February 24, 2020

2010: A Lookback at the Year in Science and a Look Ahead.

2009 was a year of silent triumph in the world of science. Unmanned spacecraft scoured the solar system, while at home, we saw the first tentative steps signaling a transitioning of manned spaceflight. Indeed, as we pause to enter a new decade, all eyes are on change and what it will bring about for science and the world at large. As we endeavor to keep up with our ceaseless calendar, here’s the Astroguyz down and dirty on happenings in 2009 A.D. and a look ahead;

The old:

-                      Without a doubt, the story biggest spaceflight was STS-125, the on again, off again mission to repair the ailing Hubble Space Telescope. The mission was flawlessly executed, and we were proud to attend the launch of shuttle Atlantis. All indications are that Hubble is ready and open for business once again, and is now known as the Space Telescope that will not Die.

-                      Of course, water throughout the solar system was the science mantra of 2009, culminating with the LCROSS impact on the moon in October. Although visually disappointing, all evidence points towards water mixed into the lunar regolith, a big plus for future human exploration. Farther out, tantalizing evidence for water ice on Mars and even methane lakes on Titan was also in the news.

-                      Meanwhile, at the Kennedy Space center, the ARES X-1 launch signaled a tiny but affirmative step back to the Moon. It also demonstrated a firm commitment of the new administration’s support for manned spaceflight. The next Ares test launch won’t be until 2012, and the first manned missions utilizing the craft won’t be until 2015, and the first new footsteps on the lunar surface? Don’t expect that until at least 2020!

-                      NASAs Kepler Space Telescope executed a flawless launch and is now open for business, already detecting exoplanets as it diligently stares off into the constellation Cygnus. Small Astroguyz bet: the number of known worlds beyond our solar system will top 1,000 on our front page counter in 2010!

-                      The 2009 Nobel Prize in physics, the closest and occasionally astronomical-themed Nobel on the docket went to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for their invention of the semiconductor circuit, also lovingly known as a CCD chip. It’s hard to imagine that little over a decade ago, these little gadgets had yet to totally transform photography and we used to have to endure such tedium as developing film! Now, CCD chips are imbedded in every laptop webcam and cell phone, astro-photographers routinely delete photos that would’ve been the envy of astro-nerds a decade ago, and the families’ trip to Six Flags is forever enshrined for electro- posterity. Thanks, Bill and George!

-                      On the evolution front, a new hominid find joined the ever expanding family tree; Ardi, a fossil first discovered in 1992, was published by a team of UCLA Berkeley scientists led by Tim White as the oldest pre-human skeleton hominid ever found. Ardi walked the earth about 4.4 million years ago in the area now known as the Middle Awash river basin (see above) in Ethiopia. Among the surprises was the fact the Ardi appears to have walked upright, lending credence to the idea that we were bipedal much earlier than previously thought. The Creation Institute could not be reached for comment.

-                      …And on the we-barely-understand-this front, the first key stepping stone in unifying group theory and number theory was proven this year. First proposed in 1979 by Robert Langlands, the initial proof, known as the Fundamental Lemma, was solved by Ngo Bao Chau at Princeton. Mathematicians the world ‘round breathed a collective sigh of relief, and threatening emails, tweets, and facebook page defacements dropped by a corresponding ratio. Now, will someone please solve P versus NP before I die?

The new:

-                      The big news in spaceflight this year will also be a slightly sad one; the end of the space shuttle program. This year will see the last respective flights of the three remaining orbiters in the shuttle fleet; Atlantis (May 14th), Endeavour, (July 29th) and Discovery, which is the last flight of the shuttle program on September 16th. Fittingly, this last flight STS-134 was added on to finally get the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer into space. This astrophysics experiment was due to launch in 2003, but was shelved after the Columbia disaster.

-                      NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is slated for launch on February 3rd out of the KSC. SDO will study the Sun and our solar environment with unprecedented accuracy, and along with the STEREO spacecraft currently aloft will give us nearly unbroken full time data from our nearest star. But the real burning question is; will yours truly, Astroguyz, be selected to participate in the first unmanned space flight tweetup for SDO? Stay tuned!

-                      Other interesting missions are tentative, such as the Japanese space programs’ Venus Climate Orbiter, rumored for launch this year. Also, in the down, but not out, category, the Cassini spacecraft continues to orbit Saturn, the Mars rovers solider on, and even the Voyager spacecraft occasionally phone home from the depths of the interstellar medium… and let’s not forget the Mars Phoenix Lander, which returned some quality science last year from the Red Planet… the spacecraft is currently incased in CO2 ice, but engineers plan to hail it later this month…will the Phoenix rise again?

-                      As global warming enters public consciousness, another quiet revolution is brewing; that of eco-tech. If you buy a laptop, cell phone, or car this year, chances are, it’ll be hybrid use or have an economy setting, as consumers are now more conscious than ever of their environmental impact. Our new laptop even has a touch “eco” setting that charts power usage and CO2 production. These would’ve been unthinkable even a few years ago and perhaps represent a tiny but perceptible shift in personal responsibility; the only big question is, will it come in time?

-                      On a happier, cool-telescopes swinging into action front; the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has been growing in the high Chilean plateau and promises to revolutionize astrophysics. Specifically, the 50 dish array will be able to scrutinize the millimeter and submillimeter bands with a higher resolution than is currently possible. We may see the first science out of ALMA in 2010, although the complex won’t be complete until 2012.

-                      And finally a story is in the works that could prove to be the next Internet-style revolution for the next decade. In 2009, the human epigenome was decoded at last. What now remains is to figure out what role these genes play in our biological makeup, and the spin offs from this research may do nothing short of revolutionizing, well, everything….

So there you have it; a rehashing of what was, and a template of what to watch in 2010. This first decade of the 21st century was a rough one; if nothing else, perhaps science will at least give us the hope and the wisdom to save us from ourselves, and make our short time here together just a little bit better…

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