All three of its landing systems failed on impact and its detectors and transmitters stopped operating after only 57 hours. Yet the Philae probe that moored itself to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last month, together with its mothership Rosetta, were yesterday hailed as one of the journal Science’s Breakthroughs of 2014.
The European Space Agency mission makes comet 67P the seventh place in the solar system (apart from Earth) on which a spaceship has landed, the journal says. Venus, Mars, the Moon, Saturn’s moon Titan, and two asteroids complete the list. But Rosetta’s success was the most complex in terms of manoeuvring round the solar system, a 10-year journey that left the craft in slow pursuit of comet 67P as it headed towards the Sun earlier this year. After mapping the surface of the duck-shaped comet Rosetta released its little lander on 12 November. However, the harpoons, screws and reverse thrusters that were supposed to moor it to its target all failed and the craft bounced helplessly across the comet’s surface before settling down in the shadow of a cliff. Without sunlight to recharge its batteries, Philae ran out of power 57 hours later.
Nevertheless, a great deal of precious data about 67P was transmitted in that time and Rosetta is set to continue to survey it from a distance of only a few dozen kilometres for the next year as the comet sweeps closer and closer to the sun, when great filaments of dust and ice will pour from its surface.
Among the discoveries made by Rosetta was the observation that the isotope signature of water on comet 67P is very different from that of water on Earth, striking a blow to the theory that ice from comets crashing on Earth provided the water from which our oceans formed. As Science states, “the mission heralds a new age of comet science.”
Other research to gain accolades in this year’s Science Breakthrough of the Year – selected via a two-round online vote – include research by several groups which show that blood or blood components from a young mouse can rejuvenate an old mouse’s muscles and brain. As Science notes, the work has profound implications. “If the results hold up in people – an idea already in testing – factors in young blood could offer the antidote to ageing humanity has sought as far back as Juan Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth.”
These new tests include one clinical trial that involves 18 middle-aged and older Alzheimer’s patients who are being given injections of blood plasma provided by young adults to see if it can help fight dementia. Results are expected next year.
Another notable breakthrough highlighted by Science was the discovery that cave art in the Maros cave on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, thought to be 10,000 years old, is, in fact, four times older and is at least as ancient as the famous cave art of Europe found at Chauvet and other sites. The art was dated by measuring the radioactive decay of uranium in stalactite growths that have appeared over the paintings. These include stencils created by spraying pigments over individual’s hands and images of animals. The pictures’ antiquity suggests that modern humans were already sophisticated artists long before they spread out of Africa to Europe and Asia 60,000 years ago.
Advances in our understanding of the evolution of birds also made the Science list this year. Discoveries of fossils in China revealed that birdlike innovations – in particularly feathers – emerged on several occasions in the history of dinosaurs. Feathers seem to have evolved not just as aids to flying but also as providers of insulation, display and balance.
Several studies of the particular lineage of dinosaurs that gave rise to birds showed they steadily got smaller and smaller and developed finer bones over time – until creatures that we now recognise as birds appeared on the scene. From these early avian predecessors, new species speedily emerged.
However, the overall winner for Science’s Breakthrough of 2014 involved work by researchers who added two artificial versions to the alphabet of natural nucleotides that make up genetic code. In virtually all living things, the natural nucleotide G pairs with C while A pairs with T. The exception is provided by a flask of Escherichia coli on a lab bench in southern California to which a novel pair of nucleotides, X and Y, have been added.
The research suggests it may be possible to persuade bacteria to behave in ways they cannot do naturally – though the scientists involved stress that any escaping altered bugs could not pose a danger to humanity as they could not replicate.
Science’s top ten breakthroughs
• Giving life a bigger genetic alphabet. How scientists added new letters to the genetic code.
• Bringing in new blood. Researchers show blood components from the young can rejuvenate an old mouse’s muscles and brain.
• Landing on a comet. Rosetta’s ten-year mission to comet 67P promises to transform our knowledge about the solar system.
• Cells that might cure diabetes. Researchers create insulin-making cells in the laboratory.
• Cooperative robots. Engineers use novel software to create fleets of tiny robots that can gather in formations and build simple structures.
• The birth of birds. Scientists detail the many steps that turned lumbering dinosaurs into graceful birds.
• Chips that mimic the brain. IBM and other companies have designed neuromorphic chips that process information in ways close to living brains
• Cave art. Scientists quadruple the age of cave art in Indonesia.
• Manipulating memory. Researchers have found ways to delete existing memories in mice and insert new ones.
• The rise of the CubeSat. Tiny 10cm-wide boxes containing a few thousand dollars worth of equipment are being used increasingly as cheap satellites.
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