Science 2020: 5 events that could change the future of technology - and mankind itself

·4-min read

If 2020 will always be remembered for the emergence and global spread of Covid-19, there were also some significant scientific milestones that will change the way we look at the world, our relationship with the world, how we live in and on it, and even the future of humanity.

1. Bringing lunar rocks, asteroid dust to Earth

The Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission, launched in 2014, succeeded in bringing to Earth soil samples from an asteroid 300 million kilometers away. A capsule containing 0.1 grams of the dust from the asteroid Ryugu landed in Australia on December 5.

The analysis of this material, believed to have remained unchanged for more than 4 billion years, is expected to reveal a wealth of information on not just the asteroids but also on the formation of our solar system. The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will continue its journey to two other asteroids which it will photograph.

In mid December, the Chinese Chang’e 5 mission brought two kilograms of lunar rock and soil samples to the Earth. It was the first time in 44 years that samples from the Moon have been brought to the Earth. Unlike the past missions of the US and the Soviet Union, Chang’e 5 collected samples from a different region of the Moon. Frédéric Moynier of the Institut Physique du Globe de Paris told RFI that the samples come from a region with less craters.

“This could mean that there might have been an event such as a magmatic eruption that covered the older craters and created a younger, fresh surface,” he said. Moynier said the mission will also be a demonstrator for more ambitious projects such as collecting samples from the far side of the Moon and a mission to Mars.

2. SpaceX creates history

The year also saw SpaceX create history as it delivered a crew of four astronauts to the International Space Station in November. NASA is hoping that missions such as this will become routine, ending US reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets.

In August, SpaceX completed a demonstration mission showing it could take astronauts to the ISS and bring them back safely. The Elon Musk-owned company also tested a prototype rocket in December that could power missions to Mars.

3. Quantum leap

In May, scientists from the Kastler Brossel Laboratory at Sorbonne University reached an important milestone in the development of heterogeneous quantum networks. In a landmark experiment, they demonstrated ‘hybrid quantum entanglement which involves linking networks that are built using two different methods of encoding quantum information.

Quantum networks are made of quantum systems that can easily outperform classical computational systems because of the unique quantum property of superposition that allows for more processing power and entanglement that ensures more secure communications.

4. Lowering aircraft emissions

This year, aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus continued its tests of a new system that aims to reduce fuel consumption of aircraft. Called fello’fly the system consists of two passenger aircraft flying in formation in such a way that the follower aircraft consumes 10 percent less fuel during a trip.

Airbus tested the system in July over the French airspace with two aircraft flying three kilometers apart for four hours. The company, which hopes to introduce the system in 2025, signed agreements with two airlines, Frenchbee and SAS Scandinavian Airlines, as well as three Air Navigation Service Providers to demonstrate its operational feasibility.

5. A measurement marvel

A team of physicists from the Kastler Brossel laboratory at Sorbonne University have made the most accurate measurement of one of the fundamental constants called fine-structure by improving the precision from the previous measurement taken in 2018 by a factor of three. The fine structure constant is an important component in calculating the magnetic moment of an electron, a property that provides an excellent test of the Standard Model, a theoretical model that explains all forces of nature other than gravity.

While the electron’s magnetic moment has been measured experimentally to a high level of accuracy, the new value of the fine structure constant has allowed physicists to make an accurate prediction of its theoretical value too. With the theoretical and experimental values in agreement at better than one part per billion, it provides for a strong validation of the electron sector of the Standard Model.