Seven science stories we can’t wait to follow in 2017
Science never ceases to surprise us. In a year jampacked with discoveries, some of the biggest revelations of 2016 seemed to come from out of the blue.
Just a few weeks in, the astronomer responsible for demoting Pluto to a dwarf planet said there is a ninth planet in the solar system after all — an object about 10 times as massive as Earth that takes up to 20,000 years to orbit the sun.
Soon after, cosmologists announced that their decades-long search for gravity waves had finally paid off, allowing them to confirm a 100-year-old prediction made by none other than Albert Einstein.
Zika morphed from an obscure virus to an international scourge, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a public health emergency and sparking a torrent of research on medicines and vaccines that are now in clinical trials.
So perhaps it’s a bit reckless to make predictions about where science will take us in 2017. Still, we can’t help feeling excited about some of the stories we expect in the new year. You can preview them here, then follow them with us at latimes.com/science.
How science will fare under the Trump administration
Donald Trump won’t be sworn in for a few more weeks, but associates of the incoming president have been making moves that have some scientists on edge.
Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, claims that scientists aren’t sure that global warming is real or that human activities have played a role. In truth, there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that “climate change is occurring, and … that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.” In addition, managers at the Department of Energy have been asked to identify employees who conducted climate change research, a request likened to a “witch hunt.”
Plenty of people also are on edge over reports that Trump is considering Silicon Valley investor Jim O’Neill to run the Food and Drug Administration. Speaking at a biotechnology conference in 2014, O’Neill argued that drug companies should not have to prove that their products are effective in order to win FDA approval — only that they are safe. While such a move would make more medicines available to patients, they wouldn’t know — at least at first — whether those medicines actually work.
Thousands of scientists have signed an open letter to Trump (and the incoming Congress) urging the federal government to “rely on science as a key input for crafting public policy.” If budget cuts or industry influence prevent scientists from doing their work, “children will be more vulnerable to lead poisoning, more people will be exposed to unsafe drugs and medical devices, and we will be less prepared to limit the impacts of increasing extreme weather and rising seas.”
— Karen Kaplan
The great American eclipse
On Aug. 21, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible from the continental United States for the first time in 38 years, and for sky watchers and scientists alike, it’s going to be a VERY. BIG. DEAL.
A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves between the Earth and the sun so that it appears to completely block the shining disk of our life-giving star. The phenomenon itself is not especially rare — it happens about once every 18 months — but total eclipses are visible only from small swaths of the planet at a time. Because most of the Earth is covered in ocean, hard-core eclipse chasers often find themselves heading to remote islands to catch a glimpse of the celestial event.
But not this year. The 2017 eclipse’s narrow path of totality cuts across the United States, beginning in Salem, Ore., and ending in Charleston, S.C., making it just a one- or two-day drive for hundreds of millions of Americans. Because of this accessibility, it promises to be the most-viewed and photographed eclipse of all time.
For scientists, the eclipse offers an opportunity to study the sun’s atmosphere, which usually is blocked by the bright light coming from the sun itself. NASA already is gearing up to observe the eclipse with at least half a dozen instruments — high-altitude weather balloons included.
— Deborah Netburn
Finale of Cassini mission to Saturn
The coming year will close out the final dramatic chapter for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has twirled around Saturn and its panoply of moons since 2004.
Among its many accomplishments, Cassini has caught icy moon Enceladus squirting geysers of water ice and vapor, and found evidence of an ocean beneath its frozen surface. It has picked out hydrocarbon lakes and canyons carved by methane on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. It also has picked up hints of moonlets being born and ripped apart in the planet’s chaotic F ring.
In late November, the spacecraft began its ring-grazing orbits, allowing it to check out the hexagon-shaped jet stream that rings the planet’s north pole. These 20 orbits will allow it to zip past some of Saturn’s icy rings, sampling gas and dust particles. Then, in April, it will begin the grand finale orbits — 22 loops that will send the spacecraft through the gap between the rings and the planet’s spherical body.
The ring-grazing and grand finale orbits will shed unprecedented information on the composition and mass of the rings and, ultimately, their evolution.
But Cassini’s fuel supplies are dwindling, and scientists want to make sure it does not crash into and contaminate a potentially habitable world like Enceladus (or even Titan). So in September, the spacecraft will dive into Saturn, where it will send back data until it succumbs to the gas giant’s unforgiving upper atmosphere.
“It’s kind of a nice picture,” Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker told The Times earlier. After studying the gas giant for 13 years, she explained, “here’s a chance for Cassini’s molecules to become a part of Saturn.”
— Amina Khan
Juno dives deeper into Jupiter mission
Cassini no longer is the only spacecraft circling a gas giant. July Fourth saw the arrival of NASA’s Juno satellite at Jupiter — a mission designed to probe basic questions about our largest planet and the secrets it may hold about the early solar system.
Among the mysteries Juno may help solve: what powers Jupiter’s powerful (and damaging) magnetic field; what the planet’s core is made of; and how much water lies hidden beneath its thick atmosphere.
Ultimately, because of Jupiter’s damaging radiation environment, Juno also will be forced to plummet into the planet’s atmosphere, as Cassini will for Saturn. Scientists do not want to risk the spacecraft falling into Europa, an enormous icy moon that also may hide a potentially habitable ocean. This, however, won’t be on the table until 2018.
Juno started out in long 53-day orbits, which gives the spacecraft a close look at the planet roughly every 7.5 weeks; once its human handlers safely settle the spacecraft into much shorter 14-day orbits next year, expect a relative firehouse of scientific findings to start pouring in.
— Amina Khan
Who will get credit for inventing key gene-editing technology?
It’s the hottest tool in biology, and two research teams are locked in a fierce battle over who made the essential discovery — and thus may lay claim to key patent rights.
The tool in question is the gene-editing system known as CRISPR-Cas9. It’s made from a small piece of RNA that targets a specific genetic sequence and a protein that breaks the sequence in a precise spot so that a new piece of code can be spliced in. Though it sounds complicated, it has greatly simplified the process of editing the DNA of living organisms. Scientists hope it will help them fix mutations that contribute to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, among many others.
The inventors of CRISPR-Cas9 are considered likely candidates for a Nobel Prize, and their universities could reap billions of dollars in licensing fees. But who are the rightful inventors? UC Berkeley claims they are its own Jennifer Doudna and collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, who made the system work in test tubes in 2012. The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard claims it’s Feng Zhang, a bioengineer at MIT who used it in human and mouse cells a few months later in 2013. Both sides have filed patents for the technology.
The acrimonious legal dispute reached an important milestone in December with a hearing in front of a three-judge panel for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It was the only chance for the two sides to make their case in person. A ruling is expected in 2017.
— Karen Kaplan
TESS begins hunt for nearby planets
TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is set to launch in December 2017 and will search the sky for exoplanets — particularly those that could be in their home star’s habitable zone.
In many ways the successor to NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, TESS also will use the transit method to pick out planets by the light they block as they pass in front of their stars. But unlike Kepler, which stared at a tiny patch of the heavens, TESS will be scanning 400 times as much sky as its predecessor.
The new spacecraft’s targets also will be somewhat different from the original Kepler mission’s: Whereas Kepler peered deep into that single spot, finding planets near and far, TESS will search for nearby planets around relatively brighter stars — making them easier for follow-up study with other telescopes.
That kind of follow-up could allow astronomers to characterize the planets’ mass using ground-based telescopes, and thus determine their density and find out whether they have a rocky surface, like Earth. It also could allow future telescopes (such as the James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2018) to study the planet’s atmosphere.
— Amina Khan
Cool research in space
Some pretty cool research is on tap for 2017.
As early as April, NASA will dispatch the Cold Atom Laboratory to the International Space Station. Once it’s operational, the lab will become one of the coldest places in the entire universe, with gases chilled to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero.
That’s the kind of temperature it takes to practically freeze elements like rubidium and potassium, giving scientists a better shot at studying how their atoms behave at a quantum level. The microgravity environment of the space station also will help because it will give scientists more time to observe these atoms in an exotic state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate.
The ultimate goal is to test the laws of quantum mechanics and gain insight into this mysterious branch of physics. The Cold Atom Lab was developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.
— Karen Kaplan
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