The Year in Science: The Defining Scientific Achievements of 2015

Wednesday, 30 December 2015 - 12:43PM
Alien Life
Wednesday, 30 December 2015 - 12:43PM
This year was a huge year for science, especially with regard to achievements in space exploration. NASA seems to be making strides daily in the goal to make humans a multiplanetary species (not to mention finding water on a certain nearby planet), while researchers also made huge discoveries in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, and more. Here are the defining scientific accomplishments that will be remembered from 2015:

Water on Mars

In October, NASA made history when they announced that they have "strong evidence" that there is water on Mars. The presence of slope paths and hydrated salts, discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, indicated that liquid water flows seasonally on the Red Planet. If it pans out that there is actually liquid water, and it seems that scientists are fairly certain, there's a much better chance that we could discover recognizable extraterrestrial life.

As luck would have it, NASA just so happened to making this announcement just days before the NASA-heavy Ridley Scott film, The Martian, came out in theaters.

(Incidentally, NASA made the discovery months before but waited to time the announcement, and actually told Ridley Scott before telling the public so he could work it into the movie.) 

New Horizons Pluto Flyby

After more than nine years and three billion miles, New Horizons finally reached Pluto in July of this year. The historic mission has yielded a deluge of information about the mysterious former ninth planet; aside from that endearing heart-shaped feature filled with frozen carbon dioxide and methane, scientists discovered huge mountains of water ice, a thin blue atmosphere or "haze," and much more.

Genetically Engineered Human Embryos

In possibly the most controversial study of the year, Chinese geneticists modified the DNA of a human embryo for the first time in history. Using the gene editing tool CRISPR, the researchers modified the gene that causes a rare heritable blood disorder. While there are undeniable potential benefits to this technology, there are also many risks and ethical considerations when modifying traits that could be passed on to future generations, leading the White House to call for a moratorium on human gene editing.

Breakthrough Listen

In July, billionaire Yuri Milner announced a $100 million project that would bring all of the greatest minds in the world together in order to search for alien life. Notable supporters include Stephen Hawking, Kip Thorne, NASA astronauts Mark Kelly and Thomas Stafford, SETI director Seth Shostak, Frank Drake, who created the infamous Drake Equation, and Seth MacFarlane, for some reason. Unfortunately, the project was denied access to the largest telescope in the world, the Arecibo Observatory, but the initiative includes funding for partnerships with three of the world's foremost observatories: the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the Automated Planet Finder telescope in California and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. This is by far the greatest attempt to find alien life yet, and could lead to the discovery that we are not alone in the universe. 

Elon Musk vs. Killer Robots

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, real-life Iron Man, and artificial intelligence alarmist, continues to insist that sentient killer robots are an imminent danger. So naturally, he donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, which works to "mitigate existential risks facing humanity," including killer AI. At least $7 million of his donation is going towards AI research that aims to improve policy surrounding AI as well as the decision-making skills of the AI itself, ie making sure it understands human thought processes and ethics.

Physics-defying EM Drive

The initial announcement that NASA had developed an EM drive was met with a considerable amount of skepticism from the scientific community, but last month NASA finally announced that their "impossible" EM drive actually works. Tests on the EM Drive have now been carried out by both NASA and independent researchers, and while they were unable to confirm all of the claims made by NASA's initial announcement, they did confirm that the drive was able to produce thrust in a vacuum. If this technology actually checks out, NASA may have just made faster-than-light travel possible in the relatively near future. 

Self-Driving Cars Hit the Road

While Google is still testing their completely autonomous car, Tesla beat them to the punch a little bit, as they launched a version of their Model S which enables self-driving features. While it's not entirely autonomous (yet), it can drive itself to stay in the current lane, maintain speed and distance from the car ahead, scan for parking spots and park itself, and even change lanes on its own. 

Year in Space

In March, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko set off to the ISS for an entire year, the longest-ever residency on the space station and one of the longest spaceflights a human has ever achieved. Not only will this be an extraordinary achievement on its own, but NASA will also gain invaluable data on the effects of spaceflight on human physiology. Scott's former astronaut identical twin brother, Mark, will serve as a control group back on Earth for a multitude of twin studies that will examine spaceflight's effects on organs, mental health, stomach bacteria, and DNA.

Ceres's White Spots

Earlier this year, pictures from NASA's Dawn spacecraft revealed multiple mysterious white spots of unknown origin on the dwarf planet Ceres. Scientists were baffled at these features for several months, speculating everything from geyser activity to salt deposits to volcanoes. But the most likely explanation from the beginning was thought to be some kind of ice, and researchers found that the white spots are probably the result of an active geological feature made of ice that is warmed by the sun and plumes into a "cryovolcano." Observations will resume during Dawn's closest orbit of Ceres this month, so we should have a definitive answer early next year. 

Super Blood Moon

Super Blood Moon
This rare astronomical event in September consisted of a simultaneous blood moon and supermoon, which is extremely rare, only occurring five times in the entire 20th century. The blood moon, or total lunar eclipse, occurs when the moon passes directly behind the Earth into its shadow, which can only occur when the Earth and moon are perfectly aligned, or during a full moon. The supermoon occurs when a full moon is at its closest to Earth, and so appears up to 14% larger to the naked eye. This stunning phenomenon won't happen again for another 18 years, on October 8, 2033.

NASA Announces Uranus and Neptune missions

After completing their historic mission to Pluto, NASA is planning a potential unmanned visit to the "ice giants" of our solar system: Uranus and Neptune. There's no scheduled date for the mission yet, and NASA is booked solid until the Europa mission in 2025, but these icy destinations will likely be next in line. If the mission comes to fruition, this would mark our first jaunt to Neptune in over 26 years.

Possible (But Not Probable) Dyson Sphere

Last month, astronomers detected a bizarre light pattern emitting from a star in a faraway galaxy that seemed to defy explanation, as it experienced asymmetrical and non-periodic dips of brightness of up to 22%. This led some scientists to speculate about an extraterrestrial Dyson sphere, or a megastructure built by aliens that partially obstructs the light as it orbits. Several other explanations have been proposed, with many scientists theorizing that it's the result of a family of orbiting comets, but still, we can dream.
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