According to an old expression—used by Isaac Newton, but of a more ancient origin—science is built on the shoulders of giants, on the foundations of previous discoveries. Therefore, the main trends in scientific research are well defined, as are their expected results. A more difficult task is to foresee when the major milestones will be reached. (If only we could predict the arrival of the next revolutionary advance against cancer.) But while we await the news that will take us by surprise, at least we can anticipate some of the science stories that are likely to be discussed in 2019.
The definitive take-off of NewSpace
The new global sector of private aerospace companies, given the moniker of NewSpace, has spent years warming up its engines in anticipation of launching its first manned voyages, from suborbital flights for purely tourist purposes to scientific missions and the transport of astronauts to the International Space Station. However, the expectations of the companies involved have generally been overly optimistic, so that until now their announced plans have been repeatedly delayed.
Last December 13, Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, managed for the first time to successfully cross the border of space in its suborbital spacecraft SpaceShipTwo with two crewmembers on board. Spurred on by this success, Branson announced that he intends to fly to space himself by the middle of this year and then begin taking the first passengers. Blue Origin, the company of Jeff Bezos—the founder of Amazon—also aspires to launch this year its suborbital ship New Shepard, with real astronauts replacing the test dummy named “Mannequin Skywalker.“
Even more ambitious are the plans of SpaceX and Boeing. Both companies are aiming at the same target: getting real crews into space for the first time by the middle of this year. Elon Musk’s company wants to launch its Crew Dragon 2 spacecraft with astronauts on board in June, while Boeing will try in August with its CST-100 Starliner. If these missions are completed successfully, the path to Earth orbit from the USA will be reopened, which was shut in 2011 with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles.
A black hole and our brightest star, as never seen before
While the new routes to take humans to space come on stream, robotic probes continue to demonstrate that at the moment they represent the winning option in the field of space exploration. The Parker Solar Probe, launched by NASA last August, will complete two perihelions (points of maximum proximity) in April and September 2019 to approach the Sun as never before. For its part, NASA’s New Horizons probe, which explored Pluto in 2015, has inaugurated the new year by showing us the farthest celestial body that a human device has ever reached: Ultima Thule, a trans-Neptunian object in the Kuiper belt shaped like a snowman, some 6.6 billion kilometres from Earth.
However, some of the greatest discoveries in the cosmos come to us from our own terrestrial soil. February 2019 will see the return to operation of the LIGO experiment, the USA’s gravitational wave detector that—along with the European Virgo—in its previous two rounds of observation detected the merger of 10 pairs of black holes and two neutron stars, adding one additional astronomical tool for studying the universe.
But without a doubt, the scientific advance of the year could be the first image of a black hole, a prediction that returns to this list for the third consecutive year. The delay in the completion of the task is more than understandable: it’s not simply a matter of taking a photo, but of using a whole network of terrestrial telescopes, joined under the Event Horizon Telescope project, to collect such an immense volume of data that it cannot be transmitted over the Internet, but has to be sent by air on physical disks. Researchers have had to develop new algorithms to obtain the images, which in 2019 should show us for the first time the appearance of the event horizon of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.
The great crossroads of genetic surgery
One of the major trends in modern biomedicine has been gathering steam since the development of CRISPR, the most accurate and powerful molecular tool for modifying genes in living cells, was publicised in 2012. The editing of the human genome to combat diseases has already overcome several critical milestones, such as the first preliminary tests in human patients and the correction of genes in viable embryos.
But while in the West clinical trials to test its effectiveness against various pathologies are just getting underway, in China things are moving more quickly. The announcement made at the end of last year by Chinese researcher He Jiankui, according to which he claims to have already produced the first babies with modified genomes, still needs to be clarified and debated. While He seems to be detained under house arrest, the scientific community is still waiting for the publication of his results to confirm if his claims are true. And whether they are or not, the episode is sure to motivate a more intense debate in 2019 on the ethical limits of this technology. Although most experts have condemned He’s experiments, some prominent voices are urging the scientific community to come up with a road map that leads to the responsible use of embryonic genetic editing techniques for therapeutic purposes.
In the meantime, a new pathway against cancer is making remarkable progress. Unlike more widespread treatments such as chemotherapy, which eliminates cancer cells almost as a side effect of a general assault against the organism, immunotherapy is based on a specific attack against malignant cells. A proof that this approach is about to take off is the award of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to its discoverers in 2018, an acknowledgment that it is a sufficiently proven technique in the fight against cancer. It seems more than likely that 2019 will bring us new encouraging results in this line of research; however, the question remains as to whether these expensive treatments will be available to those who need them most.