Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Look ahead to 2011

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Dec 22, 2010

Astronomers have had, quite simply, a fabulous last 12 months. Not only did NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory take off in May to study the Sun – sending a wealth of images and data back to Earth – but the WISE sky surveyor successfully sent back its first data studying the universe in the infrared. Meanwhile, researchers in Japan had good reason to celebrate after the Japanese Space Agency's Hayabusa mission successfully brought small specks from an asteroid back to Earth for the first time. Two other existing missions also produced fabulous stuff: the Planck satellite, launched by the European Space Agency in May 2009, provided its first all-sky map, while ESA's Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, which launched in March 2009, made its first gravity map of Earth.

This astronomy bonanza shows no sign of abating in 2011 with the launch of a whole host of new probes. Mars continues to be a popular destination with the Russian Space Agency launching its delightfully named Phobos Grunt mission in November, to bring back to Earth a piece of rock from Phobos – one of Mars's moons. In the same month, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory is also set to begin its journey to the red planet to perform the first-ever precision landing on Mars and study the planet's habitability.

Also due to launch next year is NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter, which is expected to take off in August in a quest to study the planet's composition as well as its gravitational and magnetic fields. NASA will also launch the Earth-observing Glory satellite in November to study the planet's atmosphere in the visible and infrared.

Elsewhere in our solar system, astronomers are eagerly anticipating the arrival in March of NASA's Messenger craft, which is set to start orbiting around Mercury after a six and a half year journey. The craft has already completed three fly-bys, each lasting a few hours, taking images of the planet's surface as it passes by. The craft will enter orbit around the planet to study the planet's composition, its geological history and magnetic field for a year in much closer detail. Messenger instrument scientist Louise Proctor will be writing about the mission in the February issue of Physics World magazine.

Looking beyond our own neighbourhood, the Kepler mission, launched by NASA in 2009 to discover Earth-like planets elsewhere in the cosmos, will also continue to deliver results – hunting down yet more exoplanets on top of the 350 or so the mission has already discovered. Many will be waiting for details of the 400 additional planets Kepler announced it had discovered this year but has yet to release details of. Could 2011 be the year when astronomers announce the discovery of a whole host of Earth-sized exoplanets?

Next year should also mark the final flight of the US Space Shuttle to the International Space Station. The final shuttle launch was previously intended for late 2010 but launch delays bumped the flight of Endeavour back to June. Endeavour will be no ordinary mission in another aspect too: it will be carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – a cosmic-ray detector that will be able to distinguish between a vast number of different types of cosmic-ray particle including high-energy positrons, which could be produced by collisions of dark-matter particles in the Milky Way. First results from the AMS are expected by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the US Congress will decide early in 2011 whether to fund a further shuttle launch in November, which will then mark the final shuttle flight.

Back down on Earth, the Dark Energy Survey telescope, led by the particle-physics centre Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, is expected to come online in October. It will be the world's largest camera for studying dark energy – the mysterious substance that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The telescope has already been built and astronomers will begin moving it to Chile next year where it will use its 570 megapixel camera to survey 300 million galaxies in the southern sky to measure the speed of those galaxies.

Of course, astronomers will not be the only ones looking forward to 2011, with a whole host of anniversaries in various other disciplines on the horizon. In particular, 2011 has been designated the International Year of Chemistry (IYC) by the United Nations and endorsed by UNESCO – its body responsible for education, science and culture. The IYC marks the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which was awarded in 1911 for her "discovery of the elements radium and polonium".

Under the central theme of "chemistry – our life, our future", the IYC2011 will kick off on 27–28 January at UNESO headquarters in Paris with the opening ceremony including talks by 2009 Nobel-prize winner Ada Yonath as well as Rajendra Pachauri, director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As it happens, 2011 also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the International Association of Chemical Societies as well as the 100th anniversary of the Solvay Conferences, which were attended in their day by leading figures in science. Next year also marks 100 years since Ernest Rutherford proposed his model of the atom. Look out for the Rutherford Centennial Conference on Nuclear Physics, which will be held at the University of Manchester on in August 2011.

The other huge anniversary in 2011 is the centenary of the discovery of superconductivity – the phenomenon where the electrical resistance of a materials drops to exactly zero – by experimental physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. Whilst working at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, Onnes conducted an electrical analysis of pure metals such as mercury, tin and lead at very low temperatures and discovered the resistance of mercury went to zero at 4.2 K. Onnes won the Nobel Prize for Physics for this work in 1913.

Next year also sees the 25th anniversary of the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in compounds containing barium, lanthanum, copper and oxygen, which has a superconducting temperature above 40 K. These materials, an explanation for which continues to confound condensed-matter physicists, were discovered in 1986 by IBM researchers Karl Müller and Johannes Bednorz, who were quickly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1987. Be sure to not miss the superconductivity special issue of Physics World in April.

As ever, physicists would not be physicists without a good moan about funding, and budgetary constraints in many countries are sure to disappoint physicists next year. In the UK there was alarm earlier in the year that research councils' budgets would be slashed in the efforts to reduce the country's deficit. When the details were released in December many physicists were relieved that cuts to the Science and Technology Facilities Council – the main funding council for UK physics – were much less than feared. However, the UK government has cut the large facilities capital fund by 40%, which provides cash for large projects such as particle accelerators and university lab space. It will not be known for some years to come how much these cuts will have affected UK physics.

Researchers in the US are also concerned that their science budget could be cut now that Republicans have secured a majority in the House of Representatives. Some Republicans have issued a pledge promising to return government spending to the levels of 2008 and if that is applied to science, cuts are sure to happen. More will be known soon regarding the 2011 budget and physicists will be keeping an eye out in February when Barack Obama is due to announce the administration's budget request for 2012.

One lab that will especially have a vested interest in that request is Fermilab, which will then know if the administration has opted to fund the Tevatron proton–antiprotron collider for another three years so that it can hunt down the Higgs boson. The Tevatron is due to stop operations by the end of 2011 and turn to constructing experiments in muon and neutrino science. However, many neutrino scientists will be furious if the Tevatron is granted extra funding of around $35m a year to continue running until 2014 because it would lead to a delay in the NOvA experiment.

Back in Europe, bosses at CERN will be tucking into their Christmas dinners chuffed that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN managed to successfully collide protons at 7 TeV as well as completing the first runs with lead ions. But first in their in-tray in the New Year will be to decide whether to continue running the LHC until the end of 2012. Currently the collider is due to close at the end of 2011 to start a year-long maintenance run, but the LHC has been pouring out new results, particularly with the recent run of colliding lead ions together. With the hunt for the Higgs boson hotting up and Fermilab possibly extending for another three years, physicists at CERN will be hoping that any extension will allow them to hone in on it next year.

Another mega facility crawling into life after years of planning is the huge National Ignition Facility in the US, which focuses the energy of 192 laser beams onto a tiny target filled with hydrogen fuel. After successfully completing tests this year, NIF will prepare to use deuterium-tritium fusion fuel by early spring next year. If this test is a success it will be a step closer to achieving "first ignition" – the moment at which the device will produce more energy from fusion than is required to start the reactions – possibly by the end of the year.

Roll on 2011!

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