The Mars sample return mission – considered the "holy grail" of robotic space missions – is by far the costliest and most complex exploration of Mars ever conceived. Due to financial problems with both NASA and ESA, the project was almost scrapped. Following an outcry from the scientific community, however, it eventually goes ahead.
With a launch window of 2018,* returning five years later,* the mission consists of an Earth/Mars transfer stage, Mars orbiter, descent module, collection mechanism, ascent module and Earth re-entry stage. Around 30 samples,* totalling 500 grams of rock and soil, are deposited into the ascension vehicle, which then launches and exits the Martian atmosphere, before making the return trip back to Earth.
Once they are recovered, the samples are placed in a "curation" facility to isolate them and prevent contamination. Advanced instruments are then used to analyse the rock and soil, at a level of detail that was unavailable with previous surface rovers and their relatively limited tools. The samples hold tremendous scientific value. They provide decades of research into the Martian environment, and conclude as a major milestone in the exploration of Mars. The next major mission will be a manned landing.
In addition to Mars, a sample is also returned from an asteroid this year. Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is NASA's first asteroid sample-return effort and only the second mission in history to retrieve samples from an asteroid.* Launched in 2016, it is the third selected mission in the New Frontiers Program, along with Juno and New Horizons.
The probe is sent to 1999 RQ36, a carbonaceous rock approximately 580m (1,900 ft) in diameter and classed as an Apollo asteroid. These are near-Earth asteroids whose orbits cross that of Earth. 1999 RQ36 is of particular interest because it has a small chance of colliding with Earth between the years 2169 and 2199.*
Arriving in 2019, the probe carries a suite of instruments which includes high resolution cameras for close-range imaging of the surface. The sample is returned to Earth in 2023. It reveals much about the formation and evolution of the early Solar System, initial stages of planet formation, and the source of organic compounds which led to the formation of life.* The total cost of the mission (including the launch vehicle) is approximately $1 billion.
Launch of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)
The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is an infrared space observatory launched by NASA. It is designed to settle fundamental questions about the nature of dark energy, which is believed to be driving the expansion of the Universe. It uses three distinct techniques – measurements of weak gravitational lensing, supernova distances, and baryon acoustic oscillations – to establish the effects of dark energy on the evolution of galaxies and the wider cosmos. This is achieved with a 288-megapixel focal-plane array. It also features a technology demonstration of a coronagraph, for direct imaging of exoplanets from a large sample of stars in the central bulge of the Milky Way. The WFIRST adds to a plethora of new knowledge from other missions such as the Euclid Space Telescope launched in 2020.
fusion energy makes progress
confinement, as seen in ITER, has thus far been the preferred approach to studying fusion energy.
However, the potential of lasers is now being explored in greater depth.
Following years of engineering and construction, a major new research
facility is operational in Europe.* This
aims to demonstrate the feasibility of commercial-level fusion.
Power laser Energy Research facility (HiPER) uses a laser-driven inertial
confinement reactor. Lasers are fired into a central core, where they
collide with a single fuel pellet, compressing it to high density. A
second laser is then fired, in a more intense pulse with nanosecond
precision. This ignites the fuel, raising the core temperature to over
a hundred million degrees celsius – hotter than the centre of the Sun
– allowing fusion reactions to occur. Helium is formed, releasing energetic
neutrons in the process. These neutrons are captured, generating electricity.
"fast ignition" approach uses much smaller lasers than previous
designs, yet generates power of the same magnitude. This offers a total
"fusion gain" that is much higher than earlier devices, with
a ten-fold reduction in construction costs.
only a prototype – but when fully developed, fusion will become a revolutionary
form of energy production. It will be a giant leap forward in addressing
climate change, pollution, energy security and the ever increasing demand
The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is operational
The UK's first commercial nuclear reactor began operating in 1956 and, at the peak in 1997, 26% of the nation's electricity was generated from nuclear power. In the early 21st century, however, many of these aging reactors were being retired and the share had declined to 19% by 2012. Of the remaining nine plants – with a combined capacity of 9,000 MW – eight were due for closure by the early 2020s. Not only that, but the majority of coal power stations needed replacing too. The UK faced the prospect of losing two-thirds of its electricity by 2030, unless major investment was undertaken to improve its energy infrastructure.
In 2011, the government announced plans for an entire new fleet of nuclear power plants.* All would be constructed at or near existing sites, to minimise disruption. Among the first of these was Hinkley Point C – proposed next to Hinkley A and B, a pair of older stations.* This was approved in October 2013.* Two reactors would be installed with a combined capacity of 3,200 MW – enough to supply nearly 6 million homes, or an area twice the size of London, accounting for 7% of the country's electricity.*
The project has total costs of £16 bn ($26 bn) and is funded by a consortium of French and Chinese investors, including EDF Group. The facility comes online by 2023, becoming the first in a new generation of nuclear plants for the UK, the last having been built in 1995. It remains operational for around 60 years.**
celebrates its 100th anniversary as an independent republic
are taking place this year to mark the centenary of the
Turkish Republic. As part of its anniversary, one of the grandest infrastructure projects in history is completed: the Canal Istanbul. This artificial waterway connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Measuring 30 miles (48 km) in length, and 500 ft (150m) wide, this dissects the European side of Istanbul in two, thus creating a new island between Asia and Istanbul.*
It bypasses the already existing Bosphorus Strait, substantially reducing congestion on the water and minimising the potential for collisions between oil tankers.* Excavated soil is used in the construction of a major new port, together with an airport, as well as the burying of defunct mines in the region.
Turkey has also achieved energy independence by now, with 10 billion barrels
of oil and over 1.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas uncovered
in the Black Sea.* These huge
reserves have enabled the country to completely end its reliance on
foreign imports and to meet its energy needs for the next 40 years. This comes at a time when much of the world is struggling with peak oil.
Turkey's standing in the world has increased significantly in recent years,* boosted further by its entry into the EU, allowing it to serve as a bridge between Islam and the West.*
Completion of the London "super sewer"
The Thames Tideway scheme is the biggest wastewater project in London since the mid-19th century. It involves a major upgrade of the aging Victorian system – helping to prevent discharge into the River Thames during periods of heavy rainfall and improving the overall quality of the city's water. The storage-and-transfer tunnel is 35km long, with shafts 25m in diameter, 75m below ground for most of the route.* It runs across the city from west to east, then west again to a final pumping station.
Prior to the completion of this megaproject, some 32 million cubic metres of raw sewage was being discharged into the river each year. An overflow was occuring every week, even during moderate rainfall. By 2009, the situation had become so bad that the British government was threatened with legal action in the European Court of Justice.*
The Thames Tideway attracted controversy, however. Opponents raised concerns over the cost to Londoners (£4.1bn) and the impact of construction works on parks and house prices. Nevertheless, it goes ahead and is eventually finished by 2023.*
Brain implants to restore lost memories
By now, it's becoming possible to replicate small areas of the brain with "neural prostheses" in order to repair damage from Alzheimer's, stroke or injury. This includes the restoration of lost memories. These devices can mimic the electrochemical signals from regions like the hippocampus (involved in consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory, as well as spatial navigation).
Experiments were initially conducted on rodents,* then monkeys,* before moving to human volunteers in 2015.* After eight years of clinical studies, the process can now be safely performed in hospitals. Electrode arrays are first used to record the activity of healthy brain tissue. The unique patterns responsible for creating memories are detected and stored by a computer. These patterns are then used to predict what the "downstream" damaged areas should be doing. Finally, the desired activity in healthy areas can be replicated by stimulating brain cells with electrodes. The neural prosthesis therefore bridges the gap from healthy to damaged areas.
A combination of these memory implants and drugs can treat early dementia and memory loss. In patients with advanced Alzheimer's, however, the neural signals are usually too degraded for a successful outcome. Nevertheless, this new treatment is a significant step forward in understanding the brain. Eventually, it will be possible to mimic entire regions – bypassing the hippocampus, for example – with complex functions being replaced entirely by electrode signals. Further into the future, as neural implants continue to improve in power, this will pave the way for uploading of minds into computer substrates.*
rainforests have been wiped from the map
3rd largest island, Borneo was once home to a staggering range of biodiversity,
covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres. Its lush rainforests
have now almost completely disappeared as a result of deforestation.* Many rare species are declared extinct around this time including the
Orangutan – one of the most intelligent of the great apes.*
Rampant poaching, large-scale deforestation,
agriculture, mining, pollution, disease and militia operations have
led to the terminal decline of gorilla populations in Central Africa.* Only those in captivity now remain.
2 "The report's authors said that, regardless of the start date, it would take five years for the precious 500g (1.1lb) sample to be returned to Earth."
See Date set for Mars sample mission, BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7500371.stm
Accessed 10th December 2011.
4 Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft was the first, successfully returning tiny grains of the asteroid Itokawa to Earth in June 2010. See Hayabusa, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayabusa
Accessed 1st August 2012.