The future, particularly scientifically, is notoriously difficult to predict. Last year saw the passing of ‘Back to the Future’ day, the day on which Marty McFly travelled into the future (now the past – mind blown) and saw such wondrous things as 3D film (totally a thing, but not as fully a thing as they predicted), hoverboards (totally not a thing, not matter how often we rename electric skateboards) and flying cars (desperately trying to be a thing, but failing pretty hard).
There have been a number of successes though. Video calls were predicted numerous times throughout science-fiction history; Richard Bellamy expertly predicted the credit card 63 years before its invention, and H.G Wells’s The World Set Free, chillingly foresaw the harrowing truths of atomic war.
And then, there are the things that no one saw coming. Who’d have thought that by 2016, we’d be 3-D printing prosthetic limbs, postulating crash-proof planes, or recreating the big bang here on Earth?
Despite how difficult (or, you know, impossible) it is to see into the future, here is a quick run-down of some things we do know are coming in 2016. And don’t worry if you don’t understand anything. Everything on the list will (eventually) have a corresponding blog to give you all the important details.
So, first off, ESA and NASA. Predicting what space agencies will be up to in the next year, it turns out, is fairly easy. This is because they spends a lot of the government’s money, and they tend to like to know where that cash is going way ahead of time. So, here are the highlights on the ESA/NASA mission board this year:
ESA – EXOMARS
Hot on the heels of the fantastically successful Curiosity mission (which, if you are not aware of, you should make yourself aware of) ESA is taking advantage of the (relative) close proximity of Mars this year to launch its first ExoMars mission. This is the first in a series of planned missions and, unsurprisingly, has a lot to do with the ongoing search for life on Mars. Frankly, it doesn’t look like they’re giving up on this until they have literally over turned every stone on the surface of that planet. And who can blame them? Life on Mars would be amazingly cool! This mission will launch in March (fittingly, as the month takes its name from the planet in question), and should arrive in October of this year.
NASA – JUNO
Juno, named for the ancient Roman Godess, wife (and, disturbingly, sister) of Jupiter, will arrive in polar orbit of Jupiter in July. It aims to take data on all sorts of things, such as the famous gas giant’s atmosphere and magnetic field in an attempt to learn all about its structure from the upper atmosphere to deep beneath its surface, somewhere no human eye has ever seen. It’ll be under intense bombardment from radiation pretty much the entire time, so isn’t expected to last long, but the science we will learn about the planet in that short time will give us an unprecedented ‘view’ (not literally of course, but in our understanding) of the inner most reaches of the solar system’s largest planet.
NASA – CASSINI
This little gem of a satellite has been sending us spectacular data from Saturn for years now. But in late 2016 it will start what NASA has dubbed its Grand Finale, in which it will pull off some pretty insane orbits to dive right between the planet and its ring system. The objectives here are pretty similar to Juno’s with the addition of a few moon flybys and, of course, taking data on Saturn’s awesome rings. After all this, which will complete an epic 20 year mission, Cassini (named for 17th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who was the first to observe many of the moons of Saturn, as well as the great divide in its rings) will plunge to a fiery death into the atmosphere of this incredible world.
Closer to home, there are some fantastic observations of your own you can do, every year, with no special equipment other than a dark, clear night sky. Around August 11th-13th the Perseid meteor shower occurs every year. At its peak, in a light pollution free place, you can see 1 or 2 meteors every minute, some of them very big and bright. They occur when the Earth moves through the debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet, which last passed by in 1992. While the comet itself won’t be seen again until 2126, the fragments left hanging out in the solar system still create a dazzling display every August. This year, your best chances for a good view are after midnight, once the moon has set.
This year, LIGO or the Laser Interferometer Gravity wave Observatory will be in operation and is hoping to find the ever elusive evidence for gravity waves by looking for extremely subtle variations in laser light. This is some pretty high level science, but it boils down to a couple of very simple ideas. A more complete blog on this will be coming very soon. For now, all you need to know is the two main concepts. Firstly, as massive objects move through space, their gravity bends space like a bowling ball on a taut rubber sheet. As you move the ball, it takes time for new parts of the sheet to move in response to it. The same is true in space. The second is that gravity affects everything, including light, although it only moves light a very very tiny amount. So, by watching a laser beam very very closely, we can (hopefully) see it move in response to large objects moving in space, like stars or black holes.
The Synchrotron light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East will begin conducting experiments this year. It is an international high-energy light source, similar to CERN where the world famous Large Hadron Collider resides. In the midst of all the torment that surrounds this area of the world, this scientific venture may prove an important undertaking, improving cooperation and relations between countries across the Middle East.
You know the future is here when scientists can heal people by fixing faulty genetic code in our DNA, the molecular blueprint for how our bodies grow. Sangamo Biosciences hope to begin trials this year to do exactly that, using specially designed enzymes to fix the broken gene that causes haemophilia. If successful, this could lead the way to a whole new and exciting epoch in healthcare.
Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, the newest model of the world’s most awesome car, the Tesla Model 3, will début. While no technical details of the Model 3 have been released yet, given all the future that they’ve already packed into their cars (auto-pilot, fully electric, and a phone app that can summon your car from the garage to your front door), it’s bound to be something special. I imagine it will look something like this…
And all that is only the stuff we know is going to happen this year. So much of the excitement of science is in the unexpected discoveries, the lucky chances or strange results that push us in new and fascinating directions. Personally, I can’t wait to share it all with all of you.