Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

Halloween Comets!

No fewer than four bright-ish comets greet skywatchers an hour before the start of dawn. From upper left counterclockwise: C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, 2P/Encke, C/2012 X1 and ISON. Credits: Gerald Rhemann, Damian Peach, Gianluca Masi and Gerald RhemannToday, the early morning was greeted by the arrival of not one, not two, not three, but four comets! And interestingly enough, even astronomers were surprised. For months now, they have known that the comets ISON and 2P/Encke would be gracing the morning sky on October 31st, but no one predicted that they’d be joined by C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), and C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) as well.

These two comets – the former being discovered by  Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy back in September and the latter being a somewhat obscure character, presented a rare opportunity to stargazers everywhere. The appearance of four comets at the same time in the night sky is a rare phenomenon indeed. The fact that it coincides with Halloween? Well, the word spooky comes to mind…

https://i2.wp.com/d1jqu7g1y74ds1.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Halloween-comets-4_edited-11.jpgThe appearance of C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) was especially surprising given how sudden it was. In the past few days, the otherwise obscure comet has brightened by a factor of more than 200. Almost overnight, a comet found on precious few observing lists became bright enough to see in binoculars. Hence, comet trackers all over the world were sure to get up extra early to see it. But brightest of all was Comet Lovejoy, which reached magnitude 8.

As for Encke and C/2012 X1, astronomers were well prepared for their arrival. Encke’s appearance is predictable, since it treks around the sun every 3.3 years like clockwork and is often well placed for viewing. Because of its short period, dedicated comet watchers meet up with it a half dozen or more times during their lives. And due to its brightness, which tends to fall into the magnitude 7.5-8 range, binoculars are often all one needs to see it.

https://i0.wp.com/d1jqu7g1y74ds1.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/ISON-Damian-Oct.-27-580x403.jpgComet C/2012 X1 is not usually visible in the night sky. But thanks to an eruption of fresh, dust-laden ices from its surface that blasted into space to form a gigantic glowing sphere that vaulted the comet’s magnitude 250 times to a voluminous 7.5, astronomers were expecting it to make an appearance alongside Encke this Autumn.

For those still interested in spotting these shooting stars, Comet Lovejoy will continue to brighten throughout November to the point where it can be seen by the naked eye. Small telescope users will continue to be able to see the comet with ease, as well as the gas tail that it is developing. Encke will also reach its peak magnitude for viewing by Nov. 21st as it chases the into the glare of morning twilight.

All you need is a telescope, a good set of binoculars, or a keen pair of eyes. And while we’re at it, I’d just like to remind people that this sort of conjunction does NOT portend doom! If anything, its a rare privilege, and should be considered a tiding of joy. The fact that it happens to fall on the spookiest of annual events, well that’s just pure coincidence!

Source: universetoday.com

News From Space: Meteors Hits Saturns’ Rings

Saturn_with_aurorasFor some time, scientists have been aware of the fact that Earth, the Moon, and every body in our Solar System is subject to impacts by meteors, asteroids and comets. And sometimes, on rare occasions, we get to watch it happen, and its a pretty spectacular sight.  Now, for the first time ever, the Cassini spacecraft has provided direct evidence of small meteoroids crashing into Saturn’s rings.

In addition to being a pretty spellbinding site, studying the impact rate of meteoroids from outside the Saturnian system presents scientists with the opportunity to study how planets in our Solar System are formed. This is due to Saturn’s rings, which act a very effective detector of surrounding phenomena, including the interior structure of the planet and the orbits of its moons.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, spoke on record about the observed impacts:

These new results imply the current-day impact rates for small particles at Saturn are about the same as those at Earth — two very different neighborhoods in our solar system — and this is exciting to see. It took Saturn’s rings acting like a giant meteoroid detector — 100 times the surface area of the Earth — and Cassini’s long-term tour of the Saturn system to address this question.

asteroid_belt1In the past, changes in the disposition of Saturn’s rings indicated that impacts were taking place. One such example came in 1983, when an extensive corrogation of 19,000 km (12,000 miles) across the innermost rings told of a very large meteoroid impact. And after the Saturnian equinox back in summer of 2009, astronomers were able to detect a great deal of debris left behind by several meteoroids striking the rings.

However, as Matt Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist at Cornell University explains, this was the first time the impacts were observed directly:

We knew these little impacts were constantly occurring, but we didn’t know how big or how frequent they might be, and we didn’t necessarily expect them to take the form of spectacular shearing clouds. The sunlight shining edge-on to the rings at the Saturnian equinox acted like an anti-cloaking device, so these usually invisible features became plain to see.

Comet1What’s more, Tiscareno and his colleagues were also to come up with some rather new and interesting theories about Saturn itself and how it came to be. Jeff Cuzzi, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist specializing in planetary rings and dust at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains:

Saturn’s rings are unusually bright and clean, leading some to suggest that the rings are actually much younger than Saturn. To assess this dramatic claim, we must know more about the rate at which outside material is bombarding the rings. This latest analysis helps fill in that story with detection of impactors of a size that we weren’t previously able to detect directly.

Meteoric impacts and asteroids have been taking place since the formation of our Solar System. In addition to having a serious impact (no pun) on the formation of the planets, they have also played a prominent role in the evolution of life here on planet Earth. And with the expansion in space exploration afforded to us by space probes, satellites, and planetary rovers, we can expect to witness more of these events firsthand.

Source: universetoday.com