We were treated to some incredible science stories in 2015. A new human species was discovered; there were amazing advances in gene-editing technologies; and who could forget the beautiful close-up photos of Pluto. Looking ahead, we’ve prepared a list of science happenings to keep an eye on in 2016. Space exploration features heavily again as Europe, China, and the US have many missions planed. Earth and Mars reach their closest distance in their orbit this year, so it’s the perfect time to launch missions to the red planet. We have no complaints about space exploration and look forward to more images, videos, and scientific data from comets, asteroids, and Mars. We’re not sure any will beat the heart on Pluto though. As Dennis Overbye said: “None of us alive today will ever see a new planet up close again.”
1. Europe teams up with Russia in the search for life on Mars
ExoMars is a mission to the red planet to search for signs of microbial life and pave the way for a new rover mission. The first phase of the mission takes place in March when the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter is launched to Mars on a Russian rocket due to arrive in December. The orbiter will analyse the atmosphere and map the planet for sources of methane and other gases that could hint at microbial life. It will also be searching for potential landing sites for a rover that will arrive at Mars in 2021. At that time, the orbiter will drop to a lower orbit and function as a relay for communications between the rover and Earth.
2. China will “teleport” information between Earth and space
Quantum mechanics is weird. Entanglement is weird. Bear with us. Entangled particles can be separated from each other and yet changes to one particle will instantly affect the other. No signal is sent between the particles, the other particle just instantly “knows” what is happening to its partner. If there was a signal sent at some finite speed, separating the particles over huge distances would create a delay; however, changes occur instantly. The physical information about the particles is being teleported in the Star Trek sense of the word. If this turns your brain to mush, that’s ok. Quantum mechanics is weird.
There is hope that the entanglement phenomenon could lead to new communication technologies. Theoretically you could have one particle on Earth and another outside the solar system yet there would be no delay. In practice, this has only been measured here on Earth and the current record is 100 km. Chinese researchers look to smash this record by teleporting information 2,000 km between Shanghai and Beijing via a satellite they will launch in June. One reason to do this is to create an “unhackable” communications network. However, projects like this may also help researchers answer remaining questions about how quantum theory fits alongside general relativity.
3. Gene-editing continues to mature
Our top scientific innovation last year was the continued development of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which allows scientists to edit the genomes of living organisms. The system has already been used to remove HIV from a human cell and make entire populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes infertile. We’re expecting many exciting advances using CRISPR such as creating the first gene-edited primates for use as human disease models. It’s such a powerful tool, scientists are rightfully concerned about using it responsibly. The International Summit on Human Gene Editing has already begun debating how the technology should be used and has proposed bans for human embryos that may be used in pregnancy. A report will be released late in 2016 that gives a consensus on the points brought up at the Summit.
4. Juno visits Jupiter
On the 4th of July, aliens probably won’t be visiting us for Independence Day. Instead, we’ll be visiting another world. Juno, a space probe designed by NASA, will be reaching the end of its 5-year journey to the largest planet in the solar system. We’ve sent probes before but the Jovian system is still mysterious in many ways. Juno will measure Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere with better equipment that ever before. Excitingly, Juno is also set to tell us more about Jupiter’s mysterious interior. Its elliptical orbit is designed to bring the probe to within 3,000 miles of the planet, which is extremely close.
5. Direct detection of gravitational waves
Gravitational waves have been rippling through social media recently. These waves in the fabric of space-time were predicted by Albert Einstein back in 1916 as part of his theory of General Relativity. They’re predicted to occur when unfathomably large events take place such as the collision of black holes. Physicists presume they exist as predicted and their effects have been observed before, but they’ve never been detected directly. In an attempt to detect the waves for the first time, scientists created the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which has detectors in Washington and Louisiana. It ran from 2002-2010 and never detected any gravitational waves. The detectors have been upgraded with advanced technology in recent years and researchers have begun searching for gravitational waves again in September last year. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has tweeted rumours that waves have already been found by the new setup. Physicists will be carefully analysing these results before making a big announcement, but hopefully that will happen this year. Detecting gravitational waves might allow us to better understand gravity and learn more about large objects that don’t emit light.
My earlier rumor about LIGO has been confirmed by independent sources. Stay tuned! Gravitational waves may have been discovered!! Exciting.
— Lawrence M. Krauss (@LKrauss1) January 11, 2016
6. Rosetta goes kamikaze
Remember Philae, the little probe that made history with its bouncy landing on a comet? It served us well but the real workhorse was Rosetta: the spacecraft that carried Philae on its 310 million-mile journey. We’ve learned a lot about comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from Philae, but Rosetta has more powerful equipment and could reveal even more about the rubber duckie-shaped comet. In September, Rosetta will begin its slow descent towards its doom, eventually crashing onto the comet’s surface. It will descend a lot slower than Philae did so will have more time to use its more powerful sensors and beam back new data. Expect more images and video!
7. NASA targets an asteroid heading straight for us
Another mission from NASA, OSIRIS-REx, will launch on the 3rd of September. This probe will investigate Bennu, as asteroid that could be on course to collide with Earth 150 years from now. The mission will collect samples from the asteroid and send them back to Earth in 2021, which may tell us more about the origins of the solar system. We don’t yet know if we’ll have to send Bruce Willis on the next mission.
We’ll continue to bring news of the most exciting scientific discoveries throughout 2016.
Main image © NASA