It’s barely a month into the year, but already 2019 has been a great year for science.
Indeed, within the first 72 hours of the year two space exploration records were broken, starting with New Horizons’ flyby of (486958) 2014 MU69 aka Ultima Thule, a trans-Neptunian object that is a member of the Kuiper belt, on January 1st at 5:33 UTC (GMT + 0 ). At a distance of ~4 billion miles from Earth, Ultima Thule is the most distant celestial body that we have ever sent a probe to, the previous record being held by Pluto as visited by the same craft back in July of 2015.
Due to the poor download rate over a distance of 4 billion miles, it will take until September 2020 for NASA to collect all the data taken during the flyby, hopefully giving scientists a valuable insight into the formation of the solar system.
Secondly on January 3rd at 2:26 UTC the Chinese National Space Administration’s Chang’e 4 probe achieved the first ever soft landing (it didn’t crash) on the far side of the Moon.
Chang’e 4’s main mission is to study the composition of an unexplored area of the moon, but also contained a sealed biosphere containing seeds and insect eggs, attempting to create a micro ecosystem. On January 15th it was reported that multiple types of seeds had germinated, the first time a seed had germinated on the Moon, but unfortunately the experiment was cancelled after 9 days due to the cold of the lunar night, as opposed to after the previously planned timeframe of 100 days.
Additionally, at 19:43 UTC on December 31st, the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft broke another space exploration record entering into orbit around asteroid 101955 Bennu, the smallest object to ever be orbited by a manmade satellite at a diameter of ~600m. This record was broken just as central Asia was welcoming 2019, so it just made the cut for this article. OSIRIS-Rex will make a touchdown on the surface of Bennu in 2020 to retrieve a physical sample, which will return to Earth in September 2023.
A bit closer to home, on January 15th a study was published containing preliminary designs for the Future Circular Collider (FCC), a particle accelerator based at CERN in Geneva with a circumference of 100Km, nearly 4 times the length of the LHC. The new collider would collide protons with energies up to 100TeV, over 7 times the maximum energy of the LHC today which would allow scientists to perform more accurate measurements on particles, as well as probe deeper for new physics.
At an estimated cost of £20bn the cost of the FCC is quite hard to swallow, especially since the LHC has failed to discover any new physics since the Higgs back in 2012. There are many who argue that there could be a greater return on investment if the money was spent in other fields, however CERN aren’t the only ones considering such a device. Physicists at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing are also considering building a similar collider.
Not all the good news is in the realm of physics. Published in the journal Science Advances, a group of scientists believe that the bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis, which is typically associated with chronic gum disease, could play a central role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Tests performed on mice showed that it was possible for the bacteria to travel to the brain and that the toxin they release is able to destroy neurons in the brain. Drugs were then tested in the mice and were found to halt degeneration in the brain. Some scientists in the community are sceptical, but the team has developed a drug that will be undergoing clinical trials in people with Alzheimer’s later this year.
This has been but a glimpse into the incredible science that has been performed already this year, hopefully we can expect even more incredible research and findings to be announced throughout the coming months.