News in Science (January 2021) - All Important Science Events Occurred in 2020

News in Science (January 2021) - All Important Science Events Occurred in 2020

A number of significant scientific events occurred in the last year 2020.

science summary
photo credit: wikipedia


Arecibo Telescope Collapses

On December 1st the Arecibo telescope collapses. The telescope built-in 1963 in Puerto Rico was Earth's largest single-aperture telescope until 2016 with a diameter of over 300 meters and the source technology for many significant scientific discoveries. 

It was also used for the search of extraterrestrial intelligence and the ‘Arecibo message’ that was sent in the direction of a star cluster about 25 thousand light-years away in 1974. Over the last decade, several earthquakes, hurricanes, and storms raised concerns over the stability of the observatory. 

In 2020 two cable breaks – one in August and one in November – led teams of engineers to assess a high risk of collapse. One of the three teams determined there to be no safe way to repair the damage due to which the National Science Foundation announced the decision for a controlled decommissioning of the telescope a few days before the collapse. 

The World's First Regulatory Meat

The world's first regulatory approval for a cultivated meat product is awarded by the Government of Singapore. The meat was grown in a bioreactor from chicken cells in a fluid of amino acids, sugar, and salt. 

The chicken nuggets food products are about 70% lab-grown meat, while the remainder is made from mung bean proteins and other ingredients. The company hopes to have reduced the price down to prices some consumers are willing to spend for premium "restaurant" non-cultured chicken servings in the near future. 

Quantum Supremacy

Chinese researchers report the achievement of quantum supremacy, which refers to a quantum computer completing calculations classical supercomputers practically cannot. They used a system with 76 qubits of photons. 

Earlier that year scientists in the U.S. claimed to have reached quantum supremacy with a system that used 53 qubits of electrons instead of particles of light and has a set of advantages and disadvantages to the photonic system. 

Asteroid Ryugu

Samples from asteroid "Ryugu" collected with the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 are retrieved on Earth a decade after Hayabusa collected the first asteroid sample and includes dust from below the surface conserved for an estimated 4.6 billion years. 

It was sent off from 220 million kilometers away and may provide insights into the origin of life, the origin of the Solar system, and planetary defense from asteroid impacts. The spacecraft continues its flight on a 2026 and 2031 route to two other asteroids. 

Climate-Associated Costs

An analysis of climate costs of foods indicates that external greenhouse gas costs are typically highest for animal-based products – conventional and organic to about the same extent – followed by conventional dairy products and are lowest for organic plant-based foods. 

The study concludes that these ‘negative externalities’ render contemporary monetary evaluations "inadequate" and that policy-making that leads to reductions of these climate-associated costs – such as by decisions for- and enforcement of- policies that adjust these market valuations to true costs – to be possible, appropriate and urgent. 

First Detection of a Radio Signal From an Exoplanet

Astronomers report the possible first detection of a radio signal from an exoplanet. It was likely emitted by electrons spiraling along the planet's magnetic field lines. They scanned the Tau Boötes star-based system – one of the closest ones to Earth, just 51 light-years away. 

Scientists have tried detecting such radio signals for decades. Radio wave emissions may now become a new way for examining exoplanets. 

Chinese Chang'e 5 Spacecraft

The Chinese Chang'e 5 spacecraft return a lunar sample, which marks the first lunar sample-return mission conducted since 1976. The sample could provide insights into the history of the Moon and - as the lunar surface is well suited to preserve astronomical records - the Solar system. 

It could yield insights about late volcanism on the Moon, calibrate the surface ages of other Solar System bodies, and improve the record of past solar winds and galactic events. 

Sun-Earth Lagrange Point

The Orbiter proceeded on a mission to carry out observations and tests at a Sun-Earth Lagrange point after dropping the sample off to Earth. These points are places where the gravitation of two objects and the satellite’s centripetal force cancel each other out, which can be used by spacecraft to remain in a fixed position with minimal energy consumption. 

Astronomers detect radio emissions apparently coming from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun with a distance of only 4 light-years. The signal, termed "BLC1" for "Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1", received in April and May 2019 appears to have an artificial origin due to several peculiarities, especially its narrow bandwidth. 

If it is artificial it could still have been caused by terrestrial activity or man-made objects albeit a natural explanation for its persistent source positions is hard to construct, given that no satellite is known to exist in that direction, the frequency of the signal and its blueshift that indicates that the source moved towards Earth at the time. 

Scientists find that it could be or become the strongest candidate for an extraterrestrial radio signal since the "Wow! signal" of 1977 due to its peculiarities and because it passed all filters designed to weed out signals likely caused by terrestrial or human activity. 

Other astronomers and the project’s executive director stated that the most likely cause of this and other, yet unreported, signals are electromagnetic interference by man-made radio signals on Earth albeit the signal endured for 3 hours and was not recorded when the telescope temporarily pointed elsewhere – one of the filters. 

While a simple explanation - like the use of a microwave as with a previous detection of the observatory - appears unlikely due to such measures, scientists caution that it has not been sufficiently investigated for any robust conclusions about its source so far. 

The Largest Project for the Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence

The discovery by the largest project for the search of extraterrestrial intelligence, called "Breakthrough Listen", was leaked to The Guardian ahead of the release of two scientific papers describing the findings. 

A paper by other astronomers released 10 days before the news report about BLC1 reports the detection of "a bright, long-duration optical flare, accompanied by a series of intense, coherent radio bursts" from Proxima Centauri also in April and May 2019. 

Their finding has not been put in direct relation to the BLC1 signal by scientists or media outlets so far but implies that planets around Proxima Centauri and other red dwarfs are likely to be rather uninhabitable for humans and other currently known organisms. 

Molnupiravir

The antiviral drug Molnupiravir shows promise for suppressing COVID-19 transmission, completely suppressing spread within a day in tests with ferrets. Sniffer dogs could be highly effective in detecting SARS-CoV-2 in human sweat, with two colon cancer-trained dogs showing success-rates of 100% in their 68 tests. 

Mutated variants of SARS-CoV-2, including some with higher transmissibility and worldwide spread, are reported by national and international officials. While mutations are common for viruses and the spread of some of the virus’ mutations having gotten tracked earlier, mutations that make it more transmittable or severe can be problematic. 

Resources for disease surveillance have recently improved so that medical systems around the world are now equipped to detect such mutations with genomic surveillance in a manner relevant to pandemic mitigation. 

Current measures such as vaccines and medications seem to be effective in the treatment of infections with the tracked mutated variants. Scientists report detecting microvascular blood vessel damage in tissue samples without detected viral particles of the brains of patients who died with COVID-19. 

The Last Decade was the Warmest

The World Meteorological Organization reports that the last decade was the warmest on record and that 2020 is likely among the three warmest years on record globally, at 1.2 °C above the pre-industrial level. 

Microplastics

Scientists report finding microplastics in the placentas of women with unborn babies for the first time. These may have negative effects on fetal development. 

space junk

A near-Earth object is confirmed to be a rocket booster launched in 1966 - space junk that orbits Earth and the Sun. It had the motion typical of a main-belt asteroid but low velocity relative to Earth and showed solar radiation pressure effects. 

Planet Nine

New data on the orbit of a very large exoplanet around a very young double star-based system may help detect the mysterious object called "Planet Nine" in our Solar system. This is the first measurement of orbital motion similar to what has been predicted for "Planet Nine” in terms of the orbit’s large distance and misalignment. 

Functional Human Thymus

Scientists recreate a functional human thymus using stem cells and bioengineered scaffold, 3 years after another team created partly functional organoid versions that did not use a scaffold. They developed a novel process to remove cells from rat thymi so that only the scaffold remained, which they then injected human cells into to grow onto it, after which they transplanted the fetus-stage organ into mice. 

Luck

A supercomputer simulation suggests that chance may have played a substantial role in Earth's sustained habitability lasting over 3 billion years. Thousands of simulated planets were assigned randomly generated climate feedbacks and tested for whether they remained thermally habitable for 3 billion simulated years. 

The still-vague results along with present indications of the seemingly unlikely precarious balance of Earth’s climate suggest that a lot of luck - in terms of likeliness after known initial conditions - is required for natural planets in general. 

Bonobo genes

The first whole-genome comparison between chimpanzees and bonobos is published and shows genomic aspects that may underlie or have resulted from their divergence and behavioral differences. These include positive selection for genes related to diet and behavior-related hormones. 

Carbon sinks

Ecologists report that the driest and warmest sites of 32 Brazilian non-Amazon seasonal tropical forests tracked for about 15 years have already moved from carbon sinks to carbon sources with the overall sink of the 32 sites shifting to a carbon source ca. 2013. 

They note that this trend can be reversed and that human failure could cause the Amazon rainforest to undergo such a transition. A database of 110 thousand new craters in the low- and mid-latitude regions of the Moon is created using artificial intelligence algorithms. 

Source Credit:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_in_science (Wikipedia)

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