2013: A Year in Physical Science and Technology

A cartoon by Drew featuring Voyager 1. The caption reads: "What do you mean I haven't left the solar system? I've already posted it on Facebook."Voyager leaves the Solar System

A lot of things happen in 12 months.  And 2013 is no exception.

Remember when you were a kid back in 1977, when Voyager-1 was all the talk?  Remember the wonderful artefact it carried away into space like a gift from the Earth human civilisation – the golden disc and the message on it?  Where is it now? 

Back in March 2013, astronomers made an announcement about NASA‘s Voyager-1.  According to the results, the space probe, originally launched to study the outer planets of the Solar System, had finally left the heliosphere.  Then, there was some doubt as to whether this was in fact the case… when officials from the space agency quickly countered the claims.  By September, the outlook had changed again, and mission scientists published their own evidence (incorporating additional data) confirming that the space probe had indeed left the Solar System, and after crossing the heliopause on 25 August 2013, was heading off into a new region. 

Currently, the spacecraft is moving with a relative velocity to the Sun of about 17 kilometres per second.  The first man-made object to be heading off to the interstellar regions of space, Voyager-1 is expected to continue its mission until 2025, when its generators will be no longer be supplying enough power to operate any of its on-board instruments…


Goodbye Voyager-1…  Hello Gaia!

An artist's impression showing the Gaia mission satellite. Image: ESA.Meanwhile ESA‘s Gaia telescope probe launched successfully from Guyana, ready to be deployed and begin the Titanesque endeavour of mapping the Milky Way and help us to understand our place in the Universe.  Gaia will create a precise three-dimensional map of stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy and map their motions

Large numbers of stellar objects, such as quasars, galaxies, extrasolar planets and Solar System bodies, will be measured at the same time.  The ESA’s massive astrometric census will provide the basic observational data needed to tackle a wide range of important questions related to the origin, structure and evolutionary history of the Galaxy.


Planck First Light Survey

Cosmologists marvelled at the spectacular map of the fossil light, or Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, originating from the early beginning of the Universe, produced with the most up-to-date astrophysical data gathered by the Planck Telescope.

An illustration showing the Milky Way and Planck First Light Survey. Image: ESA.

A map of the sky at optical wavelengths shows a prominent horizontal band, which is the light shining from our own Milky Way.  The superimposed strip shows the area of the sky mapped by Planck during the First Light Survey.  The colour scale indicates the magnitude of the deviations of the temperature of the CMB from its average value, as measured by ESA’s Planck telescope at a frequency close to the peak of the CMB spectrum (red is hotter and blue is colder).  The large red strips trace radio emission from the Milky Way, whereas the small bright spots high above the galactic plane correspond to emission from the Cosmic Microwave Background itself.


A photograph showing the trace of the Chelyabinsk asteroid in the Russian sky.Flying at Close Range over Russia

Skywatchers had a dramatic start to the year on 15 February 2013.  As astronomers were preparing to observe the close flyby of a large asteroid near Earth on that day, an altogether different 10,000-tonne space rock burned up its way through the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia.  More than 1,000 people were injured as its shockwave shattered glass and rocked buildings.

As the local Russian drivers recorded the impact event on their car webcams while it happened, people around the World were soon to witness the unfolding event on the media screens.  For the first time, this spectacular coincidence had provided scientists with a host of recorded video evidence that allowed them to dissect the anatomy of an asteroid impact.  The Chelyabinsk impact event highlighted the growing need for some space “weather” forecast system to be developed.


A photograph showing the bright Sun shining over the Chukchi Sea. The planet's far northern and southern latitudes are projected to experience the greatest change under increasing global temperatures - and in many cases they already are. Image: Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionClimate Change and Arctic Sea Ice

Meanwhile the Earth’s weather climate has been showing some surprises.

After breaking the previous record low in August 2012, the arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent since satellite recording began, in the month of September. The amount of arctic ice bottomed out at 3.41 million square metres.  This was 50% lower than the average figure obtained between the years 1979-2000.

However, 2013 saw a different pattern.  A “hiatus” in global warming.  Glitch or part of the natural trend?

The ice sheet lost 34 billion tonnes of ice per year between 1992-2001, but this has increased to 215 billion tonnes between 2002-2011.  The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal.  Scientists working with the IPCC are 95% certain that human activity have been the “dominant cause” of global warming since the 1950s.  Despite all this, and figures suggesting that 2013 was among the warmest years on record, the political process to reduce emissions remains precarious…

And yet, the worldwide rise in temperatures has stalled.  Climate sceptics have long pointed out that the World is not warming as rapidly as it was once forecast.  In a way, this event was long overdue.  As in all Science, a lot of it depends on how you do the measurements.  :-/

Each one of the past few decades has been warmer than the last.  But overall, since an exceptionally warm 1998, there has not been much global warming at all !!

No one is really sure why.  However the rate of global warming has seemingly stumbled.  There are plenty of possible explanations: the natural cooling in part of the Pacific ocean and the ban on CFC gases are among the reasons proposed for this warming “pause”.


What’s under the IceCube Experiment?

A photograph showing Antarctica's skyscraper-sized IceCube neutrino detector lab. Image: National GeographicAnd apart from finding new aquifers under the polar ice, what else has been lurking under there?

Buried underneath the ice of the South pole, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory began operating in 2005.  Oh yes!  Sounds like the new exotic location for a James Bond movie…  And it’s exciting, exciting!

The IceCube experiment is the largest neutrino telescope, constructed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica.  Its thousands of sensors are distributed over a cubic kilometre of volume under the Antarctic ice.  The instrument can detect the high-energy neutrino particles that stream in from outside our Solar System.

In November 2013, IceCube had detected 28 neutrinos that were likely to have originated outside of the Solar System.  This development makes it possible to picture the cosmos in a totally new light, using such particles, as opposed to the optical or infrared wavelengths routinely used by various branches of astronomy.


Higgs and Englert: “For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass” – otherwise known as the Boson Particle

Two photographs showing the scientists who theorized the Higgs boson particle: Peter Higgs and François Englert.Peter Higgs and François Englert who theorized the boson particle – named after the former – gets well-deserved recognition from the prestigious Nobel committee, after the elusive sub-atomic particle is discovered at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Theoreticians have long surmised the existence of the Higgs boson, which could potentially explain why all other particles have mass.  After almost half a century of the idea being conceived, physicists at the LHC were delighted to find a particle consistent with predictions.  84-year-old Higgs commented “It’s really an incredible thing that it’s happened in my lifetime.”  It remains to be seen whether the discovery of the Majorana fermion, another building block of the Universe, can also be confirmed.

Roll on 2014 for more astonishing results!


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