Science and Technology News 2014
In January 2013, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter received a historic transmission: an image of the Mona Lisa. It was the first time scientists used a laser to send data to the moon, a feat that promises to exponentially increase the flow of information to and from space.
For the past 50 years, spacecraft have relied on radio waves to communicate with Earth. But radio has limitations. Airwaves are crowded. Signals degrade with distance, so transmissions require power-hungry generators and large antennas. Focused laser light operates in wavelengths 10, 000 times shorter than radio, pumping out more waves—and more information—each second. Lasers maintain signal strength across large distances, so transmitters require less power. And spacecraft carrying smaller receivers would be cheaper to launch.
In October, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (Ladee) performed another successful test in which it beamed laser pulses containing high-definition video between three different Earth receivers. The European Space Agency’s Alphasat, launched in July, will use lasers to relay data from other satellites observing Earth. And NASA engineers have begun to construct the next-generation system, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, to launch in 2017.
If space-based laser communication works—and there’s little reason to believe it won’t—it could change how humans explore the solar system. Rovers could pack extra tools and beam back more sophisticated data. High-def video streaming could enable scientists to track storms on Saturn as they do on Earth. And astronauts could Skype home. Dave Israel, lead investigator for the laser relay team at Goddard Space Flight Center, puts it this way: “This jump is an equivalent order of magnitude from dial-up Internet to high-speed into your house.” –Rebecca Boyle
On this date, the Rosetta spacecraft will wake up from more than 42 months of deep-space hibernation to begin the most detailed study of a comet. In August, it will arrive at Comet 67P, and in November, it will deploy a probe to land on the comet’s nucleus.
Computers Decode Our Brains
On October 7, 2013, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, one of the most ambitious brain-research projects in history officially kicked off. The Human Brain Project—backed by 1.2 billion euros and more than 250 researchers—aims to create the first complete computer simulation of the human brain. Over the course of a decade, everything we know about the organ’s biology will be modeled. Eventually, virtual neurons will even be subjected to virtual drugs.
The Human Brain Project is one element in a larger, interdisciplinary surge in brain research that has pulled engineers, data theorists, and other non-neuroscientists into various efforts. In the U.S., the government-led Brain Initiative plans to deliver its own “first”: a detailed map of all brain activity. The future potential ranges from the borderline poetic—watching a memory form as activity flows across multiple circuits of neurons—to the clinically useful, such as a device that could directly alter those circuits to possibly diagnose and treat disorders. Other projects starting in 2014 include a five-year, eight-institution plan led by Penn State University to simulate the visual cortex in silicon.
Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, explains why such projects are suddenly gaining traction. “We now have the computational and statistical tools that we need to make sense out of billions of individual neurons, each becoming active and inactive on complex time scales, ” she says. So while 2014 won’t be the year that the brain is fully mapped, simulated, or hijacked, it will be the year that the quest to do all of that—and much more—truly gets under way. –Erik Sofge
Tighter controls on narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin and Lortab, should go into effect this year. The regulations are designed to reduce abuse and overdose-related deaths, which have quadrupled in the U.S. since 1999.