June 5, 2020

2008: The Year in Science.

It’s been a wild and wacky year in the realm of science and astronomy. Phoenix hailed a return to Mars surface science, the Hubble hobbled along, and CERN started up and humanity survived. All in the backdrop of a heated election year!

Phoenix on Mars- The success of the Phoenix lander heralded the return of Mars polar science after in failure of the ill fated Mars Polar Lander in 1999. It also marked the first successful hard (i.e.: non-bouncy) landing on Mars since the 1970′s. Phoenix has discovered evidence of water ice and percolates (salt) beneath the Martian soil. With the long Martian winter setting in, the lander will more than likely remain silent. Farewell, Phoenix!

The Fate of Hubble- The saga of the Hubble space telescope has been an on again, off again drama. The October repair mission, STS-125 of the Atlantis orbiter, was slipped to a tentative May 12th, 2009 date when the main computer of Hubble failed. Engineers managed to bring Hubble back on line, but the ultimate fate of the repair mission is still under review at this time.

The Manned Space Program- As 2008 ends, the direction of the manned space program stands at a cross roads. The shuttle is due to be retired in 2010. The first Ares/Constellation tests are due in 2009, although the first manned flight probably won’t be until 2014. Meanwhile, the International Space Station is still in orbit and growing. (Check out how bright it is sometime!) Which way we eventually decide to go is anyone’s guess. Returning to the Moon and eventually on to Mars would be infinitely cool, but only if we’re planning to stay. We’d like to see some creative manned missions, such as a mission to an Earth crossing asteroid (Apophis in 2029 comes to mind…)

The Nobels- Nobel winners get the girls (or guys) right? This years’ Nobel for Physics was a three way awarded to Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi, & Toshihide Maskawa for the discovery of the analysis of the broken asymmetrical nature of the universe. It’s nice to know that we weren’t imagining things.  Will the higgs-boson (or lack there-of) be next?

CERN startup- The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) performed its first test run this earlier this year, and the Earth didn’t disappear in a puff of strange matter. The LHC now ranks, however, as the coolest cyber geek toy out there, way cooler than blue-ray. The touted birthplace of the Internet, (did Al Gore work there?) CERN promises a whole menagerie of spin-off discoveries over the next decade. More to come!

The First Exoplanet Imaged (Again?) – A gold standard for planetary astronomy was claimed twice this year; the first ever direct image of an exo-planet. Until recently, their existence was only inferred by observing the Doppler shift in their parent stars. This allowed us to guessti-mate (like hunch, this is a technical term) the minimal mass and orbital period of the unseen planet, but precious little else. Direct detection will allow us to refine these elements, as well as produce a spectrum, which should tell us something about their respective compositions. As is usually the case, follow-up observations will bare these discoveries out!

A chilly lunar eclipse- On the home front, the February total lunar eclipse was probably the coolest event we personally witnessed this year. The temps were bitter, but the Moon was a bright rose red during totality. It brings to mind a lunar eclipse that I sketched for high school science class; I nearly frost bit my fingers for science during that one, as well!

The Ig nobel awards- Here’s were the real science gets done; each year, the ignoble awards shine a spot light on diverse and fascinating research that the mainstream media may otherwise  ignore. Our favorite this year; the Award in Economics research that shows ovulating lap dancers earn higher tips. (No, we won’t include an image for this!) This was a real study, conducted by the University of New Mexico. And all in the name of scientific field research!

Most important unreported story of the year- silicon batteries? A potential breakthrough in silicon battery technology was the tale that wasn’t reported, but should have been. It’s been long known that silicon can hold much more capacitance than current lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride technology; the chief draw back is that it also degrades rather quickly. But advances in nanotechnology may promise a break though. Imagine, a 20- hour laptop battery that you would only need to park and charge at night; this might also finally allow the electric car and solar energy to take off!

The election- Of course, is story that got beat to death in the U.S. was the presidential election.We heard about expensive planetarium projectors, a new NASA vision , and bears that don’t deserve DNA studies. How is this science? Because the next leader will make appointments that will determine America’s technological future for decades to come; and we’re already frighteningly behind on such issues as Global Warming, scientific research, and education. The next C-in-C will definitely have his work cut out for him!

But enough of rehashing the old; expect to see forthcoming articles on exciting science to watch for in 2009, as well as observing highlights coming to a backyard near you. And that goes for the year in science fiction, as well!

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