The coming year is shaping up to be a rather extraordinary one. Over the next 12 months, we'll be visiting dwarf planets, unlocking the secrets of a 400,000-year-old genome, and resuming the hunt for exotic particles. Here are the science stories to look out for in 2015.
Above: Artistic depiction of Pluto's surface with Charon drifting over the horizon and the Sun off in the distance. Credit: L. Calcada/ESO
SpaceX will try (for the second time) to launch a Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday January 10 at 4:47 PM ET. Unlike previous missions, the company plans to land its Falcon 9 on a barge off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.
The first stage of the rocket is expected to land about 10 minutes after takeoff. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has assigned a 50/50 chance of success for this first attempt. By using reusable rockets, SpaceX hopes to dramatically cut the costs of each launch. Image: SpaceX.
It will be Pluto as we've never seen it before: NASA's New Horizons robotic space probe is now awake and careening towards the dwarf planet at 43,000 kilometers per hour (27,000 miles per hour).
The probe should start to make its first direct observations of Pluto later this month, but the real action will happen on July 14 when it makes its closest approach.
For the first time ever we'll get a close-up view of this distant celestial object. Following its brief flyby (the probe is moving to quickly to be captured by Pluto), New Horizons will explore the Kuiper Belt. Expect this to be one of the biggest science stories of 2015.
Pluto isn't the only dwarf planet we'll be visiting in 2015. After spending 14 months at Vesta, the Dawn spacecraft is now drifting towards Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. The dwarf planet (or asteroid, depending on your persuasion) features an average diameter of about 590 miles (950 km). The probe is expected to arrive on March 6. Image: Hubble.
The Large Hadron Collider has been offline for the past two years getting upgrades. Researchers have doubled its energy capabilities, which is expected to have a huge impact on the search for new particles; at higher energy levels, heavier particles can be produced.
Owing to these upgrades, physicists could discover new fundamental particles, as well as extra dimensions of reality and the identity of dark matter that makes up most of the mass in the universe. [source: LiveScience | image: CERN]
Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films
Elizabeth Gibney from Nature News explains:
Palaeogeneticists hope to sequence the complete genome from the 400,000-year-old Sima de Los Huesos human, found in a deep cave in northern Spain. The ancient human's mitochondrial genome was published in 2013, the product of a Herculean effort given the specimen's deteriorated bones. Decoding the rest of the genome is expected to be even harder, because of the relative scarcity of nuclear DNA. But the results could help to clarify the evolutionary relationship between humans, Neanderthals and another ancient group called Denisovans, and to identify episodes of inbreeding between distantly related hominins.
The Rosetta mission is still far from over. On August 13, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will pass through its perihelion, marking its closest approach to the Sun at a distance of 186 million kilometers (115 million miles), or 1.243 AU. At this distance, the comet's surface will explode with activity as ice and dust gets blown back into space. And Rosetta will be there to capture the action with its onboard camera. Image: ESA
Most politicians around the world now accept the reality of climate change, which is good news as far as a potential climate deal is concerned.
Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
After a promising last-minute deal reach last year at UN talks in Peru, the world is now looking ahead to the Paris climate talks in December. Goals for the conference include an agreed on target of 2 degrees C (3.6 F) above pre-industrial times, zero net global emissions by 2100 (or earlier), and a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies like solar and wind. [source: SciAm]
The European Space Agency's LISA Pathfinder is set to launch in July. Its mission is to test
the concept of low-frequency gravitational wave detection: it will put two test masses in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall, and control and measure their motion with unprecedented accuracy. To do this it will use inertial sensors, a laser metrology system, a drag-free control system and an ultra-precise micro-propulsion system.
It's a completely new way of observing the universe, and it could result in the very first detection of gravitational waves in space — those ripples in space-time predicted by Albert Einstein's General Relativity. Detecting these waves could help us better detect astronomical events that are thought to cause tiny distortions in the fabric of space itself.
As Francis Collins notes at the AARP Bulletin:
A few months ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued its first research awards for what's been called America's next moon shot: the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Researchers will develop innovative technologies to capture dynamic pictures that reveal how the brain's cells and complex circuits interact at the speed of thought. Then, we'll work to transform how we diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions, including depression, stroke, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
On a recent Reddit AMA, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed that he's going to present his company's vision of a "Mars transport system" later this year, one with a "completely new architecture."
He said the initial goal will be to take 100 metric tons of useful payload to the Martian surface. It would mark the first phase of a multi-year colonization scheme that could send more than 80,000 people to Mars by the mid-point of the century. In regards to the spacesuit, Musk said: "Our space suit design is finally coming together and will also be unveiled later this year. We are putting a lot of effort into design aesthetics, not just utility. It needs to both look like a 21st-century space suit and work well." [source: Inc. | image: SpaceX]
Despite the dusty setback experienced by the BICEP2 team in 2014, the search for ripples in the structure of spacetime, and signs of the universe's massive early expansion immediately after the Big Bang, will continue.
As reported in the LA Times:
Another paper will be coming out in January, according to Caltech astrophysicist James Bock, one of the lead scientists on the BICEP2 team. The scientists will continue to scan the skies in 2015 with their next-generation experiment, BICEP3.
Another experiment called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory is directly searching for gravitational waves. No luck over its 2002-10 run, but the scientists at LIGO (which operates two facilities, one in Washington state and the other in Louisiana) are set to unleash their newly built Advanced LIGO detectors, designed to be 10 times as sensitive as their predecessors.
LIGO should get going sometime in the late summer or early fall.
Beginning in March, the Cassini probe will return to Saturn's ring plane where it will perform various flybys of most of various moons. Some of them will be the closest encounters ever made by the probe, including extremely close flyby of Dione on June 16 and August 17. Then, on December 19, the Cassini probe will once again visit Saturn's moon, Enceladus, where it will hopefully capture images of the moon's geysers. [source: The Planetary Society | image: NASA/Cassini]
Two new U.S. research ships are about to set sail in the Arctic and Atlantic.
The NSF's Arctic research vessel Sikuliaq has already begun operations, exploring the waters off Alaska and the polar regions. It can collect seafloor sediment samples directly and dispatch robotic probes for underwater research. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is set to launch the Neil Armstrong, a general-purpose research vessel that will operate worldwide and incorporate the latest in geoscanning technologies. Both ships will enable scientists to explore the geology, biology, and health of the oceans. [source: LiveScience | image: Credit: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released]
Medical charities working in Liberia and Guinea have started trials of two untested drug treatments on Ebola patients. It's an unconventional attempt to control an epidemic that has killed 8,000 people to date. [source: SciAm]
Japan's Akatsuki Venus Climate Orbiter will make a second attempt to slip into Venus-orbit. It's already in space, but its first insertion attempt in 2010 was screwed up.
Image: Artist's impression of the Venus Climate Orbiter (aka. "Akatsuki") by Akihiro
If it succeeds, it will fill the gap in planetary exploration left by the death of Venus Express late in 2014. The probe is expected to arrive in November 2015, after which time it will make observations of Venus's clouds and surface using an infrared camera. It'll also search for lightning and determine whether volcanism still happens.
This could be a big year for cancer research. As City of Hope's Tami Dennis explains:
Every year, researchers make gains in the understanding of cancer, and physicians make gains in the treatment of cancer. As a result, every year, more cancer patients survive their disease.
In those ways, 2015 will be no different. What will be different are the specific research discoveries and the specific advances in screening and treatment. We asked City of Hope experts to weigh in on the research and treatment advances they predict for the year to come.
Some of those advances will make headlines around the world – expect to hear much more about T cell therapy and targeted drug therapy – while some will garner attention largely among those affected by, or treating, the disease.
Be sure to check out the specifics here.
Astronaut Scott Kelly is about to spend an entire year in space, while his twin brother, Mark Kelly, remains on Earth. NASA hopes to learn more about the effects of prolonged weightlessness by comparing the two after the mission. [source: Guardian | image: AP]
This is more technology than it is science, but it's pretty cool nonetheless. Later this year we could finally see the world's first 1,000 mph (1,600 km/h) car. The British Bloodhound Supersonic Car team will attempt to break the world land speed record in autumn 2015. Image: Bloodhound