Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Science news highlights of 2009

It was the year we learned of a spectacular smash-up in space, and scientists working on the world's biggest physics experiment delighted at collisions of an entirely different sort.

There were shockwaves, too, in Copenhagen, as the summit failed to reach a consensus on tackling climate change, instead merely noting a deal struck by major powers including the US and China.

The BBC's science reporter Paul Rincon looks back at the twists and turns of a year in science and the environment.


Antarctica (BBC)
Trends across Antarctica have been hard to discern

Scientists report that they have detected large quantities of methane on Mars. The gas should last for only a short time in the atmosphere until it is destroyed by sunlight, so it must be replenished somehow. Geochemical processes or microbial life could be sources.

Rising greenhouse gases in our own atmosphere seem to be causing Antarctica to warm in step with the rest of the world. Trends across the bulk of the continent have been hard to discern, mainly because data from land stations is scarce.

This month also sees Iceland's outgoing administration issue whaling quotas that are substantially enlarged from those in previous years. The incoming interim government allows hunting to go ahead in 2009 but leaves in doubt whether the practice will continue.


Two satellites - one American, the other Russian - annihilate each other when they collide in low-Earth orbit. Some commentators put the odds of such an event occurring at billions to one. Other long-time observers argue that it highlights a growing problem of overcrowding in space.

Nasa illustration of space debris (Nasa)
There are many thousands of manmade objects in orbit

These aren't the only satellites to end up in pieces. Nasa's first dedicated mission to measure carbon dioxide from space crashes into the ocean near Antarctica following a rocket malfunction.

Meanwhile, Nasa and the European Space Agency decide to forge ahead with an ambitious plan to send probes to the Jupiter system and its icy moon Europa. But the missions will cost several billion dollars/euros to build and execute and might never fly if other endeavours become higher research priorities.


Alluvial fans in Mojave crater (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
Alluvial fans on Mars appear to have been carved out by running water

The biggest ever investigation into a climate change fix known as "ocean fertilisation" reports modest results. The technique involves tipping iron filings into the ocean to stimulate the growth of algae, which absorb the greenhouse gas CO2 from the air.

There are no oceans on Mars today, but the Red Planet did have running water on its surface just over a million years ago, according to a team from Brown University in Rhode Island.

In separate research, the University of Michigan's Dr Nilton Renno says droplets of liquid water can be seen in photos of a landing leg strut from Nasa's Phoenix lander, which touched down on Mars in 2008. Dr Renno makes the claim at a meeting in Houston, Texas, where scientists present early results from the mission.


Tuned to see the high-energy gamma-rays emitted from extreme cosmic events, Nasa's Swift telescope picks up the most distant single object ever detected - the cataclysmic explosion of a giant star some 13 billion light-years away.

Barack Obama (AFP)
President Obama said it was time for the US to take a lead on innovation

By comparison, the star Gliese 581 is a mere hop and a skip away. It is around this sun that astronomers find the "lightest" planet ever detected outside our Solar System. This "exoplanet" is about twice as massive as the Earth, but too hot to support life.

This month US President Barack Obama sets a goal of devoting 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) to US research and development. During a speech in Washington DC, he says the US should lead on innovation, adding that, over the years, "scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicised".


This was the last re-fit for the orbiting observatory

The space shuttle Atlantis blasts off from Florida on a risky mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. This is the last re-fit for the orbiting observatory. Nasa subsequently releases remarkable images from the upgraded telescope - including its deepest view of the Universe - proving the servicing mission was an outstanding success.

Primate fossil (The Link/Atlantic Productions)
The preservation was so good, it was possible to see an outline of fur

Just as dazzling were the beautifully preserved remains of a 47-million-year-old fossil primate, unveiled amid great fanfare in New York. The specimen, nicknamed Ida, is claimed to be a "missing link" between today's higher primates - monkeys, apes and humans - and more distant relatives.

A scientific paper published in Nature journal later concludes that Ida belonged to a group more closely linked to lemurs and lorises than to higher primates like humans.

May is also the month that the European Space Agency launches its Herschel and Planck telescopes. The former will study the birth of stars and galaxies; and how they evolve over time; the latter will map the "oldest light" in the cosmos to understand better its contents and structure.


Children talk while a whale is chopped up
Japan is the world's most ardent whaling nation

The Periodic Table will get a new addition, it is announced. The "super heavy" element 112 is named "copernicium", with the symbol Cp, in honour of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

June also sees the International Whaling Commission (IWC) hold its annual meeting on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Pro- and anti-whaling nations agree to further compromise talks at the end of the meeting. But the gathering defers a decision on a controversial bid from Greenland to add humpback whales to its annual hunt.

Meanwhile, a study suggests that climate could have a direct effect on the speed of "molecular evolution" in mammals. The authors found that, among pairs of mammals of the same species, the DNA of those living in warmer climates changes at a faster rate.


Meeting in the Italian city of L'Aquila, G8 nations agree to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The world overall should halve them by 2050, say the leaders. But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says big cuts are needed sooner rather than later.

Apollo 11 (Nasa)
Nasa released images of Apollo hardware on the Moon

International co-operation is also on the agenda for the European and US space agencies which announce plans to team up on unmanned missions to Mars following a two-day summit. But the new roadmap means a further delay for Europe's troubled ExoMars rover mission.

While the "Plymouth Scenario" sets out a plan for the future, this is also a month for celebrating the past. July marks the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the Moon. Nasa releases images of the Apollo landing sites on the Moon taken by the recently launched Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.


Polar bear (R.Dietz)
Physical stresses seem to be behind the bears' shrinking size

The mighty polar bear and Scotland's Soay sheep both appear to be shrinking in size, according to separate studies. A number of factors are involved, including pollution in the case of the bears, and climate change, in the case of Soay sheep.

Further insights came to light this month from an ongoing effort to unravel the Neanderthal genome. Research shows Neanderthals shared with modern humans the gene for tasting bitter flavours. The full genome will be published next year and could shed light on the appearance, behaviour and intelligence of our close cousins.

Footage of clever rooks reveals one of Aesop's fables may be based on fact.

Rooks show that they are smarter than the average bird: British researchers manage to get the corvids to recreate one of Aesop's Fables. In the 2,000-year-old tale, a crow uses stones to raise the water level in a pitcher so it can reach the liquid to quench its thirst. Rooks, which are related to crows, do just the same when presented with a similar scenario.


Satellite data shows this summer's melt of Arctic sea ice has not been as profound as in the previous two years. Cooler Arctic temperatures this year and winds helping to disperse the sea ice are among the reasons, scientists suggest. But they note the long-term trend is still downwards.

Ares 1-X (Nasa)
The Ares I may not be the future after all

This month also sees the panel set up to review America's manned spaceflight plans deliver its summary findings. The final report strongly backs the use of commercial services to launch astronauts, and casts doubt on the future of Nasa's Ares I rocket.

A manned mission to Mars may be a long way off, but one of the robotic spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet reveals evidence of white material exposed by fresh meteorite impacts fading over time - behaviour expected of ice. Data from three spacecraft reveal that very fine films of H2O coat the particles that make up the Moon's soil.


"Ardi" (Science/Jim Matternes)
Over 17 years, the team reconstructed what "Ardi" looked like

Researchers describe a 4.4 million-year-old ancient human creature - nicknamed "Ardi" - that may be a direct ancestor to us. The 17-year investigation of the fossils is named as Science journal's big breakthrough of 2009.

Mountain chicken frog
The mountain chicken frog has been devastated by chytrid fungus

Nasa was hoping for its own big breakthrough as it smashed a rocket and probe into a crater on the Moon in a bid to find water. The mission is hailed as a success when analysis of the impact plume reveals copious quantities of water-ice and water vapour.

In October, fossil hunters announced the discovery, in Dorset, of the skull from a colossal "sea monster" which terrorised the oceans 150 million years ago. Just as ferocious, in its own way, is the chytrid fungus, which is devastating amphibian populations worldwide. A major study unravels the mechanism by which the fungus kills.


Compact Muon Solenoid (Cern/C. Marcelloni)
The Compact Muon Solenoid is one of two multi-purpose detectors at the LHC

The Large Hadron Collider experiment re-starts after a 14-month hiatus while the machine was being repaired. Two stable proton beams are circulated in opposite directions around the vast underground machine. The collider swiftly makes its first proton beam collisions and breaks the energy record for a particle accelerator.

November also sees the publication of a major study showing that mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet quickened between 2006 and 2008. Melting of the entire sheet would raise sea levels globally by about 7m (20ft), scientists say.

This is also the month of "ClimateGate", in which hundreds of e-mails hacked or leaked from a leading UK climate research unit are released on the web. Some climate sceptic websites seize on the content and an independent review is set up to look into their allegations of the manipulation or suppression of data.


Talks at Coopenhagen (Getty)
The presence of so many world leaders did not help secure a global agreement

After two weeks of frantic negotiations, the 193-nation climate summit in Copenhagen ends with delegates taking note of a deal, without formally adopting it. The non-binding pact brokered by US President Barack Obama with China and other main powers is lambasted by campaigners and a few developing nations.

Octopus snatches coconut and runs

On the other side of the world, Australian marine biologists film an octopus snatching and then making off with a coconut. They say it represents the first evidence of "tool use" by an invertebrate. December also sees a decision to bring the many arms of Whitehall with interests in space under the umbrella of a dedicated UK agency to direct policy in this area. But the UK's pre-budget report unveils swingeing cuts to science funding.

As the year draws to a close, researchers in the US say they have seen tantalising glimpses of the elusive "stuff" known as dark matter which makes up some 25% of the Universe. They will try to verify the findings next year, making this story one to watch for 2010.

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