2019 is already out of this world for scientific breakthroughs
The new year is already in gear for science, but 2018 set a high standard
At only four days old, 2019 has already boldly gone beyond what used to be the final frontier.
A Nasa spacecraft has just reached the most distant target in history – the Kuiper Belt, some six billion kilometres from the sun.
Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on its journey toward the solar system’s edge to study Pluto and the dwarf planet’s five moons.
“Last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told a news conference on Tuesday.
In other breakthroughs so far this year, a study showed that cannabis potency had doubled across Europe in the past 11 years, and scientists said the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics would usher in an era of new clean-energy technology.
Such developments early in the year come on the back of a strong 2018 for AI, which saw machine-learning tools placed in the cloud for the first time.
This makes AI cheaper, easier to use and more accessible for everyday use, rather than remaining in the domain of big tech companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft.
So far, for many other companies, it has been too tricky to implement or just plain unaffordable. As it increasingly becomes a cloud-based service, economies the world over should see a boost.
Last year also saw the biggest step so far in creating a male birth-control pill.
University of Washington researchers said in March that they had come up with a pill that contained a combination of hormones that suppressed sperm production. It would need to be taken once a day, and it has so far demonstrated very few side effects.
This is refreshing, since earlier attempts producing a pill using testosterone proved dangerous to the liver, and the pill had to be taken twice a day.
A major moment in environmental science last year was a damning climate change report card that came as a shock to many.
The UN said there were now only 12 years left to stop warming in its tracks. If efforts failed, the planet could expect a horror show of extreme heat and an ecology so out of sorts that daily life could become unbearable.
Last year also saw the discovery by top global astronomers of water on Mars. This was something that had dogged scientists for decades on end: they could tell from the planet’s topography and subterranean ice deposits that there was a possibility of water, but 2018 saw the confirmation of that.
It was in July that the Italian Space Agency made the announcement, describing how its ground-penetrating radar system had discovered an underground lake said to be a metre deep and about 19km wide.
In the world of medicine, tongues were wagging when the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease came under the spotlight, with scientists bringing us one step closer to a cure.
Researchers extracted stem cells from Alzheimer’s patients and others who were healthy, and used these cells to create brain cells. By doing that, they could pinpoint the gene that causes Alzheimer’s by producing too much of a neuro-damaging protein.
From there, they figured out how to change the structure of that protein. It will be years before a cure is on the table, but this is a giant leap.
In the controversial world of cloning, 2018 saw a major breakthrough when two monkeys were duplicated at the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai. This was done using the same method used for Dolly the sheep all those years ago.
In the past, we have also seen other animals such as mice, dogs, cats and cows being cloned, but the challenges with primates were too much of a barrier. The importance of the breakthrough is that primates are the most suitable animals for studies on human diseases.
And then there was the discovery of a dinosaur the size of a bus. An international team discovered the remains of the 80-million-year-old sauropod with bony plates in its skin in the Sahara desert. It had a long neck, long tail and was herbivorous. It was deemed a remarkable find since dinosaurs from the era in which they were wiped out by an asteroid are incredibly rare in Africa.
The newly-named Mansourasaurus helped palaeobiologists address the issue of what animals were living where when an asteroid slammed into Earth and wiped them out.