It was the year that we left the heliosphere for the second time ever, and the year we got closer to the sun than ever. A year of biomedical breakthroughs and deadly disease outbreaks. It was a year in which humanity broke some crucial climate records —and not in a good way.
Here are a few of the biggest science stories from 2018:
• An onslaught of climate-induced disasters: Wildfires in California were made more catastrophic by extreme heat and years of drought. Storms such as Hurricane Michael and Typhoon Yutu got really big, really fast — a consequence of warmer oceans. The federal government’s 1,600-page National Climate Assessment predicted even more extreme events: floods that destroy infrastructure, warming that spreads disease, deadly record-high temperatures. But global carbon emissions set a record this year, and, even after international negotiators agreed to updated rules for implementing the Paris Climate Accord, experts say that humanity is nowhere close to meeting its goal of limiting total temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius.
• A neutrino detection and the age of multi-messenger astronomy: Four billion years ago, when the solar system was in its infancy, a cataclysm in a distant galaxy produced a hard-to-detect subatomic particle called a neutrino. This year, scientists reported catching one of these ghostly particles with a massive instrument in Antarctica — the first time humanity has ever detected a high-energy neutrino and traced it back to where it came from. Paired with improvements in our ability to detect gravitational waves, the landmark achievement heralds a new era in astronomy in which researchers can learn about the universe using neutrinos and gravitational waves as well as ordinary light. The detection also helped solve a 100-year-old mystery about cosmic rays — extremely energetic particles that rain down from space. These rays probably come from the same source as the neutrino: a powerful jet of radiation known as a blazar.
• Scientists head to Washington: If 2017 was the year that scientists got political, 2018 was the year they stayed that way. A record number of candidates with STEM backgrounds ran for seats in Congress, and at least eight of them were elected. Many of the newcomers, who are mostly Democrats, were supported by 314 Action, a political-action committee that bills itself as a leader in “the pro-science resistance.” The Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives also means that Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, a nurse who has made action on climate change one of her top priorities, is poised to take control of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. She will be the first chair of the committee with a STEM background since the 1990s.
• Hacking the human body: In November, a Chinese scientist shocked the world with claims that he had secretly helped produce the first genetically altered babies, prompting a renewed bioethics debate about deploying the rapidly advancing CRISPR technology in human reproduction. Meanwhile, researchers made strides in growing human organs — tiny retinas, miniature brains — outside the body.
• Ecosystems on the brink: Officials in Congress and the White House have moved to roll back parts of the Endangered Species Act, such as the provision that requires federal agencies to consult with scientists before granting permits for activities such as logging. After Yellowstone-area grizzly bears were taken off the endangered species list last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a controversial plan to allow bear hunting around the national park. But a judge canceled the hunt with a last-minute court order, saying that the government’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” Meanwhile, another endangered species, the North Atlantic right whale, has edged closer to extinction. A toxic red tide prompted a state of emergency in Florida. In a “hyper-alarming” study, scientists reported huge losses in the numbers of insects worldwide. And a sweeping report from ecology experts around the globe forecast that climate change will render many ecosystems unrecognizable.
• Watch what you eat — and drink: At least five people died and scores more were hospitalized during outbreaks of E. coli illness tied to contaminated lettuce. Both outbreaks were eventually traced back to facilities where greens had been affected by tainted water. In Washington, a mammoth National Institutes of Health study on the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption was canceled after it was revealed that officials had solicited the majority of funding from liquor and beer companies.
• Saying goodbye to spacecraft: It’s been a tough year for some of our most beloved space explorers. The 15-year-old Opportunity rover has been incommunicado since getting caught in a massive Martian dust storm in June. The rover depends on solar power, so it went into safe mode when the storm blocked out the sun, and NASA hasn’t heard from it since. The Kepler space telescope, which revolutionized exoplanet research by revealing that we live in a galaxy crowded with more planets than stars, ran out of fuel. Two of NASA’s flagship space telescopes, Hubble and Chandra X-ray telescope, were put temporarily out of commission by equipment glitches — a sign of their age. And a tiny unexplained hole was discovered in the International Space Station.
• … And hello to some new ones: This year saw the launch of three NASA spacecraft. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite picked up where Kepler left off, looking for planets around stars nearest to our cosmic neighborhood. The Parker Solar Probe began circling the sun, where it will explore the mysteries of the sun’s ultra-hot atmosphere and help scientists figure out how to protect Earth from disruptive space weather. The InSight probe landed on Mars, where it will drill into the Red Planet’s interior in an attempt to figure out what it’s made of and how it came to be. And Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause, where the sun’s sphere of influence ends and interstellar space begins.
• Companies shoot for the stars: In February, SpaceX performed the much-delayed and much-ballyhooed test flight of the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, which carried a cherry red Tesla roadster to an orbit beyond Mars. But SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s year was a rocky one: The tech mogul got in trouble with multiple federal agencies over potentially market-manipulating tweets and an ill-advised podcast appearance in which he smoked pot. Meanwhile, NASA plans to use commercially operated spacecraft to send astronauts to the International Space Station and instruments to the moon next year.