Uneventful but eventful, stagnant yet progressive: 2020 has been a year of contrasts for society as well as for science, medicine, and technology.
Despite facing coronavirus-related setbacks, researchers made profound discoveries and helped people understand some startling realities. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe grabbed a piece of an asteroid, and the Japan Space Agency’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft returned samples of another asteroid to Earth. Scientists found signatures of water on the moon and nearby space rocks, and an obscure gas on our celestial neighbor, Venus. Meanwhile, other scientific endeavors—like climate change research at the poles—faced a freeze as the pandemic brought “normal” life here on Earth to a halt.
COVID-19 had a devastating, disproportionate impact on people of color in the U.S., bringing new attention to racial disparities in health and medicine. And as widespread protests triggered a societal reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism, many in the scientific community celebrated Black scientists and trailblazers in STEM fields.
1. COVID-19 pandemic strikes; scientists race to understand and contain the virus
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 was the biggest worldwide event of the year, and unfortunately, it’s not over yet.
On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization announced that pneumonia from an unknown source, later to be identified as the novel coronavirus, had sickened dozens of people in Wuhan, China. Then, on Jan. 21, 2020, a Washington state resident who had traveled to Wuhan became the first-reported American to contract the coronavirus. The first U.S. cases of non-travel-related COVID-19 were confirmed in late February, marking the earliest confirmation of community transmission, the CDC reported. By the end of April, after watching hard-hit countries like Italy experience harrowing daily death tolls, 1 million Americans had contracted SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.
At the same time, an unprecedented global effort to understand and contain the virus—and find a treatment for the disease it causes—was already underway. Now, as 2020 comes to a close, we’ve learned how a pandemic can affect the medical supply chain and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the measures health care workers have taken to try to make sure everyone gets treatment. We’ve watched researchers quickly develop vaccines, and even drawn inspiration from the past to learn how to better navigate life in a locked-down world. And COVID-19 has illustrated many ways that long-standing health and social inequities have put Black, Indigenous, and people of color at an increased risk of illness.
With FDA approval of both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, several more vaccines in clinical trials, and vaccination efforts underway, some epidemiologists and healthcare providers are looking to 2021 with optimism. But skepticism toward the already-approved vaccines, both of which use new mRNA technology, exists with as many as 40% of Americans saying they do not plan to get vaccinated, according to polls taken Nov. 18-29. Fueled by a history of medical mistreatment, many Black and Indigenous Americans remain wary toward coronavirus vaccines, making addressing racial and social equities during their distribution paramount.
2. OSIRIS-REx snags sample of an asteroid; Hayabusa2 returns an asteroid sample to Earth
In the pursuit to better understand the history of our solar system and Earth, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and the Japan Space Agency’s Hayabusa2 space missions set out to sample rock, dirt, and debris from space rocks.
On Tuesday, Oct. 20, the OSIRIS-REx probe successfully touched down on the surface of Bennu, a space rock about 200 million miles from Earth. Its team briefly feared that they may have bit off more than it could chew: OSIRIS-REx scooped up so much material from Bennu that its sampling container became jammed open, causing asteroid bits to leak out and forcing an early stow of the sample. (The OSIRIS-REx team aimed to collect at least 60 grams, or 2.1 ounces, of rock and dust from Bennu.) In more than two years, as it passes over the Utah desert, OSIRIS-REx will drop off a small capsule containing its sample, which will parachute to a landing—and a team of eager scientists—in September 2023.
On Dec. 8, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft returned a sample from Ryugu, an asteroid 180 million miles away, to Earth. The Hayabusa2 team successfully collected a surface and a subsurface sample from Ryugu in 2019 after deploying hopping robots to identify a safe sampling spot. The sample parachuted to the red desert sand of the Australian Outback, where a Japan Space Agency recovery team collected it. Now, the team is analyzing the black, gravelly sample, which includes chunks of rock larger than 1millimeter. Some 10% of the material will be sent to NASA in December 2021 in exchange for samples from asteroid Bennu. Another 15% will be made available to international researchers, and about 40% will be stored for future scientists to investigate, Smriti Mallapaty reports for Nature News and Comment.
Scientists suspect that when asteroids like Ryugu and Bennu pummeled a proto-Earth billions of years ago, they may have helped kick-start life by delivering the necessary building blocks.
3. Racial disparities in science and medicine persist; #BlackinSTEM weeks foster inclusivity and empowerment
Discussions about inclusivity and racial disparities in science, medicine, and technology—and coronavirus treatment and prevention—have come to the forefront this year.
In June, amid the turmoil of COVID-19, the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans catalyzed protests across the U.S. and spotlighted police brutality, systemic racism, and the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on people of color.
As of July, Native Americans were hospitalized for extreme coronavirus symptoms more than five times as often as white people, with hospitalization rates among Latino and Black Americans similarly high, the CDC reported. Despite making up only about 13% of the population, Black Americans represent nearly a quarter of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. And according to CDC data reported on May 28, African American and Latinx residents of the U.S. are three times more likely to contract the coronavirus and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as their white neighbors. Inequities in healthcare access and utilization, occupation, housing, and educational, income, and wealth affecting racial and ethnic minority groups “are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks,” the CDC reported. Chronic stress brought on by racism can cause wear and tear on the body, potentially increasing individuals’ risk of hypertension, depression, diabetes, and other underlying conditions linked with more severe cases of COVID-19.
Amid protests against systemic racism, the scientific community asked: What does it mean to be Black in STEM? For many Black researchers, like paleobiologist Melissa Kemp, it means perseverance, resistance, and passion. Highlighting #BlackinSTEM folks from summer onward, various “Black in___” weeks gave us a look into the experiences and perspectives of Black experts and scholars in astronomy, neuroscience, math and more. For Kemp, #BlackinNature and the conversations it sparked were important, she said, because they reinforced, “particularly for us as Black people, that we belong here, that this country is ours. We had a very, very instrumental part in creating what we have today in this country, even as we continue to be oppressed. I think it’s also important for non-Black people to hear that as well, that they recognize those contributions.”
4. Despite coronavirus lockdowns, climate change intensifies
In the fall of 2019, a crew set out to lock its 400-foot icebreaker ship named Polarstern in a sheet of floating Arctic ice for 13 months as part of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC), an endeavor to monitor climate change at the fastest-warming part of our planet. Unfortunately, polar climate research projects like MOSAiC and the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a climate research program on Antarctica’s “doomsday” glacier, have been put on hold because of the pandemic-related travel restrictions. (Antarctica had been free of COVID-19 until Dec. 22, when Chilean officials reported an outbreak of 36 COVID-19 cases at a Chilean research base.)
Although some climate research has faced delays or come to a standstill, climate change hasn’t. Temporary reductions to carbon emissions, thanks to pandemic shutdowns, are just a blip in the upward trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions, Bob Berwyn reports for Inside Climate News: Though 2020’s emissions will drop by 4-7% as compared to 2019’s, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will increase, the World Meteorological Organization found.
January 2020 was marked by the Australian bushfires, the first in a devastating series of wildfires and other natural disasters likely worsened by climate change. Similarly, megafires occurring in California, Colorado and the Amazon this year were exacerbated by dry climate conditions—an environmental shift that may become the “new norm” as rainfall in temperate areas decreases. “I think the frequency of these kinds of summers where we get in these hot, dry conditions is probably going to increase,” climatologist Russ Schumacher told Colorado Public Radio. “When the pattern sets up for these hot, dry periods of time, they’re going to be more intense. That’s what we’ve seen the last few years here,” he added.
Despite pandemic shutdowns, young activists like Greta Thunberg are still finding ways to fight for a greener future. “All movements have had to step back during this pandemic, because that’s simply what you have to do during the crisis,” Thunberg told TIME Magazine. In late November, more than 350 young activists from around the world held a two-week virtual climate summit called Mock COP 26, which aimed to elevate the voices of young people on the front lines of the climate crisis in developing countries, Suyin Haynes writes for TIME Magazine.
5. Scientists discover molecules on three of our celestial neighbors
In August, a team of researchers announced an exciting find on Ceres, the largest asteroid in our solar system. Using high-resolution images collected by NASA’s Dawn Orbiter, the team found that Ceres has water seeping onto its surface, suggesting the presence of an ancient underground ocean. The liquid, the researchers concluded, comes from an underground reservoir of saltwater 25 miles beneath Ceres’ Occator Crater. The reservoir may be hundreds of miles wide and could still be actively dribbling briny liquid onto the asteroid’s surface, some scientists believe. Skeptics caution, however, that water on the dwarf planet’s surface doesn’t entail the presence of an underground ocean but perhaps a smaller reservoir.
The search for water and other molecules in space didn’t stop with Ceres: In October 2020, NASA announced that, by using its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope on a Boeing 747SP airplane, its scientists discovered water on the surface of the moon. Equipped with an onboard infrared camera, SOFIA detected the specific wavelength unique to water molecules, finding a relatively dense concentration of water in the moon’s sunny Clavius Crater in its southern hemisphere. The discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places. The finding raises some intriguing questions: “Without a thick atmosphere, water on the sunlit lunar surface [would] just be lost to space,” NASA postdoctoral fellow and lead author Casey Honniball said in a NASA press release. “Yet somehow we’re seeing it. Something is generating the water, and something must be trapping it there,” she added.
In September, scientists found a gas called phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere. Phosphine, which is found in oxygen-free environments, is associated with microbial life on Earth. Its presence on Venus could hint at signs of life in the planet’s atmosphere—an environment often considered to be too hot and sulfuric to be habitable. Astronomer Jane Greaves used the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii to detect the first signal of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere. She and her team then used the Atacama Large Millimeter Array Telescope (ALMA), a more powerful telescope in the high deserts of Chile, to pick up a much stronger phosphene signal. “I think it could be game-changing for everyone. Not just because it would mean that there’s life next door, which in itself, I think is a big enough deal,” astrochemist Clara Sousa-Silva, who was involved in the study, told NOVA. “It might just be extremely common and inevitable, which means that there’s thousands and thousands of possibilities for life in the galactic neighborhood just waiting to be discovered.”
But some enthusiasm has dissipated in the months since the big announcement, Marina Koren reports for The Atlantic. “The science community is divided—enough that one rebuttal paper had the authors ‘invite’ the researchers who originally identified the phosphine to consider retracting their study altogether,” she writes. While the team expected criticism, it didn’t expect to have a problem with the raw data from one of the telescopes involved in the research, which had been used to confirm the presence of phosphine. Reanalyses show that the gas is present in Venus’ atmosphere, but the signal is far fainter than originally reported.