said it was looking for more research and development of hypersonic spacecraft that could travel at incredible speeds -- in the neighborhood of Mach 20 -- in space and land on other planets. Specifically, NASA issued a call for research on what it called "air-breathing access to space and entry, descent and landing of high-mass vehicles in planetary atmospheres."

NASA: Moon has chemistry to be human space outpost : It now seems plausible that if NASA or another international space agency wanted to, it could build a human or even a spacecraft refueling outpost on the Moon. NASA in September released new research obtained from its Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which slammed into the Moon last year as part of an experiment to find out what the orb was really made of. The impact of the $80 million LCROSS satellites into the Lunar surface created an ice-filled a debris plume that NASA scientists have been working "28 hour days" to analyze.

NASA New Horizons satellite taking aim at Pluto: Overcoming a couple "stressful" hiccups, NASA's New Horizons satellite mission to Pluto has reached the halfway mark. Launched in January 2006, the New Horizons satellite has been hurtling toward Pluto at about 50,000 mph. Even at that rate the 1,054-pound satellite will get it close to the dwarf planet sometime around July 2015.

NASA preps ultimate Sun mission: NASA in September said it had picked five experiments that will ride aboard one of its most ambitious space missions to explore the Sun. The Solar Probe, a car-sized spacecraft, is scheduled to launch no later than 2018 and will fly closer to the Sun's surface than any other probe, NASA stated. Ultimately the spacecraft's goals are to help scientists understand why the sun's outer atmosphere is so much hotter than the sun's visible surface and what propels the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system, NASA said.

NASA Kepler looking for life: NASA's star gazing Kepler space telescope in August discovered two Saturn-sized exoplanets that are crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star. NASA reported earlier the Kepler space telescope spotted five new planets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system. The five planets are called "hot Jupiters" because of their deep mass and extreme temperatures, NASA said. Numerous discoveries are expected from Kepler in the coming year as the system watches more than 156,000 stars as part of an ongoing search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system.

In search of Moon bots: NASA this year began looking for small robotic landers it can operate on the Moon. NASA said the idea behind its Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program is to "obtain data and gather knowledge that reduces risks for future human and robotic lander designs by employing these missions as unique demonstration testbeds." The ILDD announcement will result in multiple small contracts with a total value up to $30.1 million through 2012, NASA stated. Astrobotic Technology, Dynetics, and Moon Express have been awarded contracts so far to continue research.

NASA amps up wicked cool competitive prize program: NASA this year greatly expanded its public prize competition program known as the Centennial Challenges. The space agency announced $5 million worth of new competitions to develop robots, small satellites and solar-powered spacecraft. Since 2005, NASA has conducted 19 competition events in six challenge areas and awarded $4.5 million to 13 teams. NASA challenges are managed with significant partners such as the X Prize Foundation, Northrop Grumman and others. Here we take a look at previous Challenges and the new programs to come.

The Hubble Space Telescope : celebrated its 20th year of taking snapshots of the universe and it continues to amaze. NASA this year said it was looking to crowdsource new galaxy images and promote social network celebrations.

NASA identifies Top Ten space junk missions: While the new U.S. National Space Policy has given NASA and the Defense Department, new impetus to work toward removing space debris, the space agency in July outlined the top 10 reasons so much junk is out there in the first place. NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office this month said that while over 4,700 space missions have taken place worldwide since the beginning of what it called the Space Age, only 10 missions account for one-third of all cataloged objects currently in Earth orbit and of that, six of these 10 debris-producing events occurred within the past 10 years. Debris from China the U.S. and former Soviet Union spacecraft make up the majority of junk floating in space. Approximately 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm are known to exist, NASA stated.

NASA solar satellite flashes first Sun images: NASA in April showed off the amazing first pictures of the Sun taken from its new 6,800lb Solar Dynamics Observatory flying at an orbit 22,300 miles above Earth. The first images show a variety of activity NASA says provide never-before-seen detail of material streaming outward and away from sunspots. Others show extreme close-ups of activity on the sun's surface. The spacecraft also has made the first high-resolution measurements of solar flares in a broad range of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

NASA sets date for space shuttle finale?: The venerable space shuttle program is crankily nearing its end. Cracks in its external fuel tank are delaying the launch of what could be the final space shuttle into February 2011. The space shuttle is still expected to retire in 2011 after almost 30 years of service. NASA will fly astronauts onboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft after 2011.