The Philae lander at work on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image credit: ESA / AOES Medialab.


December 31, 2014

The landing of Philae, which captivated not only the scientific community but millions of people worldwide, was the culmination of ten years’ work by scientists at the European Space Agency, who successfully guided the Rosetta spacecraft through the inner Solar System to finally meet up with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August, 2014.

On 12 November a signal was received in European Space Agency’s control room confirming that the lander had completed its seven-hour descent and had landed safely on the surface of the comet. While the landing was not as smooth as mission scientists would have liked, the Philae lander still managed to collect a large amount of data before entering hibernation mode.

The Rosetta spacecraft is now orbiting 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, sometimes getting as close as 10 km to the comet’s surface. Its on-board camera can discriminate between objects on the comet that are just centimeters apart while an array of spectrometers, known as the Rosetta Orbiter Sensor for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA), can sample gases from the comet.

ROSINA has already detected water, methane, and hydrogen as well as some rarer species, including formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.

Such findings might help scientists figure out whether certain comets could have helped to jump-start life on the early Earth by delivering water and organic molecules.

In December, a report published by the ROSINA scientists revealed an exceptionally high ratio of deuterium to regular hydrogen, suggesting that comets like 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which hail from the Kuiper belt could not have made such water deliveries.

The list of nine other major scientific achievements of 2014 appears below:

A 39,900-year-old hand stencil and a 35,400-year-old painting of a female babirusa inside Leang Timpuseng cave, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image credit: M. Aubert et al.

2. Indonesian cave art: archaeologists realized that hand stencils and animal paintings in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, once thought to be 10,000 years old, were actually 17,400 – 39,900 years old. The discoveries suggest that humans in Asia were producing symbolic art as early as the first European cave painters.

The dinosaur lineage that evolved into birds shrank in body size continuously for 50 million years. Image credit: Michael S. Y. Lee et al. Science, 10.1126/science.1252243.

3. The dinosaur-bird transition: this year, a series of papers that compared the fossils of early birds and dinosaurs to modern birds revealed how certain dinosaur lineages developed small, lightweight body plans, allowing them to evolve into many types of birds and survive the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction about 66 million years ago.

This false-color scanning electron micrograph shows Escherichia coli. Image credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories / NIAID / NIH.

4. ‘Alien’ bacterium: scientists have engineered Escherichia coli that harbors two additional nucleotides (X and Y) in addition to the normal G, T, C, and A that make up the standard building blocks of DNA. Such synthetic bacteria can’t reproduce outside the lab, but they may be used to create designer proteins with ‘unnatural’ amino acids.

5. Beta cells: two teams of scientists (team 1 & team 2) pioneered two different methods for growing cells that closely resemble beta cells in the lab this year, giving researchers an unprecedented opportunity to study diabetes.

6. Young blood fixes old: scientists demonstrated that blood from a young mouse – or even just a factor known as GDF11 from young mouse blood – can rejuvenate the muscles and brains of older mice. The findings have led to a clinical trial in which Alzheimer’s patients are receiving plasma from young donors.

7. Manipulating memory: scientists showed that they could manipulate specific memories in mice. Deleting existing memories and implanting false ones, they went so far as to switch the emotional content of a mouse memory from good to bad, and vice versa.

8. Neuromorphic chips: mimicking the architecture of a human brain, computer engineers at IBM and elsewhere rolled out the first large-scale neuromorphic chips this year, which are designed to process information in ways that are more akin to living brains.

9. CubeSats: although they have been blasted into space for more than a decade now, cheap satellites with sides that are just 10 cm squared, called CubeSats, really took off in 2014. Once considered educational tools for college students, these miniature satellites have started to do some real science.

10. Getting robots to cooperate: new software and interactive robots that, for example, instruct swarms of termite-inspired bots to build a simple structure or prompt a thousand quarter-sized machines to form squares, letters, and other two-dimensional shapes are proving that robots can work together without any human supervision after all.


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