2013 in Science and Technology


A look at some of the biggest stories in science and technology in 2013

Regan Meloche

Gizmos and Gadgets

The year 2012 brought innovations in many different scientific fields. Physicists discovered what they think may be the Higgs Boson, possibly bringing science slightly closer to a Grand Unified Theory of physics. Biologists made advances in stem cell research, with the Nobel Prize being awarded for discovering that mature cells can be reprogrammed back to pluripotent stem cells. Astronomers successfully managed to launch the Curiosity Rover to Mars, have it parachute down to the surface with the help of a sky crane, and conducted the most important research on the red planet to date. The technology world saw the rapid expansion of 3D printing at both the industrial and the consumer level. And, the world also witnessed the height of the patent war between Apple and all things Google. These developments will continue to pique the curiosity of the scientific community, but what other major scientific developments can be expected for the year 2013?

Let's start in space.

While it will be hard to top the success of Curiosity, NASA has several important missions being planned this year, including another robotic mission to Mars to study the atmosphere. Alongside this mission, NASA has also planned some expeditions to the International Space Station (ISS), which will soon be commanded by Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian commander of the Space Station. Another space agency to watch out for this year is the European Space Agency (ESA) and its GAIA mission scheduled for October. The goal of this mission is to make the largest and most precise 3D map of our galaxy to date, by surveying a billion stars in the Milky Way – a representation of less than 1 per cent of the stars in the galaxy. GAIA is especially exciting in light of the constant new discoveries of exoplanets.

Other than these planned missions, some experts are predicting that 2013 will be the year that the first 'Alien' earth will be found.

In case there are any leftover doomsayers, the 45-metre diameter asteroid 2012 DA14 is scheduled to pass within 35,000 km of the earth. This is closer to the earth than the moon, or  many of the orbiting satellites. The sun will also be reaching a peak of its usual 11-year solar cycle, but NASA is predicting a relatively quiet year for solar flares. So just like last year, don't expect to be wiped out by any astronomical events.

While there is a lot going on in the world of space, are humans getting in on any of the action? Since the end of the NASA manned shuttle program in 2011, the private company SpaceX is emerging as the top contender for “manned space travel” in the near future. Last year, they became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS. This year, they will continue testing and developing their Falcon 9 launch system, with the hopes of sending more spacecrafts into the vastness of space.

Finally, this year will also see some other major countries making progress in the space industry. China is planning a manned space mission, and is hoping to one day construct their own space station, and send astronauts to the moon. And while the Curiosity rover continues to scout the surface of Mars, India is planning to send their own probe to the red planet in November.

Decreasing the altitude, and focusing on the earth, 2013 looks to be a year of major enviromental and technological highs and lows for the planet.

With the world’s population now over 7 billion, and energy demand continuously increasing, the debate on energy will remain heated for many years to come. Issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking', were brought into public knowledge over the past few years, with the 2010 documentary Gasland, and the recent Matt Damon film Promised Land. Fracking involves pumping water laced with chemicals deep into horizontal underground wells at a high pressure in order to fracture rock formations, allowing access to valuable gas deposits. While the process has boosted fuel production, there is significant debate over how the practice impacts the environment. Research in the area of fracking, and its enviromental imapcts have grown, and are likely to continue growing in 2013.    

While many countries are working towards alternatives to fossil fuels, China is investing heavily in an equally, if not more controversial, fuel source. The country currently has 16 operational nuclear power plants and about 30 more are on the way. The country plans to have 6 per cent of its energy from nuclear power by 2020. China will also be exploring and researching a new type of nuclear power this year: the Thorium reactor. Thorium was first experimented with in America, but China plans on furthering the research to see if Thorium could be used as a safer and more abundant nuclear fuel than the traditional Uranium.    

Finally, there are some exciting things planned for the world of technology this year. Expect cloud computing to continue to expand, with the ability of more data, such as music and movies, being stored on the cloud and accessible from anywhere on the Internet. This efficiency, however, may also come with some security issues. As people become more connected to the Internet, the probability of cybercrime becomes more prevelant. This may reignite the debate over government regulations of the Internet, and if 2012 is any inidcation, such regulations will cause a backlash through the virtual world.

Despite the fact that many of the big-named consumer technology companies were involved in the patent wars last year, many have managed to release an array of devices of all shapes and sizes.

The trend for sleeker, smaller, and faster devices shows no sign of slowing down. As everything becomes more mobile, the world may see a de-emphasis on the desktop computer, which is starting to become more of a niche market.

Following the recent release of Nintendo's WiiU, rumours of the 8th generation gaming consoles from other companies are circulating the gaming world. It is likely that both a new Xbox and Playstation will be released sometime in the second half of 2013. Another one to watch for is the open-source gaming console Ouya, which will run on an Android operating system. The Ouya project raised over $8 million on Kickstarter, an internet-based crowd funding company, last summer. The console is expected to come out for $99 in March.

So all of this and much, much more to look forward to in 2013. And although the world can’t expect a colony on Mars, instant matter transformers, or efficient perpetual energy machines just yet, it looks like there is enough to keep busy with for the time being.

Photo courtesy of naturalgaswatch.org

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