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Expect Big Science Projects in 2015, International Year of Light

If science and technology gets your blood pumping, expect 2015 to be quite a workout.

 

The calendar should be chock-full of big announcements and exciting events. From designing genomes to exploring the outer reaches of our solar system, from a major push into developing targeted medicines to serious investments in materials science and understanding the fundamental mechanics of the universe, there will be no shortage of significant news.

Keep an eye out for these projects happening this year:

Space

Expect a lot of news from elsewhere in the solar system in 2015.  In December, NASA reported that its New Horizons spacecraft had awoken from a nine-year hibernation as the probe nears Pluto. Its closest approach to the dwarf planet will come on July 14, but the agency is excited to see the first data on Pluto and its moons about 10 days from now.

The mission represents the farthest primary objective of a human spacecraft yet. New Horizons is expected to travel a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit into the Kuiper belt, a region holding relics of the solar system’s earliest days.

“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before,” says project scientist Hal Weaver. “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.”

In March, the Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around Ceres, a 590-mile-diameter dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Little is known about Ceres, though some scientists suggest a liquid water ocean exists below the ice-encrusted surface. The Dawn mission is also interesting because the craft is using an advanced ion propulsion engine.

Meanwhile, the Cassini probe will do several flybys of Saturn’s moons through the year while a handful of missions continue collecting volumes of data on the moon and Mars. The Rosetta craft, which arrived at comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko late last year, will be reporting back on days in the life of the body that is hurtling to reach its closest distance to the sun in August. And the Philae lander, which has fallen silent on the comet’s surface for lack of exposure to the sun’s energy, could wake up in the right circumstances.

The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla writes that it is possible at least one of the probes orbiting Mars will fail this year. “2015 begins with seven spacecraft active there as we begin the year. Of those seven, four are way past their prime,” she writes. “There’s no particular reason to expect Odyssey, Opportunity, Mars Express, or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to fail in the coming year, but they won’t last forever — it seems like one of them has to cash it in this year. (I said the same thing last year, though, and they all came through 2014 just fine.)

Medicine and genetics

CBS News is reporting that Craig Venter, the scientist who led the first efforts to sequence the human genome, expects to create the first living organism with a completely human-built genome this year. “In 2015 we will be announcing the first genome actually designed in the computer resulting in living cells,” Venter told CBS.

The single-celled synthetic organism will contain genetic information that allows it to replicate and the basic functions that define life. Venter also says that this year should see a dramatic increase in the speed that complete human genomes can be sequenced. His company, Human Longevity, aims to increase the number of genomes it can sequence from thousands per year to 100,000. This explosion in available genetic information could fuel a revolution in personalized medicine.

Also look for advancements in science’s understanding and therapies involving the helpful microbes that live within us, an area of research that is picking up momentum. The first generation saw fecal implants to rebalance the ecosystem of microbes that live within our guts. The next generation should see a refinement of the process.

Finally, the journal Science says that promising work to treat a number of medical problems using induced pluripotent stem cells will continue in earnest this year. Meanwhile, efficacy trials for an ebola vaccine being conducted in West Africa will determine whether the current epidemic will see a swift end.

Physics

The editors of the journal Nature remind us CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the massive particle smasher outside Geneva, Switzerland that found the Higgs boson, will come back online in March. It was down for two years undergoing an upgrade—when it restarts, it will collide protons together at double the current record. Scientists hope the pieces that break off the particles will give more clues about how the universe works.

Separately, observatories in Louisiana and Washington have some beefed up instruments to search for gravitational waves, ripples in the curvature of space-time that were proposed by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity.  The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detectors were shut down and replaced after being unable to find the waves. Scientists working on the BICEP2 project, which announced in 2014 that they had discovered the waves and found evidence for the early universe’s massive and rapid expansion—findings that were later called into question—have more data coming this month. They are also continuing their search with the BICEP3 experiment.

Automobiles

Advances in automobile technologies will leave lots to talk about throughout the year. Rumblings have already started, and it’s not just about autonomous vehicles. On Jan. 5, Toyota announced it would share almost 6,000 patents the company has accrued in building the first commercially available hydrogen fuel cell car. These patents cover technologies from the fuel cell stacks that convert chemical energy into electricity to the hydrogen tanks, operating software and refueling stations that the car needs. Observers see the move as Toyota’s attempt to accelerate the hydrogen fuel cell car and infrastructure market after Tesla Motors last year released its own patents that cover the company’s electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, autonomous vehicles will start seeing primetime this year in limited programs in the United Kingdom, Nevada and California. Last July, the British government announced it had cleared robotic cars for use on public roads, and the first vehicles could hit the asphalt as soon as this month. California and Nevada have given robots the green light to test on their roads. Google’s self-driving car prototype is expected to hit San Francisco Bay Area roads this year. Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Nissan are also moving forward with autonomous designs, and all have received permits to test their vehicles on California roads.

And the BBC says the countdown is on for a British team to break the land speed record sometime this year.  The British Bloodhound SSC jet-engine-propelled car will attempt to break the current record of 763 mph later this year in South Africa.

International focus on science

The international community will be paying attention to fundamental physics and atmospheric and soil sciences this year thanks to a few major events. The world will turn to Paris in December when world leaders convene to hammer out a deal to slow climate change.  March will see a lead-up to the big summit when China, the U.S. and the E.U. negotiate a plan to lower reliance on fossil fuels, a major contributor to the total release of greenhouse gases.

But the U.N climate summit is just one part of the international organization’s 2015 program to focus on the Earth. This year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is celebrating the International Year of Soils. The earth under our feet is often overlooked, but the services it provides to all living organisms is invaluable. In fact, the complex matrix of biological and abiotic components that makes up soils play a major role in our survival, health, economic well-being, and even politics. The FAO says soils play a crucial role in food security, essential ecosystem functions and climate change adaption and mitigation, among others.

“Soils also host at least one quarter of the world’s biodiversity. They are key in the carbon cycle. They help us to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They play a role in water management and in improving resilience to floods and droughts,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production.”

Over at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, they’ll be focusing (pun intended) on light and optics. 2015 has been declared the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies.  The year is intended to draw attention to how light and optical technologies “promote sustainable development and offer solutions to global challenges in the fields of energy, education, agriculture and health.”

“Light technology has revolutionized society through its applications in medicine, communications, entertainment and culture. Industries based on light are major economic drivers,” says a statement by UNESCO. “Without light-based technologies, there would be no solar panels, no LED lighting, no computer monitors or telephone screens, no cameras or projectors, no magnetic resonance imaging, nor x-ray machines.”

Top Image: A team of physicists and engineers inspect a new subdetector before its insertion into the Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS experiment outside Geneva. The LHC will come online in 2015 after two years of upgrades. Image courtesy of CERN.

This piece first appeared on Txchnologist.

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