Hello Nature readers, this is the news that matters in science today. You can also sign up to get it free in your inbox.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zipped past the space rock 2014 MU69 on 1 January. At nearly 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, the rock is most distant object ever visited. The latest images from the probe reveal that the ‘contact binary’ space rock has two asymmetrical lobes, probably formed by the gentle merger of two objects. MU69 – also known as “Ultima Thule” – is not just scientists’ most distant exploration target in the Kuiper belt, it also hails from a part of the Solar System known as the cold classical Kuiper belt, where objects are thought to have been in a deep freeze since the Solar System formed, more than 4.5 billion years ago.
President Donald Trump finally has a science adviser (two years after taking office): meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier. But what would US scientists say to him as the government enters day 17 of a shutdown that has ground research to a halt and forced thousands of federal researchers to stay home without pay? The drawn-out closure is now having real effects on scientists and their work. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has suspended reviews of grant proposals indefinitely, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken widely used weather and climate databases offline and NASA is facing potential disruptions to spacecraft launches. This is the third shutdown of 2018, and it is closing in on the record for the longest one ever (currently held by the 1995 event under President Bill Clinton, which lasted 21 days).
Data from Google and the Scopus database have revealed science search-term trends for 2018. Artificial intelligence and Blockchain were two of the most searched-for terms for scientists on Scopus (neither made the top 10 for 2017). Cancer took the top slot, maintaining its position from the previous year. Google’s most-searched-for science-related terms included many simple equations and constants, such as the speed of light or the area of a circle.
Chinese probe Chang’e-4 made a historic touchdown on the far side of the Moon on 3 January, deploying a rover onto the surface and sending back its first images. The Chinese space programme kept many details about the mission secret, even from scientists who collaborated with it. Chang’e-4 and its rover carry instruments that will do a range of experiments while on the lunar surface, as well as a small, climate-controlled environment containing potato and Arabidopsis seeds and silkworm cocoons.
Operations at Japan’s ¥16.4-billion (US$148-million) Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA) begin later this year, working on the same principle as the two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and the Virgo solo machine in Italy. But KAGRA will not just be more of the same — it will break new ground, testing concepts that might prove important for the future of gravitational-wave astronomy and providing the field with crucial know-how.
Brexit crunch-time is edging ever-closer, and the warnings are getting ever louder. In an open letter published on 4 January, 150 UK institutions warned the government that leaving the European Union without a deal is “one of the biggest threats” they have ever faced. Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March (that’s less than 12 weeks away, in case you’re counting), but a deal on the terms of its departure hasn’t yet been agreed. Unless an agreement is made, British scientists will become ineligible for prestigious grants from the European Research Council.
FEATURES & OPINION
The ‘third pole’ is the planet’s largest reservoir of ice and snow after the Arctic and Antarctic. It encompasses the Himalaya–Hindu Kush mountain ranges and the Tibetan Plateau, and hosts about 100,000 square kilometres of glaciers (an area the size of Iceland). Climate change threatens this vast frozen reservoir, the numerous water bodies its meltwater feeds and the communities it sustains.
Looking to mix some art and culture with your scientific leanings in 2019? Here’s our selection of the hottest tickets this year, with so much packed in that you’re bound to find something to pique your interest, whether it’s an ancient sea monster on display in Washington DC, the science and politics of food chewed over in London, art and the future of technology in Tokyo, or stage and screen performances covering everything from space travel to the disturbing roots of gynaecology.
The first experiment to dim the Sun, the rise of traditional Chinese medicine and an internet of animals are among the in-depth stories that shaped 2018.
An imaging technique with a gentle touch is allowing researchers to track delicate cells over time at high resolution. A new set-up combines this light-sheet microscope technique with software that automatically locates and tracks individual cells. Scientists have used the process to capture two critical days in the development of sensitive mouse embryos and reveal their results in a stunning 26-second video.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
QUIRKS OF NATURE
If you’re struggling back at work after the festive break, ease yourself back in gently with this 2017 paper unearthed by Ed Yong, detailing 99 spider world records, from longest legs to strongest silk ( and ‘most attendees at a congress of arachnology’).
As always, we welcome your feedback – drop us a line at email@example.com.
Thanks for reading!
Anna Nagle, Chief Editor, Digital & Engagement (Flora will be back in your inbox later this week!)