5 Science Stories to Watch in 2019

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What’s in store for science in 2019? 2018 saw Mars InSight reach the Red Planet, the Falcon Heavy finally launch, and massive wildfires and hurricanes sweep across the U.S. In space, 2018 also saw several missions draw to an end, as Dawn wrapped up exploration of the dwarf planet Ceres, the Opportunity rover on Mars succumbed to an epic dust storm, and the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope came to a conclusion. Meanwhile on Earth, driverless car tech passed several key milestones and genetic-editing technology was pushed to the point of a next revolution, one with an uncertain future. And that may just be a portent of what’s to come. Here are five science stories we’re watching in 2019.

 

5. China Lands on the Moon, Plans Another Lunar Mission

China’s Chang’e 4 launches its lunar mission on Dec. 9, 2018. © Qiuqiuziziz

OK, so this already happened, but it is still a huge deal. The Chinese spacecraft Chang’e-4 launched in early December 2018, and carried out the first-ever soft landing on the lunar far side on Jan. 3, 2019. The Moon is tidally locked with respect to the Earth, meaning it keeps one face perpetually turned toward us. All of the previous missions, crewed or robotic, landed on the nearside of the Moon to enable direct line-of-sight communication. Before attempting the far-side landing, China had to deploy a communications relay satellite named Queqiao (“magpie bridge” in Chinese) stationed at the L2 Lagrange point 37,300 miles past the Moon. China plans to follow this up with a lunar sample return mission in late 2019. Also, SpaceX was busy in 2018 with a record 21 successful launches, and 2019 may see the very first Dragon missions to include actual astronauts.

 

4. Mass Redefined: The Kilogram Gets New Standard

A simulation of the old platinum cylinder used as the standard for the kilogram since 1889 (left) and the new NIST-4 Kibble balance that will be used to establish the new standard. Credit: Jennifer Lauren Lee

Did you know: Mass is the only scientific standard based on a manufactured object? In late 2018, scientists voted to take the kilogram — the only SI unit of measure that’s based on an artifact — off of its old standard. This goes into effect on May 20, 2019. No one will notice this change, but it’s still a notable milestone. Mass is one of seven standards, including electric current, temperature, time, length, luminosity and amount of a substance (moles). In 1889, scientists created a platinum alloy cylinder to define the kilogram. Basing the kilogram on this object has always been problematic, as it can change slightly over time due to corrosion, moisture etc. The new standard ties in the Planck constant in a clever way, using a contraption known as a Kibble balance to equate electrical force with mechanical force to a high degree. This assures that if we need to explain our concept of mass to aliens, we’ll have a common universal frame of reference.

 

3. CRISPR Babies: Should Parents Alter Offspring’s Genes?

Will parents one day be able to “order” genetically-altered children? © Doug van Kampen

This was a big story in late 2018, one that opens up ethical and moral questions as the science of gene editing comes of age. In late November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had used the CRISPR gene-editing technology (Clustered Regularly Inter-spaced Palindromic Repeats) to disable the CC5 gene in human embryos, in a bid to disable HIV infection and transmission from the parent to the embryo. But perhaps what garnered the most attention was the fact that Jiankui then implanted the embryo in a woman’s womb; she later gave birth to twins. Carrying out such a procedure without full consent is unheard of in the West. One twin was born with both copies of the CCR5 gene disabled, while the other twin was born with only one copy disabled … actually making that twin more susceptible to HIV.

Should parents be able to alter the genes of their offspring? On the flip side, is it ethical for us to deny the next generation the ability to rid themselves of terrible genetic afflictions, if we have the potential to do so? Rough gene editing is something that will inevitably become a hotly debated topic, possibly as soon as 2019.

 

2. Self-driving Cars Set To Take Huge Step Forward in 2019

A Waymo driverless car undergoes testing in 2017. © Dilu

Will 2019 be the year of the self-driving car? Not only are tech companies such as Google and Uber pumping billions of dollars into self-driving car development, but traditional car companies such as Ford and General Motors are getting into the act as well. One GM official predicts 2019 will see the first person who’s not a beta tester riding in a car without a steering wheel, pedals or instrument panel. Google’s Waymo deployed its autonomous ride-sharing fleet around Phoenix in late December 2018. Ford is testing autonomous technology in a driverless version of its Ford Fusion in Miami, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Currently, 25 states have adopted laws concerning driverless vehicles. Will driverless, ride-sharing subscriptions be the wave of the future? Certainly, today’s smartphone-equipped youth see driving more as a chore than a freedom, and may welcome the rise of driverless cars. Laws for liability in accidents will need to be reworked, but there are many advantages: autonomous cars mean more throughput on the roads, with faster-moving traffic and no stoplights at intersections. For commuters, a simple subscription to a ride-share service means not paying for insurance, fuel, maintenance, DUIs, or speeding tickets. Such an American society will look vastly different.

 

1. First Image of a Black Hole Set for 2019

An artist’s simulation of a black hole. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

How do you image a black hole? While it’s true that a black hole — a singularity collapsed to an infinite point, where only its mass remains — does not allow light to escape, it still can betray its presence. The main way we know that a supermassive black hole dubbed Sagittarius A* (“A star”) exists at the core of our galaxy is by observing the powerful gravitational pull it exerts on stars speeding around it. But the black hole’s event horizon — the point at which the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light and nothing can escape —should cast a shadow. Astronomers hope to catch a ghostly image of the shadow using the Event Horizon Telescope, a group of radio telescopes linked together spanning the globe. This will give the Event Horizon Telescope the effective resolution of a single large telescope about the diameter of the Earth. Such an instrument only recently became possible by using modern computing technology.

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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.