EdC (EvilDawg.Com) ran a story recently listing the items that we thought would make News in 2015 in the realm of Science, check it out after reading this and see if they match... You may be surprised...
To find more "Science Related" stories, click here for the list of all Science posts...
by Xaq Rzetelny - Feb 3 2015, 5:00am PST
It’s a new year, but it’s not just any new year. 2015 is shaping up to be a huge year for scientific exploration and discovery plus science policy. There are some important decisions that will be made this year on climate change, three-parent in vitro fertilization, and more. Those momentous decisions will hopefully be matched by discoveries that are no less historic. Both the LHC and LIGO will be re-opening, possibly opening up new horizons for physics and astronomy, while NASA will be visiting dwarf planets and preparing another trip to Mars.
Beyond these big projects, other sophisticated labs will open, progress will be made in understanding our evolutionary history, and new medical advances promise to improve lives. With so much going on, we thought it’d be a good time to outline some of the developments we can look forward to in 2015.
Much of this information comes from two new pieces in the journal Nature, but we've expanded on them with our own sources.
Progress on the medical front
In 2015, Sally Davies, UK’s Chief Medical Officer, will push for an agreement to deal with antimicrobial resistance through the World Health Organization. She notes in a Nature piece that, as the effectiveness of antibiotics goes down over time, lack of preparedness is causing significant damage. But with strong diplomatic effort and the support of the UK government, Davies hopes to reach a global agreement on practices that will limit the problem and promote new treatments. “By the end of 2015, I want to see global action,” she writes.
Drug companies have been competing to bring drugs to the market that lower cholesterol, and two of them look like they might be approved this year. The drugs have already been shown in clinical trials to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and both have been assured of a speedy review. The decisions are expected to arrive in the summer.
Progress on combating Ebola will continue to be made in 2015. Trials of vaccines are already in progress, with results expected in June. There are several drugs being tested, as well as treatments using blood from Ebola survivors, which is rich in antibodies that neutralize the virus. If proved effective, the blood treatments could be rolled out quickly and effectively. In the meantime, healthcare workers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will have to continue to expand the use of proven measures—such as rapid detection and isolation of people who are infected—in order to bring the Ebola epidemic to an end.
The LHC reboots
Renovations will allow LHC to reach its full design energy, improve detectors.
The Large Hadron Collider will restart in March after two years of inactivity. Incredible as the massive particle collider already was, the last two years (and £97 million/$145.9 million) have been spent to upgrade it. Before its refit, the LHC discovered the Higgs Boson, which plays a role in imparting mass to other particles.
The Higgs was the last particle predicted by the Standard Model that hadn’t been discovered, meaning we've completed the model’s set of particle predictions. Now that the model is a complete success, what's the next thing to do? Tear it down. OK, maybe the next mission isn't quite that dramatic, but researchers will now attempt to find particle behaviors that the Standard Model doesn't cover.
The upgraded LHC will produce collisions at 13 trillion electron-volts, nearly double its previous high. With such high energies, it’s possible that we can find some unpredicted particles or discover what's behind dark matter. "When we turn on again with these new higher energies we should have the capability to start producing new particles and look for new processes, if they're there," Dave Charlton, spokesperson of the ATLAS Project, told the BBC radio show Today.
One model that stands to be affected by the LHC’s next round of experiments is supersymmetry, which, despite its appeal among many physicists, has gotten no support from the last round of LHC experiments. Those experiments failed to find evidence for supersymmetry's predicted particles, as the model predicts a number of particles which are counterparts to the particles in the Standard Model (but with different spin values). If no evidence is found for supersymmetry's predicted particles in the LHC’s upcoming experiments, it could be the last nail in the coffin for some of the most popular versions of the model.
A number of new science laboratories will open in 2015. The Francis Crick Institute, a multidisciplinary medical research institute, will open in London in November. With 1,250 researchers, it will help us “understand why disease develops and find new ways to treat, diagnose, and prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases,” according to the institute’s website.
Further north, the National Graphene Institute will open this Spring at the University of Manchester. The institute, as its name implies, will work with graphene, a carbon material that is astoundingly strong (about 100 times stronger than steel) despite being a single atom thick. By comparison, a sheet of paper is about a million atoms thick.
Graphene could be used to build all sorts of things, from lightweight components for aircraft to flexible touch screens. The new institute hopes to be a stepping stone to eventually creating a "graphene city."
Meanwhile in the United States, the Allen Institute for Cell Science will open its doors in Seattle, Washington. Funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, the site will host scientists interested in delving into the world of the human cell.
Climate Change deal
Amidst all the breakthroughs, landmarks, and discoveries we can look forward to in 2015, a darker milestone is inevitable: Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas whose presence traps heat in the atmosphere, should reach 400 parts per million this year. It's the first time carbon dioxide will reach that level in millions of years.
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom on the climate change front. In 2014, the United States and China, the planet’s biggest producers of carbon dioxide, signed a historic agreement to reduce their emissions. And this December at the United Nations talks in Paris, it’s hoped that these and other nations will sign a legally binding, post-2020 agreement. “Never before has there been such public support to act and political will to take action,” wrote Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in a piece appearing in the journal Nature.
Whatever decision is made in December, it will be historic, and we’ll be feeling the effects for quite some time. “What happens in the run-up to Paris will do more to determine the quality of life for generations to come than anything before,” said Figueres.
What about some actual science? Palaeogeneticists have been hard at work decoding the genome of an ancient, 400,000 year-old human. The specimen was found in the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) cave, located in northern Spain. In 2013, the specimen’s mitochondrial genome was decoded, a feat which required an incredible effort given the decayed state of the bones. Now the researchers want to go further and obtain its entire genome.
DNA looks like a Denisovan; bones look like a Neanderthal.
This will be even more difficult, since nuclear DNA is very scarce in the remains. But completing the task comes with a reward: the specimen could be key to sorting out the complex evolutionary relationships among humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans and how they are related toHomo erectus, the species that predated them.
Gravitational waves are an exciting theoretical phenomenon. When objects with strong gravitational fields make vigorous motions, (such as, for example, two co-orbiting supermassive black holes), they can send out waves of gravity. These waves could travel at the speed of light and create very slight, nearly imperceptible distortions in the space they pass through. In order to detect such a wave, extremely sensitive instruments would be required. So far, efforts to do so have relied on powerful interferometers.
An interferometer is a device that can measure changes in distance very precisely. It does this by sending lasers down two identical arms and bouncing them back, eventually checking to see if one laser took longer than the other to make its trip.
To detect a gravitational wave, no ordinary interferometer is sensitive enough. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) is an exquisitely sensitive interferometer, but thus far, it has failed to conclusively detect any gravitational waves. This is not entirely surprising, as even with LIGO’s sensitivity the waves would be difficult to detect. But like the LHC, the three facilities that are part of LIGO have been undergoing an upgrade. Toward the end of the year, they will emerge more sensitive than ever.
If gravitational waves are observed, not only would it provide crucial details for our understandings of how the Universe works, it would also be a new tool for doing astronomy, potentially giving astronomers a glimpse into phenomena they can’t observe by using various wavelengths of light. Among other things, it could enable us to get a closer look at the Big Bang.
Besides LIGO, the European Space Agency’s own gravitational wave detector, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), will begin testing similar technologies for detecting the waves this Autumn.
NASA and the path to Mars
NASA has big things in store for 2015. Not only is the agency already gearing up for a mission to Mars in the mid-2030s, it has also laid out plans to send spacecraft to two dwarf planets.
The large asteroid Ceres (kind of big and spherical for an asteroid, but far too small to be a planet), located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, will be visited by the Dawn probe in March. As Ceres is thought to have water ice beneath its crust, the trip should produce some interesting results.
Meanwhile, the New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto in July, making its closest pass on July 14. This will be our first close inspection of the planet/dwarf planet and of its moons, which should provide information on its atmosphere.
“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them.”
The New Horizons craft has traveled for the past nine years, the longest any spacecraft has ever gone before reaching its primary destination. Its recent return from hibernation, while routine in practice, was symbolically important to the spacecraft’s control team, since it's the last time it will hibernate before reaching Pluto.
NASA also has a number of launches lined up throughout the year. Many of these will deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and some will carry payloads that will enable us to study the Earth’s atmosphere and climate in greater detail.
Among the launches is the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, or MMS. This is an ambitious project to observe the mysterious process known as magnetic reconnection, which is sometimes referred to as magnetic explosions. These occur due to interactions between plasma (charged particles) and a magnetic field—in this case, the particles are coming from the Sun, and the Earth supplies the magnetic field. Since the charged particles have their own magnetic field, when they interact with Earth’s, it can change the magnetic field lines, releasing a lot of energy in the process. This energy transfers to the plasma, heating it up and giving it kinetic energy.
These explosions are sometimes referred to as “space weather.” Space weather affects the functioning of satellites and the power grid. Magnetic reconnection is poorly understood, and, despite good indirect evidence it's occurring, the process has only been directly observed in the lab.
The MMS mission will be able to catch reconnection in the act, so to speak. The process isn't predictable, so the spacecraft will have to respond quickly to indications it's taking place. Additionally, it will have to image the phenomenon in three dimensions. For those reasons, the mission consists of five spacecraft which will fly in a close formation, taking the form of a tetrahedron. It's hoped the spacecraft will sporadically surround an explosion, taking measurements at different locations, to map out how the effect varies over three-dimensional space.
The formation will move through probable reconnection regions extremely quickly, but the spacecraft are designed to take measurements fast enough to match. The spacecraft will also spend time in both the day and night sides of the Earth, since both have benefits and drawbacks when it comes to observing reconnection. The day side faces the Sun, and so there’s a constant influx of charged particles, but on the night side, charged particles ride back toward the Earth along the magnetic field lines, causing reconnection. The MMS spacecraft will launch in March.
An overview of the MMS mission.
Preparations for a manned mission to Mars are already underway, even though the mission won’t actually launch until the 2030s. That’s because more knowledge is required on two fronts: more detailed knowledge about Mars itself, and knowledge about how humans perform on long space voyages. On the first front, the Curiosity rover will continue its exploration of Mars, where it’s currently climbing Mount Sharp. There, it’s investigating layered deposits to learn more about the history of water on the planet. Meanwhile, the MAVEN spacecraft continues its orbit, learning about the Martian atmosphere.
Closer to home, astronauts Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly will work on the second problem by living on the International Space Station for a year, one of the longest stretches in microgravity yet. This should give us an idea what effects the trip to Mars would have on the human body. As a control, Kelly’s twin, Mark Kelly, will remain on Earth, making this the first-ever microgravity twin study.
Roughly 65 years after the first human landed on the Moon, the mission to Mars has the potential to be even more significant—which is all the more reason NASA’s already working to make sure everything goes smoothly.
SpaceX is expected to perform a test flight for their new Falcon Heavy spacecraft sometime in the new year. The company’s Falcon 9 rockets currently transport cargo to the International Space Station for NASA, in addition to doing commercial launches. The Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, and the extra lift allows it to lift a much heavier load: about 53 metric tons, compared to about 13 with the Falcon 9.
The company is also aiming to land the rockets, nose up, on a landing pad on Earth in order to be reused. This was tried earlier this month, with a Falcon 9 craft that had already sent cargo on to the ISS. Unfortunately, its attempted landing on a barge didn’t go so well, damaging the barge. However, the company thinks they’ve identified the problem and are closer to achieving the goal—after all, the rocket was able to reduce its speed enough to avoid destroying the barge. They’ll likely try again this year.
To visualize how the Falcon Heavy craft would work, check out this animation the company released this week.
The Falcon Heavy.
The Planetary Society, a non-profit run by William Nye (better known as Bill Nye, the Science Guy) will also have a test flight for an experimental spacecraft. Their LightSail will launch this May, before a second, full-fledged demonstration next year (which will be carried into orbit by a Falcon Heavy craft). The spacecraft will carry a solar sail, which allows the craft to build up speed in space without the need for fuel—it's driven by using light from the Sun. When the craft launches, it will be about the size of a loaf of bread, but it will then unfurl its sails, which will ultimately occupy 345 square feet.
“We strongly believe this could be a big part of the future of interplanetary missions,” Nye told The Nw York Times this week.
In 2013, the Russian government stripped the Russian Academy of Sciences of its independence. Now, the government will review 450 of the Academy’s research institutes. The European Union, meanwhile, will have to find a way to fill the void left by the science advisor position, which was scrapped in 2014.
In the United Kingdom, Parliament will decide whether to allow three-parent in vitro fertilization. This technique takes the genetic material from the two primary parents and transfers it to the egg of a third. It's a means of treating diseases of the mitochondria, organelles with their own DNA that are carried by the egg. The first child with genetic material from three parents was born in 1997, and since then a handful of other children have been produced this way. But a new technique is ready for clinical trials, and politicians will get to determine if it is ethical.
The United States, meanwhile, has seen political changes that really shouldn’t be a science issue, but are. In the latest election, the Republicans regained control of the Senate. Some of them will now have control over scientific committees despite having expressed some rather anti-scientific ideas. James Inhofe, who now chairs the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, has written a book calling climate change “The Greatest Hoax.” And Inhofe isn’t the only Senator like this: politicians John Boozman and Jeff Sessions have also expressed doubt about climate change.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, will gain control over the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. That means he’ll be in charge of NASA, an agency that is also a major source of climate data. Cruz has dismissed climate change and maintains a consistent interest in reducing federal spending. With that in mind, the coming year might be a rocky one for the agency.
Into the unknown
Of course, some of the most exciting discoveries of 2015 may be the ones we can’t foresee. There’s certainly a lot to look forward to and think about in the new year. While threats like climate change, Ebola, and antimicrobial resistance are looming, there’s also plenty of reason to be optimistic—and to keep striving to solve these and other problems.