1. The first observation of a neutron star collision
130 million years ago in a distant galaxy, two incredibly dense neutron stars smashed together, unleashing gravitational waves that were detected here on Earth. Scientists were able to triangulate the source of the gravitational disturbance and observatories around the world trained their telescopes on a patch of sky, where they found a tiny pinpoint of light where there hadn’t been one before. Scientists studied the event in visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light, as well as X-rays and radio waves, giving them a wealth of data.
This event has been very significant for our understanding of the universe. Perhaps the most relatable discovery for the general public was the detection of a cloud of heavy elements resulting from the collision, confirming that a large quantity of the gold, platinum and uranium in the universe, and therefore here on Earth, was forged by neutron stars smashing together in deep space.
It’s also had major implications for theoretical physics, ruling out theories about the expansion of the universe that predicted gravitational waves travel faster than light – as visible light was observable within moments of the gravitational wave detection.
2. CRISPR gene editing technology used on human embryos for the first time
After almost five years of testing CRISPR gene editing technology on animals, scientists have selectively altered genes in viable human embryos for the first time in 2017. This has profound implications both for medicine and ethics, raising the possibility of curing genetic disease in humans well before birth.
However, this also brings us closer to ‘designer babies’, editing embryos for purely aesthetic reasons or perhaps even to select genes for greater intelligence, athleticism, etc. The 21st century could see economic inequality transformed into heritable biological inequality for the first time.
This will likely provoke intense philosophical and ethical debate. It could also create religious tensions, and have significant political, social and economic ramifications. It is likely that, without an international agreement, countries will adopt differing approaches to this technology and that the first gene-edited babies will be born somewhere in the world within the next decade.
3. The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system
In February, astronomers announced they had discovered no less than seven approximately Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a small star 39 light years away. Three of these are thought to lie within the star’s ‘habitable zone’, the region where surface temperatures may allow liquid water (a key ingredient for life) to exist. However, distance from the star isn’t the only factor when it comes to habitability, and the discovery has provoked debate over what else could render the planets either fit or unfit for life. Astronomers also noted that the star frequently emits powerful solar flares which could have swept away the planets’ atmospheres, leaving them exposed to the void of space.
4. SpaceX launch a second-hand rocket into orbit for the first time
Elon Musk’s SpaceX made history in 2017 by successfully launching and landing a previously used Falcon 9 rocket booster for the first time. Reusable rockets are vital to bring down the cost of spaceflight, which has historically been staggeringly expensive: each Saturn V rocket launch (as part of the Apollo programme) cost $1.16 billion in today’s money!
Making orbital launches more affordable will open up space to more countries and businesses and have numerous other benefits. It’ll make building infrastructure in space cheaper, paving the way for manned missions to the moon and to Mars. Cheaper spaceflight could also spur economic activity in space, as it lowers the barriers to making profit on a range of activities such as mining asteroids, space tourism, and launching commercial satellites.
5. Lambs successfully gestated within an artificial womb
Scientists placed the lambs in fluid-filled ‘biobags’ just 105 days after they started development, equivalent to about 22 weeks of human development; at which point neither lambs nor humans can survive outside the womb. The lambs were kept in the bags for four weeks, during which they continued to develop naturally until they could survive unaided. Each of the eight lambs in the experiment developed normally and survived.
Once developed for humans, this technology will revolutionise the care of premature babies. Premature birth is the leading course of mortality for newborn babies, with the survival odds for a baby born at 23 weeks currently standing at just 15%. Even for babies that do survive, premature birth is often associated with medical problems, including cerebral palsy, delayed development and sight problems, which are more prevalent the earlier the birth occurs. A study of school age children born between 22 and 25 weeks found just 20 percent had no disabilities whatsoever. Artificial wombs could save many hundreds of thousands of lives as well as greatly reducing the incidence of these medical complications.
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