Despite recent budget cuts, NASA has made significant progress, not only in re-establishing human spaceflight, but actually going beyond Earth and sending astronauts deeper into space. After the Constellation Program was cancelled in 2010, many claimed that manned exploration of space would be placed on the backburner. In fact, this was simply untrue. New space vehicles were being developed with the specific aim of returning to the Moon and studying asteroids, before eventually going to Mars.
In 2014, a first unmanned test of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle took place, reaching a higher altitude than any craft intended for human use since 1973.* This was followed by the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018,* intended to carry Orion. Future upgrades of the SLS would allow even larger versions, with a 130-ton payload making it the biggest rocket ever built. The first manned outpost beyond the Moon was also under consideration. Known as the "Gateway Spacecraft", it would be placed at Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2 (L2), and function as a stepping stone for journeys to more remote destinations.*
In 2021, a first manned test of the SLS is conducted. In this same year, a crewed asteroid mission takes place. Using a robotic probe, NASA captures a small rock, which is dragged into a stable orbit around the Moon.* Astronauts are then sent to explore it, travelling on-board the SLS, before moving in closer with the Orion, followed by a smaller craft known as the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV).
The success of this first expedition leads to further asteroid missions in subsequent years.* Experience is gained in finding ways to deflect potentially harmful rocks that may threaten Earth. On-site examination also provides new insights into the economic value of these space rocks and the resources they contain – adding to the knowledge from private ventures like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. Perhaps more importantly, technologies can be tested, alongside training of processes, for later use in Mars missions during the 2030s.
Greenland moves towards full independence
The world's largest island, Greenland was first inhabited by humans around 2500 BC. The descendants of these early settlers died out and were succeeded by groups migrating from North America, followed by Vikings from Iceland who occupied the southwest coast in the 10th century. The Inuit appeared there later, about 1200 AD, surviving for several centuries. In 1721, missionaries and government officials arrived from Denmark to claim sovereignty over the island while converting its population to Christianity. Greenland became a colony of Denmark, with trading routes developed along the coast as well as a trade monopoly and other colonial privileges.
During WWII, Denmark was controlled by Germany, while the US and UK navies took control of the waters between Greenland and Denmark. In reality, Greenland was independent during these years and allowed the US to build bases on its territory. The pre-war situation was later restored, but the US bases remained and Denmark with Greenland joined NATO. In 1953, Greenland became part of Denmark with representatives in the Danish parliament. Both joined the European Communities (later to become the EU) in 1973.
In 1979, a referendum on home rule was held in Greenland, with 70% of voters in favour of greater autonomy from Denmark, leading to the establishment of a Greenlandic Parliament. With partial independence achieved, Greenland now had sovereignty in areas such as education, health, fisheries and the environment. Greenland voted to leave the European Communities in 1982, which became official in 1985 under the Greenland Treaty.
Further progress was made in 2008 when a self-government referendum passed with 75% approval, taking effect on 21st June 2009 (the 30th anniversary of home rule). This expanded Greenland's autonomy in 30 areas – including police, the courts, foreign policy, minerals and fossil fuel rights.* Greenlandic would become the sole official language and Greenlanders would become a separate people under international law. Danish subsidies would be gradually phased out.
A move towards full independence as a sovereign state now seemed likely. Some remained sceptical that a country with such a low population (60,000) and apparent lack of natural resources could sustain itself. It was still heavily reliant on fishing, tourism and the annual block grants from Denmark. However, Greenland's economy was about to undergo a major expansion.*
Far from being an empty, useless wilderness, Greenland was found to contain huge reserves of rare earth minerals and metals* – including diamonds, gold, iron, nickel, niobium, platinum, rubies, tantalum, uranium and zinc, as well as fossil fuels. The rare earths in particular were so abundant that according to estimates, they could potentially produce 25% of the world's supply,** reducing China's monopoly. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that 31.4 billion barrels of oil equivalent were lying off northeastern Greenland alone.* Analysts predicted that Greenland could become the world’s fifth-largest uranium exporter.
A ban on the mining of radioactive materials was lifted in 2013 and the first major new mining licence in years was awarded, with several companies planning operations in the region. A 30-year agreement with London Mining to extract iron ore was the largest project of its kind in Greenland’s history. Furthermore, these resources were becoming more accessible due to the rapidly melting ice cover.* The Arctic, as a whole, was known to be warming eight times faster than the rest of the globe.* In addition to more favourable conditions for mining, this was also opening up trade routes such as the Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.* New opportunities for hydropower were also becoming available.*
Unemployment and lack of opportunities had become chronic issues in Greenland. Infrastructure and educational improvements were badly needed to develop the region in the long-term. Mining was seen by many as the answer to these social problems, a way of ensuring major investment and the route to independence. Greenland's stable political environment and legal framework made it attractive to investors with Australia, Canada and China expressing particular interest in securing contracts.
Despite the obvious financial benefits, not everyone was keen for such massive industrial development in Greenland.** Some communities expressed deep concerns over the environment, biodiversity, threats to Inuit culture and traditions, and the impact of so many foreign workers arriving. Health and safety issues were raised over uranium mining, especially given the involvement of China with its lower standards and poor record on human rights.
Nevertheless, a clear majority of Greenland's people favoured expanding and diversifying the economy to pave the way for independence. A referendum occurs in June 2021 – a date chosen to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Danish rule.* Though it will take many more years of social and economic development to fully complete its transition, this landmark vote ensures that Greenland becomes the first true Arctic state. Later this century it gains considerable attention as further rises in temperature lead to accelerated ice melt, the surrounding seas become ice-free for months at a time and migrants attempt to resettle from countries affected by climate change.
crisis in southwest USA
parts of the USA – including Nevada, Arizona and southern California
– are now faced with crippling water shortages. Lake Mead,
a key source of water for over 25 million people (about 8% of
the US population), is running dry as a result of climate change.* Increased population growth and associated demand for water resources
have also played a part. Once the
largest reservoir in the country, its capacity has declined substantially, due to the Colorado River’s net deficit of nearly 1 million
acre-feet of water per year. As well
as providing fresh water, Lake Mead has been a major source of hydroelectric
power, via the Hoover Dam. Blackouts are now increasingly common. Authorities have been attempting to stabilise the situation by constructing
solar power facilities, as well as laying
groundwater pipelines from elsewhere in Nevada.*
Lake Mead as seen from the Hoover Dam, clearly showing
the "bathtub ring". Credit: Cmpxchg8b
The world's largest insect swarm re-emerges
Brood X is the largest of 15 groups of 17-year cicadas. Its members, all of the genus Magicicada, tunnel to the surface en masse, mate and lay eggs, then die. This is the biggest swarm of insects in the world. The area covered stretches from New York, down the East Coast to Georgia and west to Illinois.
The last time Brood X emerged was in 2004.* Countless billions of the insects infest the Eastern USA, with any existing tranquillity ruined by their incessant buzzing during the mating ritual, which is audible from a mile away. Despite the nuisance it causes, the emergence of this swarm is relatively short-lived. It also delivers vital nutrients to the topsoil, leaving the native environment noticeably better in the weeks after the ensuing die-off.
Five-year survival rates for breast cancer are approaching 100%
Worldwide, breast cancer accounts for nearly 23% of all cancers in women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers). In 2008, it caused 458,000 deaths, 13.7% of cancer deaths in women. It is over 100 times more common in women than in men, although men tend to have poorer outcomes due to delays in diagnosis.
In 2011, advances in genetics led researchers to identify 10 subtypes of breast cancer, each with its own unique genetic fingerprint.* In that same year, three genes linked to the most common form of breast cancer were found, including one responsible for driving the growth of tumours.*
Combined with personalised genomics, this paved the way for a new generation of drugs and other treatments that were precisely customisable for a particular individual. In many Western countries, five-year survival rates are now approaching 100%,** with 10-year survival likely to meet this level in the mid-2030s.*
Male birth control pills are entering the market
Early in this decade, the first male birth control pills are available for mass consumption.** Methods of chemical male birth control had been around for a few decades. Early efforts focused on using testosterone and synthetic hormones to limit sperm production, in a similar way to female birth control's effect on egg production. However, these proved to have too many negative side effects and were subsequently abandoned.
Other, non-hormonal methods were tried. Among the most successful was a compound known as JQ1, developed by US researchers in 2012.* This worked by targeting a testis-specific protein called BRDT that is essential for fertility. When mice were given the BRDT-inhibiting molecule, they began producing fewer sperm and those they did produce were unable to swim properly. Mating studies confirmed that JQ1 indeed worked as an effective male contraception. Even better, the effects were completely reversible, without adverse consequences for the animals' testosterone levels or behaviour. The molecule also left no apparent side effects on the males' future offspring.
The success of this new compound and the strong similarity between mouse and human BRDT proteins allowed JQ1 to proceed to clinical trials, beginning in 2013.* Following an eight year period,* it is available in pill form by 2021. This becomes the first new reversible contraceptive for men since the development of the condom, centuries ago.
The world's first artificial kidney
Kidneys perform a vital role in the human body: filtering blood, removing excess fluid and eliminating waste products. They are essential to the urinary system, the regulation of blood pressure (via salt and water balance) and the production of various hormones.
Kidney diseases are diverse, but their primary causes over the long-term are diabetes and high blood pressure. Among the most serious clinical conditions is end-stage renal disease (ESRD), affecting 2 million people worldwide. This can lead to complete failure of the kidneys to work at a level needed for day-to-day life. In the later stages of the illness, the only treatment options are dialysis or transplant. Although dialysis can be life-saving, it lasts for only a short time and then the procedure must be repeated. Organ transplants can help patients to regain their strength and mobility, allowing a return to more normal activities; but there is often a shortage of donors, plus the risk of rejection by their immune system. Stem cell treatments are beginning to emerge,* but have yet to include a complete replacement for kidneys.
A third option has been explored, however, which is now becoming available for the first time: fully artificial kidneys. This idea was researched at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), leading to a prototype model in 2010* and clinical trials beginning in 2017.* As part of a government innovation programme,* the development process for this particular project was accelerated, cutting the time required for approval.*
Using nanotechnology, the device can mimic almost all the vital functions of the kidney, while a bioreactor performs other renal activities. This is done without the need for pumps or electrical power – filtration is pushed along by the body's own blood pressure. Furthermore, the device has an indefinite lifespan, unlike real transplanted kidneys which typically last for 10 to 12 years.
Launch of the Terrafugia TF-X flying car
The Terrafugia TF-X is a plug-in hybrid tilt-rotor vehicle and the first fully autonomous flying car. It can avoid other air traffic, bad weather and restricted air space and navigate its way to pre-specified landing zones. Manual controls and overrides also exist in case of emergencies or unexpected situations. The TF-X has a range of 500 miles per flight and batteries are rechargeable by the engine. Launched in 2021, it has a starting price of about $280,000 putting it beyond the reach of most consumers.* However, cheaper flying and hovering vehicles become more widely available later this century and into the 22nd century.*
The first Arabian mission to Mars
This year sees the first mission to Mars by an Arabian country – in this case, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which sends an unmanned probe. The Arab League nations have established a pan-Arab space agency by now, headed by the UAE. This functions in a similar way to the European Space Agency.
The UAE had already invested more than 20 billion dirham (US$5.4 billion) in the space sector by 2014. This further expansion was aimed at diversifying its economy away from reliance on hydrocarbons and fostering new talent in technology and aerospace fields. It was also motivated by concerns over national security and the growing importance of satellite data, mobile communications, Earth mapping and observation. Thanks to its hi-tech facilities, Dubai is now a regional hub for satellite design and construction.* The Mars mission coincides with the 50th anniversary of the UAE's formation. It is helped by the fact that space projects are becoming increasingly cheap, easy and reliable, through a new generation of rockets and fuels.
In 2014, ruler of the UAE's emirate of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said the mission would prove the Arab world was still capable of delivering scientific contributions to humanity, despite the many conflicts across the Middle East: "Our region is a region of civilization. Our destiny is – once again – to explore, to create, to build and to civilize."*
The maiden flight of Ariane 6
The Ariane family of rockets has been operational since 1979, taking hundreds of satellites into orbit, along with famous telescopes and probes. They are manufactured under the authority of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES).
For many years, Ariane 5 had been Europe's flagship launch vehicle. Some of its payloads had included the Herschel Space Observatory (the largest infrared telescope ever launched), Planck observatory, Rosetta probe and the Automated Transfer Vehicle for resupplying the International Space Station.
Although highly reliable, this large rocket had become expensive to operate by the 2010s, with support costs of €120 million euros ($154 million) per year. At the same time, a number of entrepreneurs were presenting serious competition in the satellite market.* In order to address these concerns, a new generation of Ariane rockets would need to be devised.
Ariane 5 would be followed by Ariane 5 ME (Mid-life Evolution) in 2017. This would feature a new upper stage, with increased propellant volume, powered by the Vinci expander cycle engine. Able to restart up to five times, allowing for more complex missions – such as direct insertion to geostationary orbit – it would also include a longer payload fairing to accommodate larger satellites.
Ariane 5 ME would then be followed by Ariane 6 – a simpler, cheaper and more flexible launcher, with smaller payloads of between three and 6.5 tonnes, but incorporating the Vinci restartable upper-stage of the 5 ME. Production and operation costs would be €70 million euros ($89 million) per launch, around half that of Ariane 5. The basic design for Ariane 6 was agreed upon in July 2013* and the maiden flight occurs in 2021.* It remains in operation until the 2030s.
Credit: ESA–D. Ducros, 2013
India's first manned space flight
India becomes only the fourth nation – after Russia, the US and China – to independently launch humans into space. The rocket used is a variant of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).* This carries a largely autonomous 3.7-ton capsule with a three-person crew on board. They remain in orbit around the Earth at 248 miles (400 km) altitude for seven days, before splashing down in the Bay of Bengal. The total cost of the project is about 124 billion rupees ($2.67 billion). Originally planned for 2016, the mission faced delays, but is eventually launched in 2021.* Subsequent versions of the craft enable longer missions, including rendezvous and docking capabilities with space stations and other orbital platforms.*
to cut real estate costs, become more eco-friendly, and attract the growing
number of people seeking work-life balance, most companies by now have
adopted a "work wherever you want, whenever you want" policy. An increasingly
global talent pool is emerging, with firms aggressively pursuing
the best available workers – regardless of where they reside. Recruitment has shifted away from traditional print adverts and online jobs boards, focussing instead on social networking sites.
Rising travel costs have also encouraged these trends. Many employees now work a
four-day week, consisting of four 10-hour days, while telecommuting and teleconferencing have been further boosted by the growth of superfast broadband. This combination
of technology and work options is leading to
improved speed, productivity and efficiency in companies around the
Wireless electricity is reaching critical mass
Most of the latest electric/electronic devices now have antennas in place of batteries, drawing power from a single node mounted in the ceiling of a room. This eliminates the need for multiple wall sockets and bulky cables, greatly reducing clutter in homes and workplaces. It also allows for lighter and more compact handheld devices than ever before.
A magnetic coil is housed in a small box, which can be set into a wall or ceiling. Powered by mains, this resonates at a specific frequency. Electromagnetic waves are transmitted through the air, which are received by a second magnetic coil, fitted in the laptop/TV or other appliance. This resonates at the same frequency as the first coil and absorbs energy, charging the product.*
Wireless electricity development began with small, short-range devices like phone charger pads and electric toothbrush holders. Improving efficiency made it possible to beam power over distances of several metres. Gradually, it was incorporated into larger and more energy-hungry products – such as televisions, computers and even vehicles. A universal standard was also adopted, ensuring compatibility and expanding its mass market appeal significantly. By the early 2020s, the industry is generating over $15 billion in worldwide annual revenue and the system is fairly commonplace in homes and offices.** Laptop users in cafes, airport terminals and other public areas can now utilise "Wi-Tricity" hotspots. This does for battery life what Wi-Fi did for the Internet. Electric vehicle (EV) charging has been another successful growth area. EV drivers can charge by simply parking over a disk placed on the floor or embedded in the pavement.
These networks are completely safe to humans, with no possibility of being electrocuted by the invisible beams. Eventually, power lines begin to disappear from streets, electricity instead being passed wirelessly and unobtrusively from building to building. The first "wireless cities" emerge, with less visual clutter allowing for better urban design and aesthetics. Further into the future, this trend expands to encompass the entire world.
microchips are reaching the limits of miniaturisation
manufacturers are reaching the limits of miniaturisation for traditional silicon computer chips.
The smallest of these transistors are now being fabricated with a 5-nanometre (nm)
process. This is close to the size of individual atoms. Silicon is impossible
to scale below this size, due to the effects of quantum tunnelling. Moore's
Law, the trend which sees computer power double every 18 months, has entered a new paradigm shift, with traditional microchips now being abandoned
in favour of graphene, "stacked" 3-dimensional circuits and other novel concepts.*
Completion of the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge
China has now completed the second of two megabridges across the Pearl River Delta – one of the most densely urbanised regions in the world and a major hub of the nation's economic growth. The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge is a 50 km (31 mi) series of bridges and tunnels, first proposed in the early 1980s, with construction beginning in 2009 and finishing in 2015.* Costing over US$10 billion, it slashes journey times between Hong Kong and Zhuhai or Macau from 4.5 hours (by road) to just 40 minutes. The eastern end of the route lies in close proximity to Hong Kong International Airport.
Further to the north – and constructed from 2015 to 2021 – is the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge. This project consists of the main bridge sections, plus a 6.7 km (4.2 mi) tunnel on the eastern side, linking to Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport. There are four lanes running in each direction, with a maximum speed of 100 km/h (62 mph). Travel times between Shenzhen and Zhongshan are cut from two hours to 30 minutes.
Hong Kong and Shenzhen, two of China's most important cities, are competing for growth in the west of the region where land and labour are cheaper.*
The more successful of these bridges turns out to be the Shenzhen-Zhongshan route, drawing as much as 40% of traffic away from the Hong Kong-
Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and reducing the regional dominance of Hong Kong's airport and harbour.*
By Croquant (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
31 "Many standard treatments used today are the result of past clinical trials, which involve a strict and rigorous, multi-step process that takes eight years on average to complete." See Frequently Asked Questions, The University of Arizona Cancer Center: http://azcc.arizona.edu/patients/clinical-trials/faq
Accessed 19th August 2012.