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Shaping the science landscape for 2022

By Chukwuma Muanya
13 January 2022   |   2:47 am
Top on the list are huge asteroids that will race past earth at 43,000 miles per hour on January 18; Quadrantids sent up to 50 shooting stars per hour streaking across the sky on January 3

Certain events are set to shape the science landscape this year.

The space rock, called 7482 (1994 PC1), poses no threat to the Earth as it will be five times further away from the planet than the Moon, as it shoots by at 43,000 mph CREDIT:

Top on the list is a huge asteroid that will race past earth at 43,000 miles per hour on January 18; Quadrantids sent up to 50 shooting stars per hour streaking across the sky on January 3; rising temperatures brought about by climate change could see more tropical cyclones striking populous mid-latitude cities like Beijing, New York and Tokyo; and COVID-19 variants of concern, Omicron, continues to spread, raising more questions on vaccine and boosters.

Others include: Moon and Mars’s missions continue; United Nations push to save biodiversity; the threat of earth tremors in North Central and South-West Nigeria to persist; Nigeria’s quest to send a manned mission to space by National Space Research and Development Agency (NARSDA) to remain grounded; Federal Ministry of Science and Technology’s search for a local solution to COVID-19 to intensify; and more advances expected in particle physics.
Huge asteroid will race past earth at 43,000 miles per hour on January 18

According to United States National Aeronautic Space Agency (NASA), a massive asteroid, more than twice the size of the National Assembly Complex in Abuja, will come within 1.2 million miles of the earth on January 18.

The space rock, called 7482 (1994 PC1), poses no threat to the earth as it will be five times further away from the planet than the moon, as it shoots by at 43,000 mph.

According to NASA’s Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), it is a “potentially hazardous object” as it crosses earth’s orbit as it travels around the sun.

The rock is 3,280ft in diameter, and after its close approach on January 18, 2022, at 16:51 ET (21:51 GMT), it won’t be this close to the earth again until 2105.

It will have a magnitude of 10 when it gets close, putting it out of reach for the naked eye and most binoculars, but should be visible using a back garden telescope.

The space rock 7482 (1994 PC1) was first discovered in 1994. It was spotted by RH McNaught using the Siding observatory in Australia. It orbits the sun every 572 days, although it has an eccentric orbit taking it from 0.9 to 1.8 AU from the star. One AU is the distance between the earth and the sun.

Astronomer RH McNaught, using the Siding observatory in Australia, first discovered asteroid 1994 PC1, which orbits the sun every 1.5 years, in 1994.

The last known approach this close was in 1933, when it was 699,000 miles from the earth.

Quadrantids sent up to 50 shooting stars per hour streaking across the sky on January 3

Meanwhile, stargazers enjoyed the best meteor shower of 2022 on January 3, when the Quadrantids sent up to 50 shooting stars per hour streaking across the sky.

This was the first meteor shower of 2022, and peaked on January 3 at about 20:40 GMT, appearing to emanate in the constellation Bootes, near the Big Dipper.

Quadrantids are especially known for their bright “fireball” meteors that leave large explosions of light and colour that persist longer than average meteor streaks.

Unlike most meteor showers, which originate from debris left behind by comets, the Quadrantids come from asteroid 2003 EH1, which may be a “dead comet.”

The Quadrantids, which peak during early-January each year, are considered to be one of the best yearly meteor showers.

More tropical cyclones could hit cities such as Beijing, Tokyo and New York because of rising temperatures caused by climate change, study warns

Rising temperatures brought about by climate change could see more tropical cyclones striking populous mid-latitude cities like Beijing, New York and Tokyo.

As their name suggests, tropical cyclones have long been characterised by the fact that they form almost exclusively overseas located at low latitudes.

Key to these storms are warm sea surface temperatures of at least 81°F (27°C) and converging low-level winds that force air to rise and form storm clouds.

As long as the burgeoning system has enough distance from the equator, the planetary spin will interact with the flow of moist rising air, causing it to rotate cyclonically.

And just as cyclones do not form too close to the equator, their range is bounded at higher latitudes by the jet streams, which have long confined them to the tropics.

Research by Yale University-led experts, however, suggested that global warming would reduce the temperature differential between the equator and the poles.

This, they warn, could weaken the jet stream at mid-latitudes, allowing cyclones to form — by 2100 — over a wider range than they have in the last three million years.

The ability for more tropical cyclones to form at mid-latitudes, where most of the world’s population lives, will place millions more within their devastating reach.

The team did have some good news, however — noting that tackling climate change by drastically reducing carbon emissions over the next decade could help to stop tropical cyclones from forming at mid-latitudes in the first place.

Big physics bonanza
After a multi-year shutdown and extensive maintenance work, the Large Hadron Collider is scheduled to restart operations at CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory outside Geneva, Switzerland, in June. The LHC’s major experiments ATLAS and CMS were upgraded and expanded with additional layers of detector components. This will enable them to collect more data from the 40 million collisions of protons each of them produces every second.

And after their own upgrades, the world’s four gravitational-wave detectors — one in Japan, one in Italy and two in the United States — will begin a new observing run in December.

At Michigan State University in East Lansing, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams is expected to start operations in early 2022. The US$730 million multi-stage accelerator aims to synthesize thousands of new isotopes of known elements, and it will investigate the nuclear structure and the physics of neutron stars and supernova explosions.

Moon missions
A veritable armada of orbiters and landers from space agencies and private companies is scheduled to leave for the Moon in 2022. NASA will launch the Artemis I orbiter in the first test of the long-overdue launch system that is intended eventually to take astronauts back to the surface of the Moon. And the agency’s CAPSTONE orbiter will conduct experiments in preparation for the Gateway, the first space station to orbit the Moon.

India’s third lunar mission, Chandrayaan-3, aims to be it’s first to make a soft landing (one that doesn’t damage the craft) and will carry its own rover. Japan will also attempt its first soft landing on the Moon, with the SLIM mission, and Russia is aiming to revive the glory of the Soviet lunar programme with the Luna 25 lander. The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter will inaugurate South Korea’s own Moon exploration.

On the private side, Tokyo-based company space is launching the Hakuto-R lander, which will carry the United Arab Emirates’ Rashid Moon rover. Two US companies, Astrobotic Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Intuitive Machines in Houston, Texas, are readying probes that will carry NASA instruments to the lunar surface.

To Mars and the stars
Another epic space journey to watch will be the joint Russian–European ExoMars mission, which is scheduled to blast off in September and will carry the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars, where it will search for signs of past life.

The launch was originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed partly because of issues with the parachutes needed to touch down safely.

China also plans to complete its space station, Tiangong, and has lined up more than 1,000 experiments for it, ranging from astronomical and Earth observation to the effects of microgravity and cosmic radiation on bacterial growth.

A lone boat sits on a mound near Hensley Lake during a drought.

Climate action
Energised by 2021’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, UK, delegates from around the world will converge on Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022 for COP27, another round of United Nations climate talks. Countries are expected to come up with climate commitments consistent with the 2015 Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 ˚C above pre-industrial temperatures. In the meantime, researchers will be monitoring greenhouse-gas emissions following pledges made at COP26 — which included promises to reduce the use of coal and cut methane emissions. After a pandemic-induced dip in 2020, carbon emissions rebounded in 2021.

Push to save biodiversity
Countries are working on a new set of targets to slow down the loss of biological diversity. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets, established in 2010, were mostly missed by their 2020 deadline. The next meeting of parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity — originally planned for 2020 — is scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, from April 25 to May 8, but concern over the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 might scupper those plans yet again. Habitat loss and other factors linked to human activity have put an estimated one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction.

COVID continues with Omicron
According to a report published in the journal Nature, as the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no end in sight, an immediate challenge is to better understand the impact of Omicron — the fast-spreading coronavirus variant that was first spotted at the end of November — and the threat it poses. Early results indicate that vaccines are less effective against Omicron; scientists are still racing to find out more about the severity of the disease it causes.

In 2022, researchers and public-health authorities will also continue to monitor the rise of new SARS-CoV-2 variants, as well as the long-term effects on people who have recovered from infection.

COVID vaccine boosters: the most important questions

Wealthy countries have begun giving their populations booster shots of existing vaccines, and these rollouts are likely to continue amid concerns about Omicron. But nearly half the world’s population has not yet received a single dose of a vaccine. One big question is whether pharmaceutical companies will waive patents or take other steps to help make their vaccines more affordable for lower-income countries, to begin filling the huge gap in global coverage. Meanwhile, discussions about the origins of the virus will probably continue. The World Health Organisation has renewed its efforts to solve the riddle, by appointing a team of 26 scientists.

Vaccines upgraded
Vaccine developers have set their sights on the next generation of vaccines designed to protect against the rapidly evolving coronavirus. Next year could see the development of messenger RNA vaccines that are targeted to specific variants, and some public-health officials are hoping for an increased role for vaccines using other technologies. Protein-based vaccines are a more conventional kind of immunisation — some have been used for decades against diseases including hepatitis and shingles — and in 2021, they have shown promise in phase III COVID–19 clinical trials. Vaccines based on DNA are cheaper to manufacture than mRNA vaccines and do not require cold storage, so could be a good alternative for lower-income countries.

Progress on vaccines is also expected for other major viruses and diseases, including HIV, malaria and Lyme disease.