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This isn't your usual "best of 2011" list. This year, instead of sitting back and taking in the breadth of gadgetry released in 2011 and trying to parse the merits of this smartphone or that computer, we're going to tell you about the technology we're actually using that came out in 2011. For us, what you see here is the best in class because it actually impacted our technological lives in a meaningful way. Everything on this list is something we got our hands on and then continued to use, or something we've spent extensive time with and we think is important for what it represents. So kick back, take a gander at our picks, and then tell us in the comments below what technology you picked up in 2011 that you found worthwhile. Evan Ackerman, Stewart Wolpin and Raymond Wong contributed to this post.
 
Nowadays, it's almost like we take space travel for granted. Spectacular pictures come back from telescopes and space probes, and we give them a glance, maybe say "wow," and then move on to the latest news about the iPhone 5 or whatever. Over the last half century, though, our knowledge about our universe (and particularly our solar system) has increased exponentially, thanks to the development of spacecraft capable of making it to other planets and then sending back pictures when they get there. It hasn't been easy, but as milestone after milestone has been reached, our perception of our place in the cosmos has expanded.
 
We're fairly certain that we haven't yet made contact with any extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), but when we do — and yes, let's go with when — it's definitely going to be big news. What is somewhat less definite is what form that news will take: will it be beneficial to humanity, with ETI offering to solve all of our problems, or will ETI turn out to be hostile and eat our entire species for dinner? A group of scientists from Pennsylvania State University and NASA's Planetary Science division have put a lot of thought into many different scenarios of ETI interactions with humanity, and here are 17 different ways that first contact might (or might not) go.
 
The space shuttle itself is an amazing piece of technology. The statistics are simply mind-blowing: it's the most complex machine ever constructed with 2.5 million separate parts and 230 miles of wiring. Its three main engines are together more powerful than twelve Hoover Dams, and the pressure of their turbopumps could send a column of liquid hydrogen 36 miles into the sky. The shuttle can lift 25,000 pounds into orbit, and in total has carried some three million pounds of cargo and 600 people into space. It travels around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. Together, all five orbiters have logged enough miles to make it out past Jupiter. As cool as these numbers are, if you're a fan of the shuttle, you know all of this stuff already. Or if you don't, it probably doesn't surprise you. But we've scoured gigabytes of dusty and forgotten NASA websites to put together 21 epic nuggets of info about the Space Shuttle program that will surprise you, ranging from the seventh orbiter to the missing STS-13 to that time that the Soviets shot Challenger with a huge laser cannon. Yes, they really did. Read all about it in the gallery below.
 
I admit it. As many of you've suspected and accused me of over the last few months, I'm not a huge fan of Microsoft. I wouldn't exactly characterize myself as an Apple fanboy, but I'm sure others would (and have). My own view is that any attachment as fierce as "Apple fanboy" implies to anything other than a body part is emotionally unhealthy and a waste of time and energy. I have extolled Apple for its innovations, and have equally excoriated Apple for its idiocies.
 
Today's big unveiling of the new MacBook Air was overshadowed by an unveiling from 15 minutes previous. I speak, of course, of the new version of Mac OS X, that being 10.7 or "Lion." While some features seem like incremental upgrades, it represents a paradigm shift for computer operating systems — borrowing from the best parts of their children, mobile OSes.

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