There’s a potentially Earth-like planet around the closest star to Earth—that’s the space headline that captured the world’s imagination this summer. But here’s something that was easy to forget in all that furor over Proxima Centauri. Our neighboring star doesn’t look anything like the Sun.
We humans have known only one life-sustaining planet in the universe: a green-and-blue globe called Earth. So perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking the ideal ingredients for creating life must resemble what we se here: a bunch of planets around a medium-sized yellow star.
Mind-expanding missions like the Kepler Space Observatory, however, have scientists questioning whether a solar system like ours really is the perfect place to hunt for new Earths and the possibility of life beyond our planet. Lately, astronomers have been taking a closer look at red dwarfs—stars with low mass, low temperatures, and slow rates of fusion.These stars don’t look much like our life-giving Sun, but they make up almost 70 percent of the observable stars in the sky and could survive for trillions of years—far longer than our star.
If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, many scientists believe it will be orbiting a red dwarf. Here’s why.
The Alien Worlds of Red Dwarfs
In the past, planet-hunters thought the odds of finding potentially habitable worlds around red dwarfs were quite low. Because of their low mass and temperature, red dwarfs emit just 3 percent as much light as our sun. For an orbiting planet not to freeze into an uninhabitable iceball, it would need to be as close to the star as Mercury is to our Sun. Unfortunately, being so close to a star means the planets probably would be tidally locked, where one side is constantly facing the star and the other side always faces away. Not ideal conditions for creating life.
Red dwarfs are also far less stable compared to larger stars, undergoing sudden rises and drops in the amount of light and heat they emit. This creates big variations in temperature, adding yet another challenge for budding life.
If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, it will likely be orbiting a red dwarf.
It’s not all bad news, though. Red dwarfs have a considerable advantage over other stars in their incredible lifespans. Our Sun has been around for 4.57 billion years, yet humanity has existed for just 200,000 years. Life takes a long time, and complex life even more so.
Time is one thing red dwarfs have plenty of—they can exist for trillions of years because of their low mass and slow rate of nuclear fusion. Since they’re also so common in our cosmos, the odds of finding planets within that habitable Golidlocks zone is statistically high. For astronomers, the pros are starting to outweigh the cons.
The Case for Going Red
In 2005, astronomers from around the world converged on Mountain View, California, for a workshop sponsored by The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) where scientists argued the case that red dwarf stars could be the best place to look for aliens. In the end, it comes down to sheer probability. Within 33 light years of Earth there were 240 known red dwarfs at the time, compared to just 21 stars like ours.
Although red dwarfs are hard to find because they’re dim, once they’re spotted it’s much easier to see how many chunks of rock are in orbit. The so-called transit method of finding exoplanets, which the Kepler telescope used to great effect, relies on looking for changes in brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star. It looks something like this:
Because planets orbiting a red dwarf are likely to hug their stars so tightly, the orbital period is often just a few days long, which makes for pretty good odds of seeing such a transit.
New Worlds Emerge
Since that SETI conference more than a decade ago, oodles of new planets orbiting red dwarfs have been discovered. Between 2005 and 2010, astronomers found six exoplanets orbiting Gliese 581, a red dwarf located about 20 light years from Earth. Two of these planets, Gliese 581-c and -d, lie on the inner and outer edge the star’s habitable zone. Another exoplanet, Gliese 581-g, may also have an orbit fit for habitability (though its existence is still contested).
In 2012, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) published the results of a spectrographic survey that examined 102 red dwarf stars in the Milky Way over the course of six years. They found that red dwarf stars were more likely to have an Earth-like planet orbiting them than a gas giant. Two years later, another ESO study concluded that virtually all red dwarfs in the universe have at least one exoplanet orbiting them. At least a quarter of them have a super-Earth (a planet like ours but slightly bigger) orbiting within their habitable zones.
The drumbeat goes on. This past July, researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) released a study in which the team calculated the likelihood of Earth-like planets forming within our universe over cosmic timescales, starting with the first stars to form, billions of years ago, and continuing into the distant future. They determined that low-mass red dwarf stars would be more likely than giant stars to maintain a system of planets long enough for life to emerge, and that likelihood only increased with time.
“We considered the likelihood of ‘life as we know it’ to form between the appearance of the first stars and the death of the last stars,” Professor Avi Loeb, a science professor at Harvard University and the lead author on the paper, told PM. ” We found that the likelihood peaks in the distant future around low-mass stars, simply because these stars live much longer than the Sun.”
Other discoveries made in the past five years have also bolstered the case for habitable planets around red dwarf stars with exoplanet candidates around Innes Star, Kepler 42, Gliese 832, Gliese 667, Gliese 3293, and most recently Proxima Centauri. All of these star systems are located relatively close to our own, though still impossibly out of reach with only today’s space-faring technology.
“One of the great discoveries made in the past decade or so is that it seems like there are planets all over the place,” TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart told PM, “even around these small stars so different from our own.”
Welcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.
Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.
1. Humanrien: Due to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.
One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…
2. Post-Apocalyptic: Whether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.
At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.
3. Dog Days: The world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.
The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.
In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.
No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.
4. Technological Plateau: Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.
It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.
Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.
Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!
5. The Green Revolution: The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.
Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.
This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.
Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…
6. Intrepid Explorers: Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.
These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.
This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.
One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…
7. Post-Humanity: Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.
Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.
It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.
Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.
8. Star Children: Earth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.
Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.
If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…
Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!
It certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.
Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.
NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.
Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.
Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.
The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.
Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).
Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.
Late last month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 more exoplanets, nearly doubling the number of planets beyond our Solar System. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems outside of our own, with four of them within their stars habitable zones. It’s the single largest windfall of new confirmations at any one time, and its all thanks to a new verification technique employed by the Kepler space probe’s scientists.
Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. What’s more, this latest batch of exoplanets puts the total number of those confirmed from about 1000 to just over 1700 – and increase of 70% that occurred overnight! This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, had this to say in a press release:
The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results. That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.
Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in the same planetary systems. From NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif, the Kepler research team used a technique called verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability.
The Kepler space probe observes some 150,000 stars and has found a few thousand of those to have planet candidates. If the candidates were randomly distributed among Kepler’s stars, only a handful would have more than one planet candidate. However, Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates. Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified.
This method can be likened to the behavior we know of lions and lionesses – where the lions are the Kepler stars and the lionesses are the planet candidates. The lionesses would sometimes be observed grouped together whereas lions tend to roam on their own. If more than two large felines are gathered, then it is very likely to be a lion and his pride. Thus, through multiplicity the lioness can be reliably identified in much the same way multiple planet candidates can be found around the same star.
Jack Lissauer, c0-leader of the Kepler science team at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains the difference this process ushers in:
Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates –but they were only candidate worlds. We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.
Of these planets, the vast majority are small, boosting the number of known small Earth-sized planets by a factor of 400%. Other jumps include a 600% increase is known Super-Earths (or Mini-Neptunes), a 200% boost for Neptune-sized planets, and just 2% for Jupiter-sized planets. The 305 solar systems are also quite similar to our own, with the planets orbiting along a flat plane in tightly-packed, nearly circular orbits.
As noted, the Kepler scientists confirmed the existence of four planets situated within their solar system’s habitable zone. They are Kepler-174d, Kepler-296f, Kepler-298d and Kepler-309c, are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth, and all orbit around M and K stars. Kepler-296f is especially interesting, in that it orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun, and is either a gaseous planet composed of hydrogen-helium, or a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.
In the meantime, NASA has released this animated graph (shown above) to put all the discoveries into context. And while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each discovery brings us one step closer to a more accurate understanding of our place in the galaxy. The findings papers will be published March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal.
People who follow this blog may recall how, recently, I posted a story about Uwingu, a non-profit organization that sells the naming rights to exoplanets and (now) Martian craters. Well, as I explained in that last post, it’s not so much a matter of naming rights as naming suggestions, ones which are then voted on and then made into a crowdsourced map of an extra-terrestrial planet or the stars.
Far from this being some kind of scam or false promise, Uwingu does this in order to spur public participation in space exploration, and uses half of the proceeds to fund scientific research. After reading up on what they do and what the process for it all is, I began to think it might be fun for my writer’s group to pitch a suggestion of their own.
For some time, we’ve been working on the Yuva Anthology – a series of shorts that tell the story of a future colonization effort on Gliese 581g. Not only is the planet real, but it was considered by NASA to be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered in the known universe. So naturally I wondered, what if we voted to name it Yuva?
And now it’s been done! Uwingu has received my suggestion (and payment for the transaction), and printed me out the certification of authorization that you see below. Now all we need is people willing to spend $0.99 to make it a reality. Simply click here, select the name Yuva from the list, and confirm your payment of ninety-nine cents – but only if you’re comfortable doing so of course.
Also, for those who’ve got a pile of digital currency just burning a hole in their accounts, be advised that you can vote as many times as you want. As the saying goes “vote early, vote often!” Just keep in mind that have to pay $0.99 each time you do. Unlike naming rights, there’s no bulk discount to be had here. That seem right to you?
Thank you in advance to anyone who supports this project and helps to make it a reality! And I do sincerely hope myself and my group can get the anthology out by this summer. It’s been a long haul, and coordinating the efforts of over a dozen writers is difficult at the best of times! Until next time, keep your eyes on the stars!
Mars is a interesting and varied place, with enough mysteries to sate appetites both subtle and gross. But as we come to study it up close and get to know it better, a peculiar challenge arises. Basically, there are thousands of geological features on the Martian surface that don’t yet have names. Up until now, only those mountains, hills and craters that are observable from space have been designated.
With the Mars rovers pouring over the surface, each new feature is being named and designated by NASA scientists – The Gale Crater, Yellowknife Bay, Mount Sharp, etc. But what of the public? Given that this is the age of public space travel where regular people have access to the process, shouldn’t we be able to toss our hats in the ring and get a chance at naming Martian features?
That’s the goal of Uwingu, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing public participation in space exploration. In addition to naming exoplanets, they have begun a project to that gives people the opportunity to name over 550,000 craters on Mars. By getting people to pledge donations in exchange for naming rights, the company hopes to raise over $10M to help fund space science and education.
The project touched off in late February, with their map of Mars uploaded to the site and half a million plus craters indicated. Just like how Apollo astronauts have named landing site landmarks during their Moon missions or how Mars scientists have named features they’ve encountered on robotic missions, Uwingu proclaims that, “Now it’s your turn.”
Not only are there craters to name, but people can also help name the map grid rectangles of all the Districts and Provinces in Uwingu’s “address system” – which they say is the first ever address system for Mars. Prices for naming craters vary, depending on the size of the crater, and begin at $5 dollars apiece. For each crater a person purchases and names, Uwingu gives them a shareable Web link and a naming certificate.
In the past, Uwingu has been a source of controversy, particularly with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming celestial objects and planetary features. In general, they are opposed to Uwingu’s methods of selling naming rights to the public. As the organization states on their website:
The IAU is the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and surface features on them. And names are not sold, but assigned according to internationally accepted rules.
But Alan Stern, NASA’s former science program and mission director, claims that Uwingu is independent. He also stated that in 50 years of Mars exploration, only about 15,000 features have ever been named. What’s more, he and the rest of the Uwingu team – which includes several space notables, historians and authors – know that the names likely won’t officially be approved by the IAU.
Nevertheless, they claim that they will be similar to the names given to features on Mars by the mission science teams (such as Mt. Sharp on Mars –the IAU-approved name is Aeolis Mons) or even like Pike’s Peak, a mountain in Colorado which was named by the public, in a way. As early settlers started calling it that, it soon became the only name people recognized. Uwingu hopes that their names will also stick, given time.
In the past, Stern has admitted that having people pay to suggest names with no official standing is sure to be controversial, but that he’s willing to take the chance – and the heat – to try and innovative ways to provide funding in today’s climate of funding cuts. As he stated in a series of recent interviews:
Mars scientists and Apollo astronauts have named features on the Red Planet and the Moon without asking for the IAU’s permission… We’re trying to do a public good. It’s still the case that nobody in this company gets paid. We really want to create a new lane on that funding highway for people who are out of luck due to budget cuts. This is how we’re how we’re trying to change the world for a little better.
He also pointed out that Uwingu is independent, and that this map is one they are generating themselves through crowdfunding and public participation. Whether or not the names stick is anybody’s guess, but the point is that the process will not be determined by any single gatekeeper or authority – in this case, the IAU. It will reflect a new era of public awareness and involvement in space.
In the past, Uwingu’s procedure has been to put half of the money they make into a fund to be given out as grants, and since they are a commercial company, the rest of the money helps pay the their bills. So no matter what – even if you pitch a name and its outvoted by another, or the names just fail to stick when the cartographers finish mapping Mars – you’ll still be raising money for a good cause.
For those interested in naming a crater on the Red Planet, click on the link here to go to Uwingu’s website. Once there, simply click on a spot on the map, select the crater you want (the price for the crater is indicated when you select it), offer a name and explain why you’ve chosen it. And be sure to check out some of the one’s that have been named already.
Scientists and astronomers have learned a great deal about the universe in recent years, thanks to craft like the Kepler space probe and the recently launched Gaian space observatory. As these and other instruments look out into the universe and uncover stars and exoplanets, it not only lets us expand our knowledge of the universe, but gives us a chance to reflect upon the meaning of this thing we call “habitability”.
Basically, our notions of what constitutes a habitable environment are shaped by our own. Since Earth is a life-sustaining environment from which we originated, we tend to think that conditions on another life-giving planet would have to be similar. However, scientists René Heller and John Armstrong contend that there might be a planet even more suitable in this galaxy, and in the neighboring system of Alpha Centauri B.
For those unfamiliar, Alpha Centauri A/B is a triple star system some 4.3 light years away from Earth, making it the closest star system to Earth. The nice thing about having a hypothetical “superhabitable” planet in this system is that it makes it a lot easier to indulge in a bit of a thought experiment, and will make it that much more easy to observe and examine.
According to the arguments put forward by Heller, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University, Hamilton; and Armstrong, of the Department of Physics, Weber State University in Ogden, this planet may be even more suitable for supporting life than our own. It all comes down to meeting the particulars, and maybe even exceeding them.
For example, a habitable planet needs the right kind sun – one that has existed and remained stable for a long time. If the sun in question is too large, then it will have a very short life; and if it’s too small, it might last a long time. But the planet will have to be very close to stay warm and that can cause all sorts of problems, such as a tidally locked planet with one side constantly facing the sun.
Our own sun is a G2-type star, which means it has been alive and stable for roughly 4.6 billion years. However, K-type dwarfs, which are smaller than the Sun, have lives longer than the age of the universe. Alpha Centauri B is specifically a K1V-type star that fits the bill with an estimated age of between 4.85 and 8.9 billion years, and is already known to have an Earth-like planet called Alpha Centauri B b.
As to the superhabitable planet, assuming it exists, it will be located somewhere between 0.5 and 1.4 astronomical units (46 – 130 million mi, 75 – 209 million km) from Alpha Centauri B. All things being equal, it will have a circular orbit 1. 85 AU (276 million km / 172 million miles) away, which would place it in the middle of the star’s habitable zone.
Also, for a planet to sustain life it has to be geologically active, meaning it has to have a rotating molten core to generate a magnetic field to ward off cosmic radiation and protect the atmosphere from being stripped away by solar winds. A slightly more massive planet with more gravity means more tectonic activity, so a better magnetic field and a more stable climate.
However, the most striking difference between the superhabitable world and Earth would be that the former would lack our continents and deep oceans – both of which can be hostile to life. Instead, Heller and Armstrong see a world with less water than ours, which would help to avoid both a runaway greenhouse effect and a snowball planet that an overabundance of water can trigger.
Our superhabitable planet might not even be in the habitable zone. It could be a moon of some giant planet further away. Jupiter’s moon Io is a volcanic hellhole due to tidal heating, but a larger moon that Heller and Armstrong call a “Super Europa” in the right orbit around a gas giant could heat enough to support life even if it’s technically outside the star’s habitable zone.
According to Heller and Armstrong, this world would look significantly different from our own. It would be an older world, larger and more rugged, and would provide more places for life to exist. What water there was would be evenly scattered across the surface in the form of lakes and small, shallow seas. And, it would also be slightly more massive, which would mean more gravity.
This way, the shallow waters would hold much larger populations of more diverse life than is found on Earth, while the temperatures would be more moderated. However, it would be a warmer world than Earth, which also makes for more diversity and potentially more oxygen, which the higher gravity would help with by allowing the planet to better retain its atmosphere.
Another point made by Heller and Armstrong is that there may be more than one habitable planet in the Alpha Centauri B system. Cosmic bombardments early in the history of the Solar System is how the Earth got its water and minerals. If life had already emerged on one planet in the early history of the Alpha Centauri B system, then the bombardment might have spread it to other worlds.
But of course, this is all theoretical. Such a planet may or may not exist, and may or may not have triggered the emergence of life on other worlds within the system. But what is exciting about it is just how plausible its existence may prove to be, and how easy it will be to verify once we can get some space probes between here and there.
Just imagine the sheer awesomeness of being able to see it, the images of a super-sized Earth-moon beamed back across light years, letting us know that there is indeed life on worlds besides our own. Now imagine being able to study that life and learning that our conceptions of this too have been limited. What a time that will be! I hope we all live to see it…
Ever since the Kepler space probe began finding hard evidence of the existence of exoplanets – i.e. planets orbiting suns outside of our Solar System – scientists have been working hard to determine what conditions on these worlds must be like. For instance, it is known that planets that orbit closely to their red dwarf parent suns are tidally locked – meaning they do not rotate on their axis.
This, in turn, has led to the proposal that any watery worlds in the vicinity could form what’s called an “Eyeball Earth.” Being directly under the local star, with one side perpetually facing towards it, the light would be intense enough to melt a circular patch of water, while the rest of the planet would remain locked in a deep freeze. In short, not an ideal situation for supporting life.
However, a new three-dimensional model has been created, thanks to the efforts of two researchers at Peking University. In their research paper, they suggest that ice and oceans on these planets would be dynamic, which is both good and bad. Basically, it means an Eyeball Earth has a narrower habitable zone, but that more of the surface has the potential to support life. It also means that the “eyeball” looks more like a lobster!
This paper represents the next step in scientific analysis of exoplanets. Initially, estimates of habitability – i.e. temperatures that could allow liquid water on the planet surface – were based on a single analysis of the planet’s atmosphere to see how much light reaches the surface. But, in the real world, atmospheres form clouds, distribute heat through winds and convection, and exhibit other sorts of complex behavior.
These are the sorts of things that are handled in the full, three-dimensional climate models built to study the Earth. Hence, the Peking research team adapted these same models to handle exoplanets that differed significantly from Earth. But these models didn’t capture a critical part of the distribution of heat on the Earth: the ocean circulation. Instead, it treated the entire ocean as a two-dimensional slab.
The new study corrects for that by using a coupled ocean-atmosphere climate model, the Community Climate System Model version 3. For their study, they used Gliese 581 g, a potentially Earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of an red dwarf star 20 light years away. This planet, coincidentally, is ranked by NASA as being the most Earth-like exoplanet yet seen in the known universe.
Critically for the model, it’s close enough to its host star to receive 866 Watts/square meter at the top of its atmosphere (whereas the Earth receives 1,366). Since it is not yet known what Gliese 581 g’s atmosphere looks like, the authors assumed an Earth-like composition, but varied the amount of CO2 to change the intensity of the greenhouse effect. From all this, the planet was assumed to be covered in a deep ocean.
After giving the model 1,100 years to come to equilibrium, the authors sampled a century of its climate. With carbon dioxide concentrations similar to the Earth’s (330 parts per million in the model), the “eyeball” vanished. That’s because ocean currents formed along the equator and brought in ice from the west that split the eyeball into two lobes that flanked the equator – which resemble the claws of the lobster.
The currents then transferred heat to the eastern portion of the planet, which melted the ice to form the lobster’s tail. In addition to the ocean current that altered ice distribution, an underwater circulation (similar to the one on Earth) formed, which sent warmer water toward the poles. In the atmosphere, a jet stream also formed over the equator, which also distributed some heat to the unlit side of the planet.
Ultimately, the new model suggests the habitable zone of watery planets near red dwarfs is a bit more narrow than previous studies had suggested. The good news is that, in this model, the ice never got more than 3m thick on the dayside of the planet. That’s thin enough to allow light to reach the water underneath, meaning photosynthesis is a possibility over the entire dayside of the planet.
Although this model is a major improvement, it still lacks a key feature that’s likely to exist on planets – namely continents, or at least features on the seafloor that differ greatly in height. These will radically alter the currents on the planet, and thus radically alter the distribution of heat within the ocean. Unfortunately, this information is even harder to come by at present than atmospheric conditions.
So for the time being, all we really know about Gliese 581 g and other similar exoplanets is that their surfaces are icy, but habitable – not unlike the Jovian moon Europa. However, that is not to say that we won’t have more information in the near future. With Kepler still in operation and the Gaia space observatory now in space, we might be able to construct more detailed models of nearby exoplanets in the near future.
Also a coincidence, Gliese 581 g just happens to be the setting of my writers group’s upcoming anthology, known as Yuva. And with this latest bit of info under our belts (basically, that the entire planet is a big, watery ball), I imagine we’ll have to adjust our stories somewhat!
The 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.
However, 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.
Though 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!
Sometime 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.
Located 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.
First 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.
Everything 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.
The 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.
This 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.
This 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.
Both 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.
Throughout 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.
In 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!
The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.
Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.
So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:
1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:
For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”
2. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:
After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.
3. First Brain to Brain Interface:
In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.
4.Long-Lost Continent Discovered:
In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.
Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.
5. Cure for HIV Found!:
For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.
Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.
But even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).
And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.
6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:
The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.
7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:
Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.
Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.
8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:
Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.
But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.
9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:
In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.
That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.
10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:
Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.
11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:
In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.
12. The Amplituhedron Discovered:
If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.
This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.
These forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.
13. Bioprinting Explodes:
The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.
Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.
And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.
14. Bionic Machinery Expands:
If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.
The first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.
Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.
Then in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.
15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:
Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.
The discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.