Breakthrough of the year 2014 and runners-up

As for the last two years, my first post of this new year will be an overview of the ten scientific advances the editors of Science deemed the most notable of the year (see here for 2013 and 2012).

Breakthrough of the year 2014: the Rosetta mission

Most likely, you’ve already heard of the Rosetta mission’s little lander, Philae. Its landing on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was followed by hundreds of thousands of people live on November 12. As Philae went on collecting data for the following 57 hours, its anthropomorphized Twitter account kept on narrating what it was seeing and doing. With too little sunlight to recharge its batteries, the lander then went to sleep.

Although Philae’s landing on the comet 67P is in itself a significant achievement, what Science is celebrating as breakthrough of the year 2014 is actually the Rosetta mission as a whole. Indeed, as gripping as the landing was, most of the mission’s scientific return will be from the data collected by Philae’s mother ship, Rosetta. Launched in 2004, Rosetta was progressively brought in line with the 67P comet’s orbit by using the gravitational pulls of Earth and Mars. It reached 67P in August 2014 and has been orbiting the comet ever since, collecting data.

The primary advantage of Rosetta over similar past missions is that it will orbit the comet and collect data for many months (by contrast, previous missions were only flybys of a few hours). As it analyzes the gases found in 67P’s thin atmosphere (such as water, methane, hydrogen, but also rarer gases such as formaldehyde), as well as the jets of gas and dust emitted from the comet’s subsurface (as 67P comes closer to the sun, those deposits have begun to sublimate), Rosetta will provide clues that will help further understand how comets such as 67P formed 4.5 billion years ago. Getting to know in more details what comets are made of is also of particular interest to scientists, as many think that they may have contributed to starting life on Earth by providing water and organic molecules.

Rosetta has now already returned a most important finding, published online in Science on December 10: analysis of the comet’s water revealed a ratio of heavy hydrogen (deuterium) to regular hydrogen about 3-fold higher than that of water on Earth, indicating that 67P and similar comets (a group of comets belonging to the Kuiper belt) could not have played a significant role in delivering water to Earth.

For more on the subject, here are the article and video from Science.

Runners-up

– robots getting better at cooperating: a big challenge in robotics is to make robots better at sensing and interacting with their environment, and at responding to changing situations. This year has seen several research groups succeeding in getting robots to cooperate to accomplish simple tasks. For example, one team used how termite colonies work as a source of inspiration and programmed a group of robots to build a simple structure cooperatively.

– a refined picture of the evolutionary transition from dinosaurs to birds: making good use of more than two decades of fossil discoveries, evolutionary biologists analyzed data from many dinosaur, early bird, and extant bird species and built a refined model of how bird-like traits and the general bird body plan emerged over time, starting from dinosaur ancestors and eventually giving rise to birds.

– a youth factor in blood: several research groups reported in 2014 that blood from young mice could help regenerate muscles in old mice or even improve an aging mouse’s spatial memory. A small clinical trial involving Alzheimer’s patients is already underway.

– the development of “neuromorphic” chips: in an effort to build processors that will be better than current computers at integrating lots of information and carrying out complex tasks such as vision, computer engineers have devised chips that are more “brain-like”.

– the dating of cave art on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, to 40,000-35,000 years ago: taking the monopoly of symbolic art away from the humans populating Europe during the same period, these findings suggest that the capacity for symbolic expression either already existed in the modern humans that spread out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, or that it appeared independently in both European and Indonesian populations.

– and: the growth of insulin-producing pancreatic β-cells from embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells; manipulating a mouse’s memory using optogenetics; expanding the 4-letter (A, T, G, and C) genetic alphabet that makes up the DNA of every single living organism on Earth to 6 letters (A, T, G, C, X, and Y) in bacteria grown in the lab; the increasing use of CubeSats, little boxes that are relatively cheap to make and to send out into space and that can be used to monitor Earth’s surface (for example, monitor deforestation or river changes).

For more about all these scientific advances, here is the Science article, which contains links to more articles on each of these advances.

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