Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Yearly Science Roundup: 2013

We've reached the end of the year, and it's time to round-up the best of science from the past 365 days. It hasn't been easy narrowing down my favorite five science stories of 2013, but after a lot of thought, I've settled on the following:

5. Voyager 1 in Interstellar Space

Alright, so this technically happened in 2012, but NASA only confirmed it in 2013, so it counts! I've made it my #5 story, though, since it's semi-cheating.

Thirty-six years ago, Voyager 1 launched from Earth. As of August 25th, 2012, it officially reached interstellar space (...though it is still considered to be in our solar system, as it will be another three centuries before it even begins to touch the Oort Cloud). Congratulations, Voyager!

Scientists were able to detect this major milestone by noticing the change in density of the energy particles surrounding the spacecraft. Basically, Voyager 1 is now surrounded by particles ejected from other stars, and has moved beyond the bubble of particles ejected by our sun. It has entered the "space between the stars".

Which is pretty freaking amazing. Definitely one of the coolest things humankind has ever done. If you do nothing else in your last hours of 2013, take a moment to appreciate that there is a human-made vehicle hurtling beyond the edge of the sun's influence as we speak.

4. Biggest Volcano on Earth Discovered

Location of Tamu Massif, the biggest volcano on our planet!
Geology nerd time. Back on Planet Earth, scientists have discovered a volcano that completely blows the old record for "largest volcano" out of the water. (I made a joke! Get it? ...No? Read on...)

Tamu Massif is an underwater volcano off the coast of Japan (get it now?!). It was previously thought to be an area of many smaller volcanoes, but new evidence shows that it's actually just one really, really big one. It's FIFTY times larger than Mauna Loa, which up until this year had been considered Earth's biggest volcano. (Mauna Loa remains Earth's biggest active volcano, however.)

Tamu Massif is about 75% the size of the solar system's biggest volcano, Olympus Mons (on Mars). Lucky for us, it's been dormant for 144 million years, and doesn't look like it'll ever erupt ever again.

3. Hominins...Hominins Everywhere!

What a year in Human Evolution. With DNA studies galore throwing new surprises left and right, including new origins for Native Americans, a new species of human ancestor, and Neanderthal-inherited immunities, and then the whole debacle with the Dmanisi skulls throwing everything we know about speciation 2 million years ago into question...

...it's been quite the year.

But I think my favorite thing has been the exploration of the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. This expedition, led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, has already become one of the most successful of all time, and is certainly the most successful for the amount of time spent excavating in this cave.

Over 1000 hominin fossils have been recovered in just a matter of weeks. This is unlike anything paleoanthropology has ever seen before. The science of these fossils is yet to be done, but the sheer numbers are mindblowing. Check out this discussion with Lee Berger to hear the amazing story from beginning to end.

2. A Universe of Water

Artist rendition of a water plume on Europa.

Okay, so you've caught me. Picking five stories was impossible. Just like in the #3 slot on this list, the #2 slot is shoehorning in several stories.

2013 saw a huge increase in our understanding of where else water may be in our galaxy. Outside of our solar system, over 1000 exoplanets have been identified, and Hubble has detected water in the atmospheres of five of those so far. This is HUGE. Trying to detect water in the atmosphere of planets out of our own solar system has been a goal for a long time. Just imagine what we'll know about exoplanets by this time next year!

Back in our solar system, Hubble has found water in plumes from Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is thought to have giant oceans under its icy surface. And on Mars, Curiosity has been going strong. From water in the soil, to the discovery of an ancient freshwater lake, Curiosity has proven that there were once places on Mars that were perfect for the existence of life. And, in case anyone has forgotten, determining if Mars could've been suitable for life was the main goal of Curiosity's mission.

Here on Earth, water is so commonplace, you'd never think it'd make the news. But even here water made headlines, when some ridiculously old H2O was found in a Canadian mine. This water dates back 2 BILLION years, and is teaching us all sorts of things about the chemistry of that area from that time.

But even all of this excitement can't top what thrilled me most in science in 2013. Without further ado, I give you the absolute coolest science story of the year...



Seriously, guys. This actually happened. I've done three different blog posts about this event already this year. I will talk about this until the end of time.

Because seriously. THIS HAPPENED.

If you want to read about the science of it, I suggest you check out my original post from February 15th. Or my follow-up post, the day after. Or my post about the origins of this space rock from August. Any of those will do. For now, though, I'd like to wrap up my 2013 blog with this gorgeous picture, supplied by NASA.

Happy New Year to everyone out there! May 2014 bring us more science excitement, a new batch of amazing discoveries, and at least one neat thing to smile about each day.

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