COVID has not only dominated our lives for the best part of a year now, but has also dominated the news, and scientific developments which would normally be on the forefront of the news have been out-shadowed by grim talk of vaccines, death tolls and new strains. Although we may not have got rid of the virus for 2021, there is a plenty of exciting science on the horizon.
February will have astronomers on tenterhooks, as not one, not two, but three spacecraft will be arriving to uncover the secrets of Mars, months after their respective launches last summer. The UAE’s mission, Hope, is a satellite which will enter Martian orbit on February 9th, with a goal of investigating the planets weather cycles and the deterioration of its atmosphere. The Chinese mission, Tianwen-1, will settle into orbit just the next day, spending its first few months mapping out the planet’s surface, before sending down a rover later in the year to investigate Mars’ climate and sub-surface components. NASA’s Perseverance rover will land in the Jezero Crater on February 18th, to focus on finding signs of ancient microbial life, as well as investigating the viability of extracting oxygen from the atmosphere, which would be a huge step forward in the process of sending a manned mission to Mars.
After 25 years of pain-staking development, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch in October. It is the successor to the famous Hubble Telescope, but with more of a focus on looking at infra-red radiation. By looking at the furthest corners of the Universe, we can essentially peer back through time at the early universe, as the light that will be reaching us now will have left these areas around 13.6 billion years ago. However, due to the expansion of the universe causing this light to become red-shifted, we must use infra-red to see the early universe. Infra-red also allows us to investigate dustier regions of the Universe, which is where majority of planets and stars are formed. There are very high hopes that the James Webb Space Telescope will allow us to uncover the mysteries surrounding the formation of the earliest stars and planets.
COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, will be taking place in Glasgow in early November, aiming to build and improve upon the foundations laid out by the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Scientists now agree that previous goals of limiting global warming to just 2° is insufficient, which we are not on track to meet anyway. It is hoped that off the back of this conference, new goals will be set, and world leaders will finally implement adequate action to meet these. Biden’s presidency brings renewed hope of this happening as he has pledged to take more action on this issue than his predecessor, and the US is the world’s 2nd biggest contributor of emissions.
Planned for May in China, but likely to be postponed, is COP15, the UN conference on the biodiversity crisis. Many reports suggest we are entering the planets sixth mass extinction, with species going extinct at rates 100 to 1000 times faster than what is natural. This will have devastating effects on the world as we know it, throwing the whole ecosystem off-balance that sustains not only our economy, but our lives – some scientists even argue that the biodiversity crisis is a more pressing issue than the climate crisis, yet it is largely neglected. COP15 will aim to set out measurable goals to protect large proportions of the world’s conservation areas, and hopefully get more countries onboard with restoring biodiversity to our planet before it’s too late.