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The top 10 science stories of 2014: Bob McDonald

12/19/2014 11:08 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST
Out of the hundreds of fascinating science stories we come across each season, it’s difficult to chose only 10 that stand out from the rest.

Here is my personal list, both from our program and my blogs. To make your own list, check out the Quirks & Quarks archive and select your favourites.

1. Comet landing

After a 10-year journey around the solar system, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta space probe caught up with Comet 61P last August. That alone was a remarkable accomplishment, but then, in November, it released the refrigerator-sized Philae lander, which hit its target but unexpectedly bounced twice in the extremely low gravity and ended up in the shadow of an ice cliff.

Still, the lander was able to turn on all of its 10 instruments during the two days before its batteries ran down, and that data is still being analyzed. Meanwhile, the mothership will continue to follow the comet for a year, as it swings past the sun, developing a tail along the way; and the lander may reawaken as the shadow shifts and sunlight recharges its batteries. This mission is far from over.  

2.  Finding Franklin

​In a remarkable Canadian achievement, a team made up of scientists and explorers from Parks Canada and the Canadian Geographic Society, along with the aid of private support, discovered the largely intact hull of Sir John Franklin’s ship Erebus, sitting upright in just 11 metres of water in the Arctic.

In a strange twist of fate, pack ice, which originally doomed the Franklin Expedition in 1845, forced the search team farther south this year, away from their planned search area, which ultimately lead them to the wreck. The next step is exploring the ship with divers and robotic instruments to try to unravel the story of the crew’s final days, while continuing the search for the sister ship, HMS Terror.

3.  IPCC climate report

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pulled no punches with its latest report. Climate change is real and countries must move quickly and firmly to cap carbon emissions worldwide if we are to avoid a tipping point where global warming spirals out of control.

The organization has also criticized Canada for dragging its heels on reducing our emissions, mainly due to the continued expansion of the oil sands in Alberta.

4.  Finding Naia

Divers, exploring a flooded cave in the Yucatan of Mexico, stumbled upon an almost complete skeleton of a 12,000- year-old teenage girl. She was named Naia, a Greek term related to water nymphs, but her true ancestry was told in DNA recovered from her pristine bones.

Genetic analysis showed that she came from a line of people who had migrated to North America from Asia, likely across the Bering Land Bridge, proving that at least some First Nations people came from the East, rather than Europe.  

5.  Planet 186f

Scientists now believe that virtually all of the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy have planets orbiting around them. But few are turning out to be like the Earth in size and environment.

Planet Kepler 186f is the closest candidate so far, with a mass just slightly larger than our world. More importantly, it's positioned within the “Goldilocks zone” of its star - not too close and hot, not too far away and cold - just the right distance so liquid water and perhaps life could exist on its surface.     

6.  Nobel for Blue LED 

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter. Red and green Light Emitting Diodes (LED) have been around for decades, but blue was much harder to achieve. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded this year for the development of the Gallium Phosphide crystal, which emits blue light, completing the trio of red/green/blue necessary for creating all the other colours in the visible spectrum, including white.

This allowed the production of low-cost, low-energy, highly efficient lights for flashlights, light bulbs, LED television screens and countless other applications that illuminate the world around us.  

7.  Private space disasters 

Two rocket crashes in one week were major setbacks to the private space industry. An unmanned Orbital Sciences rocket heading for the International Space Station exploded a few seconds after launch; then Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two, intended to begin carrying tourists to the edge of space next year, disintegrated during a test flight, killing one of the pilots. 

Both companies will have to prove their spacecraft are safe and reliable if they are to make the dream of space business a reality.

8.  Cloning Buttercup

She wasn’t the first woolly mammoth to be pulled from the permafrost of Siberia, but Buttercup is one of the best preserved, complete with red meat and blood. Scientists believe it may be possible to extract DNA from the 12,000- year-old blood cells, then insert them into the egg of an elephant that would become the surrogate mother of a cloned mammoth.

Scientifically, it would be an interesting experiment, but it raises ethical questions about the future of bringing back animals from extinction versus saving those still alive that are on the road to extinction.  

9.  Active Sun 

Even though the sun is approaching the end of its eleven-year cycle of activity, it produced a flurry of sunspot activity and high energy flares. One of the sunspot groups was large enough to contain 10 Earths.

Fortunately, none of the flares hurled huge blobs of electrically charged particles, called coronal mass ejections, towards our planet, so our satellites and power grids were not in danger. But the solar activity did produce a great season for northern lights.

10. Orion's small step

It was hailed as the first "giant leap" on the road to Mars, but the short flight of NASA’s new Orion space capsule was a very "small step" on that long journey. This replacement for the retired space shuttles is designed to carry four astronauts beyond the moon to an asteroid, then eventually out to the Red Planet.

But the giant rocket, needed to lift it to those new heights, has not been completed, and the spaceship for the crew to live in on the journey to Mars and back is still under design. Still, the Americans are happy to be launching their own crewed vehicles after years of hitching rides on Russian Soyuz rockets.

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