Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

A 2021 Review with the SciSchmooze

The James Webb Space Telescope blasts off on December 25, 2021

Hello again Science fans. We hope your holidays have been happy and bright!

This is the last SciSchmooze of 2021. It has been quite a year. Let’s take a look back at some of the most significant science events of the past 12 months.

The most persistent story of the year has to be COVID-19. Early in the year, two mRNA vaccines were approved for emergency use by the Centers for Disease Control and the US started rolling out vaccinations against COVID. There were peaks and valleys in the measurement of cases and deaths, but clearly the vaccines had an impact, and came just in time.

Just when it looked like we might be getting the upper hand on the pandemic in the US, the Delta variant became the most common version of COVID, quickly overtaking the original version and proving to be much more contageous. This prompted recommendations for a third booster shot. Then just one month ago, a new variant, dubbed Omicron, and carrying many more mutations, quickly spread around the world to overtake Delta. Fortunately it appears Omicron does not cause cases to be as serious. Unfortunately, it is much more contageous than Delta. Case counts have quickly skyrocketed.

Where do we go from here? That’s the big question for 2022. While vaccination rates in the Bay Area lead California, and California has higher rates than most other states, we also need to consider the rest of the world. We’re lucky to have access to the vaccines available here, which are the best ones so far. Many other countries do not have access to these and availability of any vaccine is spotty.

Early results from studies testing Omicron against the existing vaccines show it seems to be able to breakthrough them, but that the vaccines greatly reduce the chances of serious complications from the variant.

The vaccines continue to run up against misinformation campaigns. Meanwhile, approval has been granted for vaccinating children as young as 5 years old.

Both Pfizer and Merck released tests showing promising results for antiviral pills that are effective against COVID-19. Both were approved for emergency use this past week. The Pfizer treatment appears to be much more effective.

Outer Space
Three different probes made it to Mars in February. The Perseverance rover from the US made a safe landing, deployed the amazing Ingenuity helicopter, and together they have been exploring the planet. Ingenuity has now flown for more than 30 minutes in total. The Hope space probe from the United Arab Emirates entered orbit around Mars to study the atmosphere and weather. And the Zhurong rover from China landed in May after orbiting Mars for a few months looking for a landing spot, and began exploring the geology of the planet.

Perseverance has been sending lots of pictures back to Earth. NASA asks the public to vote on the best images and publishes them. Here’s a look at the top pics from 2021.

While technically a 2020 story, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft returned to Earth from asteroid Ryugu bearing 5.4 grams of material from the asteroid. Two papers were just published on the analysis of that small sample, providing valuable insight into the makeup of the asteroid.

NASA’s ORISIS-Rex mission took samples of asteroid Bennu, but those won’t be returned to earth until 2023.

Rogue planets, those that don’t orbit a star, have been found before. But just this week, at least 70 such planets were found. Each is a Jupiter-sized planet. Since they don’t orbit a star, they don’t have the light from that star to reflect off of them and make them easily visible to us, making this discovery even more significant.

The Parker Solar Probe flew through our Sun’s corona, or upper atmosphere, making it the first spacecraft to “touch the Sun” and it sent back some incredible images. Click on the link in that article to watch the “movie” made of the still photos.

Space tourism became a thing. First, in early July, Richard Branson and some employees flew above the boundary of space on Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed trip. A week later, Jeff Bezos completed Blue Origin’s first suborbital flight. Then in October, Blue Origin took William Shatner on a similar ride. In September, a civilian crew of four rode on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule Resilience. Expect more such missions, including a trip to the International Space Station by paying passengers and a retired astronaut in 2022.

Just yesterday, the 25 year long wait was finally over for the James Webb Space Telescope with a successful launch on Christmas Day from French Guiana. While that’s great news, there are still a lot of things that have to happen before the Webb is fully deployed. The next 29 days will contain a series of maneuvers and deployments, the failure of any one of which could doom the mission. Here’s a rundown of what has to happen. Unlike most orbiting spacecraft, this one won’t be circling Earth, or any other planet. Instead it will orbit Lagrange point #2. What is a Lagrange point, you ask?

We also launched a mission to attempt to alter the trajectory of an asteroid. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will crash itself into the moonlet of Didymos in September. The impact should change the orbital period of the moonlet enough to be measured from Earth-based telescopes.

Here are some other things to look forward to in space in 2022.

Climate Change
The continued warming of the planet was also a top story this year. Extreme weather events, fires, droughts, heat waves, melting ice caps, sightings of animals far from their usual ranges all made the news. Over the past 50 years, such events are happening five times as often. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network says about 14% of the world’s coral reefs were lost since 2009, and half since the 1950s.

Some bats have grown larger wings and bigger ears to dissipate more heat in response to warming temperatures in their habitats. Some birds in the Amazon weigh less than they did 40 years ago, and have longer wing spans, most likely due to rising temperatures and rainfall pattern changes.

More details on these, and other top 2021 stories from Smithsonian Magazine and and Science Focus Magazine.

So yes, it has been quite a year. We hope you have a safe and happy 2022!
Bob Siederer

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