18 scientific breakthroughs in 2019

By Aditya Madanapalle | Updated 27 Jun 2019
18 scientific breakthroughs in 2019

It is surprising how many scientific discoveries and passing of milestones takes place in just six months. 2019 has been a great year for science so far, and we really hope that the second half will be as fruitful as the first. 

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1. New Horizons

Image: NASA

The New Horizons probe has had a busy year, starting with a flyby of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt Object at a distance of 42 astronomical units from the Sun. The data beamed back from the spacecraft showed that the object was flatter than expected. The science results from the flyby was also published

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2. Chang'e 4

Image: CNSA

China’s Chang'e 4 mission became the first to successfully execute a soft landing on the far side of the Moon. This was a technically challenging mission, which had a number of science objectives. These included mineralogical studies of the Moon, observations of the solar corona and studies of cosmic rays. 

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3. IBM Q System One

Image: IBM

IBM launched the first commercial quantum computing system, the IBM Q System One. The components of the computing system are cryogenically cooled. This is the first quantum computing system to have escaped the confines of research labs. 

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4. The Saturnian Day

Image: NASA

Planetary scientists finally filled an embarrassing hole in their knowledge of Saturn. No one knew how long a day on Saturn lasted, because there were no permanent visible “land marks” to observe and time. Researchers finally figured out the duration using Cassini’s measurements of the rings. We now know that a day on Saturn lasts 10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds

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5. FRB 180814

The Chime Telescope (Image: McGill University)

Fast Radio Bursts are repeated radio pulses of currently unknown origin. Researchers managed to localise and characterise an FRB for only the second time in 2019, with the object being called FRB 180814. The first one to be located was FRB 121102 in 2012. Discovering these sources will allow researchers to investigate the phenomenon better. The finding has already ruled out any cataclysmic events as the source, and predicted that there are many such objects waiting to be discovered. 

6. Unknown Human Ancestor

The Denisova Cave. (Image: Демин Алексей Барнаул)

There are six known species of Homo. Homo sapiens have DNA traces of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo denisova. Sapiens have been known to occassinally bear babies with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Researchers used AI to scan through sequenced genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans, and found something rather surprising. The traces of an unknown species of Homo, that ancient sapiens interbred with.  

7. Hachimoji DNA

Image: Wolfman SF

Researchers announced a new synthetic DNA, a molecule with the characteristic double helix structure, but made up of eight nucleobases - four natural and four artificial. Researchers essentially added four new letters to the existing four in the genetic code. The advancement could allow for improved DNA storage, and has implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. 

8. Crystal stars

The interior of a white dwarf star. (Image: University of Warwick)

Researchers found the first direct evidence of a white dwarf star turning into a crystal, and showed that the skies are possibly full of crystalised stars. Our own star is on track to become a crystal after going through a white dwarf stage in another 10 billion years. The finding also implies that some stars are billions of years older than previously believed. 

9. FarFarOut

Image: University of Hawaii

Researchers announced the discovery of the farthest identified object in the Solar System, and called it FarFarOut. The object is at a staggering 15 billion kilometers from the Sun. The discovery was a result of a survey into the edges of the solar system, in an effort to find another large rocky planet hiding out there, called planet 9 or planet X. 

10. Beresheet Probe

Image: SpaceIL

The Beresheet Probe was the first private attempt to demonstrate a rover on the Moon. The mission was a collaboration between Israel Aerospace Industries and SpaceIL, and was launched as a secondary payload on a SpaceX vehicle. Unfortunately, the rover crashed into the Moon and was destroyed. The probe still managed to take a fatal selfie before crashing. 

11. Weighing the Milky Way

Image: NASA

Researchers managed to weigh the Milky Way galaxy more precisely, and improved previous estimates. According to the latest and most accurate measurements, the Milky Way weighs 1.5 trillion solar masses, which is more than twice the previously estimated figure. 90% of the mass in the Milky Way is attributed to the mysterious substance known as dark matter. 

12. The day the dinos died

Image: Robert DePalma

For the first time, researchers identified a fossil formation that preserved the series of events that took place on the day of the Chicxulub meteorite impact. The resulting fossil contained creatures that were thrown up from a river, and subsequently trapped by the falling debris from the sky, that had been ejected by the impact. The rare find is a time capsule, giving researchers a glimpse into the minutes and hours following the historic impact. 

13. Imaging a black hole

The Event Horizon Telescope used to image the black hole. (Image: ESO/ L. Calçada)

Using an astronomical instrument that had an aperture as big as the Earth, researchers managed to image a black hole for the first time, showing the shadow, or a region around the event horizon. The lighter portions of the image show material rushing towards the Earth, while the darker portions are made up of material moving away. This historical achievement was a massive collaboration by many observatories, universities and scientists from around the world. 
Read more: MIT, Boston University, Caltech, JPL, Harvard, University of Chicago, University of Illinois

14. Mice with infrared eyes

This one is straight out of science fiction. Researchers injected nanoparticles into the eyes of mice, which latched onto the rod and cone cells. The nanoparticles were activated by infrared light, and the information could be processed by the eyes of the mice. Essentially, the researchers gave infrared vision to mice. The procedure had minimal side effects, and a single injection lasted for 10 weeks. If the researchers are looking for human test subjects, sign us up! 

15. Fungi found land first

Image: Martin R Smith

The evidence of the fragile fungus is rare in the fossil record. It has long been believed that the first life to spread to land were freshwater plants. This apparently happened during the cambrian explosion some 430 million years ago. Now, researchers have found microfossil evidence of a fungus that colonised land, 1 billion years ago. The fungus may have had a role to play in life migrating from the seas to land. 

16. Synthetic Life

 

Researchers replaced the DNA in the E. coli bacteria with a DNA that they had made themselves. Instead of the regular 64 codons that occur naturally, the DNA introduced by the researchers had 59 codons. The bacteria managed to reproduce, and create copies of the synthetic DNA. The experiment raised the question, have scientists created artificial life

17. Cold quasars

Researchers have discovered a new phase in the evolution of a galaxy, known as the cold quasar. Quasars are among the brightest objects in the sky, because of how energetic they are. These are supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, either sucking in material or violently ejecting them out. In this cold quasar phase though, there is an active supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy, but there is still plenty of cold material surrounding it that can allow for the formation of new stars. 

18. 3D Printing human tissue without scaffolds

We now have established methods of actually printing human tissue which involve scaffolds. However, this method doesn’t seem to be the most reliable one. Scientists have actually found a way to 3D print human tissue and, subsequently, organs without using this process. This newly-developed technique overcomes some of the shortcomings of the scaffold-technique by using hydrogel instead.

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Aditya Madanapalle
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