Now that we are coming to the end of 2020 I thought I would do a quick review of what has happened in the past year in science and technology. Despite everything else that has happened, 2020 has been an extremely busy year for science.
COVID 19 – Research and Vaccine
There is no doubt that the volume of research into COVID-19 and the speed of vaccine development has been astounding. The medical community has only been aware of this since around late December 2019 and in the first 6 months of the year it was estimated that over 23,000 research papers had been published on the topic. Never before has so much money and time been directed towards researching a topic in such a short space of time. Some estimates say up to 33 billion Euro has been directed towards vaccine research. In little over a year, scientist have managed to successfully produce a vaccine that has shown to be effective in trials and is now being administered in many parts of the world. This process can normally take 5 to 10 years.
In May, Space X flew the first commercial flight to the International Space Station. This was the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle that a human has launched from US soil. Space X also has been advancing steadily in developing their Starship. The latest test was a 12km atmospheric test flight. Although it did end in a crash, the test was a huge success and the reason for the failure turned out to be a pressurization issue in the header tank which will be rectified for the next test. China also conducted an uncrewed test mission of its next crewed spacecraft.
It’s been a really busy year for space exploration. The Mars launch window saw the launch of 3 spacecraft to the red planet. China also launched a new mission to the Moon called Change 5 which has returned the first Moon samples since the 1970s and from a part of the moon previously not sampled. In addition to this NASAs OSIRIS-REx landed on asteroid Bennu and collected a sample which will be returned to Earth. JAXA (Japanese Space Agency) successfully returned samples from another asteroid called Ryugu. They landed in the Australian desert in early December.
Phosphine on Venus
In September we had the announcement of the discovery of large volumes of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. In addition to this, the team of researchers behind the discovery have tried multiple methods to explain the phosphine. They concluded that no known chemical process can create the quantity seen so it is possible that either life of some unknown chemical process is at work. Either way it would be exciting. Some studies since then have claimed that the quantities detected were over estimated so time will tell whether this is the case or not.
Hints of DNA found in Dinosaur fossil
In March, researchers from China’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology reported that they has found what appeared to be traces of cells in a dinosaur fossil. The fossil came from a creature that lived about 75 million years ago in Montana. Inside the fossil, the researchers could see, what appeared to be cells and dark spots which could be the nucleus containing DNA. So far though, they have not attempted to extract the DNA from the fossil so there is no way to know for sure if it is DNA.
Bright comets are rare and we were treated to one in July. Comet C2020 F3 NEOWISE was discovered by the NEOWISE spacecraft on 27th March 2020. It made it’s closest approach to the Sun on 3rd of July 2020 and after emerging from the encounter with the Sun, became one of the brightest comets seen in recent years.
This is just a taste of what went on in the world of science in 2020. For a year marked by universities, labs and observatories closed due the pandemic it was probably one of the productive.