5 Science Stories to Watch in 2013


Over the past year, we’ve seen a ton of scientific milestones and discoveries of historic importance, from the discovery of the Higgs Boson to the landing of a mobile laboratory on Mars. Science, though, is defined by its relentless march forward: No matter how much we learn, there are always more questions to answer. So, after our roundup of 2012′s most surprising (and significant) scientific events, we bring you the most exciting studies, projects and science developments we’ll be watching for in 2013. 

1. Comet Ison: Back in September, a pair of Russian astronomers discovered a new comet heading in our direction. At the time, it was just a faint blip detectable only with the most sophisticated telescopes, and it was unclear how visible it would become during its approach. Now, though, astronomers are predicting that when it passes by us and closely orbits the sun in November and December of 2013, it could be the astronomical sight of our lifetimes. “Comet Ison could draw millions out into the dark to witness what could be the brightest comet seen in many generations—brighter even than the full Moon,” astronomer David Whitehouse writes in The Independent. One thing’s for sure: we’ll be watching. 

2. Lake Vostok: For more than a decade, a team of Russian scientists has worked to drill nearly 12,000 feet down into Antarctica’s icy depths with a single purpose: to obtain samples from the ultra-deep isolated subglacial lake known as Lake Vostok. After barely reaching the water’s surface last Antarctic summer, they now plan to return at the end of 2013 to drill fully into the lake and use a robot to collect water and sediment samples. The lake may have been isolated for as long as 15 to 25 million years—providing the tantalizing potential for long-term isolated evolution that could yield utterly strange lifeforms. The lake could even serve as a model for the theoretical ice-covered oceans on Jupiter’s moon Europa, helping us better understand how evolution might occur elsewhere in the solar system.

Written By: Joseph Stromberg
continue to source article at blogs.smithsonianmag.com


  1. I think this one should be added to the list!

    Some scientists, however, find the prospect of eternal confinement to two small planets in a vast galaxy just too depressing to contemplate. “If we start now, and we have started, I believe we can achieve some form of interstellar exploration within a hundred years,” says Andreas Tziolas. A physicist and former NASA researcher,
    Tziolas is a leader of Icarus Interstellar, a nonprofit organization that aims, as its mission statement says, “to realize interstellar flight before the year 2100.” It is now collaborating with former shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison. In early 2012 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded her $500,000 for something called the 100 Year Starship project. “Our task is not to launch a starship but to make sure the technologies and abilities exist within the next hundred years to do that,” Jemison says.

    Tziolas thinks we could develop a starship engine that harnesses nuclear fusion, the energy source of stars and hydrogen bombs. When the nuclei of small atoms such as hydrogen fuse, they release enormous energy—much more than is released by the nuclear fission of large atoms such as uranium, the energy source of nuclear power plants and of the old NERVA. While physicists have built fusion reactors, they haven’t yet found a way to make one that yields more energy than it consumes. “I have faith in our ingenuity,” Tziolas says. Only seven decades elapsed between the discovery of subatomic particles and NERVA, he points out; by 2100, he thinks, we should be able to create a fusion engine that could propel a starship to a top speed of 15 to 20 percent of the speed of light.

    That would allow it to reach the nearest star in another few decades—if its machinery could last that long.

    To build a starship, you first have to build a future that converts fiction into fact, and that takes a lot more than rocket science. The task isn’t figuring out right now how to design a starship; it’s continuing to build the civilization that will one day build a starship. Framed like that, more expansively, it begins to seem less impossible. But it’s a 100-year project or maybe a 500-year project, depending on your craziness level. Johnson’s level is lowish.

    “I don’t know what the world will be like in 500 years,” he says. “If we have fusion power plants, and space-based solar panels beaming energy down, and we’re mining the moon and have an industrial base in low Earth orbit—maybe a civilization like that could do it. We’ll have to be a civilization that spans the solar system before we can think about taking an interstellar voyage.”

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