- From moon missions to fast-charging batteries and AI-sourced antibiotics, in no particular order, the year’s significant scientific developments.
1. The Dart and Orion missions
The year opened with a bang. Or rather, it didn’t. The successful film Don’t Look Up, in which a comet is found to be on a collision course with Earth, had been released just before Christmas 2021. In the bleak days of post-festive gloom, the news media were on an adrenaline high, chasing any and every story about potential asteroid collisions to cheer us all up. Five asteroids were to pass close to the Earth in January alone! Happily for the health and wellbeing of humanity, none was predicted to come within a whisker of hitting the planet. Nonetheless, the possibility of an asteroid colliding with Earth is a reality – the globe is covered in craters from previous impacts, and it is well known that 65m years ago, dinosaurs became extinct following the impact of an asteroid about 10km across.
Can anything be done about saving us from this existential extraterrestrial threat? Fortunately, the international space community has taken the first steps towards reducing the risk of an asteroid catching us unawares. The joint Nasa- Esa mission Dart (Double Asteroid Re-Direction Test) was an ambitious attempt to alter the trajectory of a small asteroid (Dimorphos) as it orbited a slightly larger asteroid (Didymos), by sending a spacecraft to crash into it. In October, we learned that the mission had been even more successful than anticipated, and that the orbit of Dimorphos had changed – showing that we could, if given sufficient time, alter the path of an asteroid if it were on a collision course with Earth.
As well as asteroid activity, our moon has been in the news, as a destination of choice for a new generation of astronauts. This year, it is 50 years since the Apollo 17 mission, the last time a human set foot on the moon. So it is a cause for celebration that Artemis, another joint Nasa-Esa programme, has started its operation to return people to the moon.
The first phase of the mission, the Orion capsule, was launched in mid-November, and successfully returned to Earth last week. The capsule is designed to hold up to six astronauts – though there were none on board this maiden flight around the moon. We can now look forward to a series of increasingly complex flights of Orion – culminating in a crew of astronauts landing on the moon as soon as 2025.
2. Covid’s boost to immune research
Vaccine technology has seen an unprecedented acceleration in innovation that could soon be benefiting us in a host of ways. A vaccine works by delivering an “infection” signal (something from the germ) and an “alert” signal (to wake the immune response up). As our knowledge of immunology has increased, so too has our capacity to innovate in the vaccines that deliver those signals. Designing any new vaccine takes a long time, significant investment and a lot of eager volunteers, all of which was accelerated during the pandemic, resulting in a host of novel developments.
The autumn Covid-19 booster shots we have just been offered are one such example – these bivalent vaccines target the original strain of Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) alongside the Omicron variant. Bivalent vaccines have advantages over the original vaccines as they both top up and broaden our immunity. But what if you could broaden your immunity further – to not just two but multiple strains of virus? So-called multivalent vaccines for Covid-19 and flu are looking very promising.
Another approach we could soon see is the use of sniffable or inhalable vaccines – mucosal vaccines. These are already used in China to tackle Covid-19 and may offer long-term protection against respiratory viruses. They are also much more appealing for those of us who are needle-phobic. If these new developments deliver on their promise, then one day soon the calls for annual shots could be a thing of the past.
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Source: The Guardian