Science & Environment

A science preview of the year 2016

After a year that saw the first close-up investigation of Pluto and the unveiling of a new human species, what scientific discoveries are likely to make headlines in 2016?

Particle fever

Image copyright Cern

Will the Large Hadron Collider discover a new particle in 2016? Well, the world of particle physics is currently buzzing with excitement. In December, physicists gathered at Cern in Geneva to announce their first significant results since the LHC was re-started earlier in 2015. In eagerly awaited talks, team members from the two experiments that discovered the Higgs boson reported hints of a new elementary particle.

The LHC smashes beams of proton particles together, allowing physicists to look for hints of exotic particles in the debris. In this case, researchers see an excess of photon pairs being produced at a mass scale that would make the potential new cosmic building block four times more massive than the heaviest known particle - the top quark. The signal is seen with a statistical significance of 3.6 sigma in the Atlas experiment and 2.6 sigma in the CMS experiment, meaning it is not definitive (at least five sigma is required to claim a discovery).

Image copyright Cern

Thus, physicists are urging caution, since "bumps" in the data with similar levels of significance have subsequently deflated in the past. But that hasn't stopped theorists from having a field day, flooding pre-print servers with papers speculating on the possible meaning of the result.

If it isn't a mirage, the new particle might be a tantalising link to the as-yet-unconfirmed theory known as supersymmetry, in which established elementary particles are paired with so-called superpartners. This would add many more characters to the zoo of particles represented in the current framework, known as the Standard Model. Alternatively, it could be a very different animal to any that physicists have been expecting. With the LHC now operating at double the energy it did during its first run, we should find out within the year.

By Jove... and Mars

Image copyright NASA

Nasa's flyby of Pluto was 2015's biggest event in planetary science. There's no such stand-out set-piece in this coming year's calendar, but still plenty to get excited about. On 4 July 2016, Nasa's Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter, to begin the second mission in history dedicated to studying the Solar System's biggest planet (after Galileo, which lasted from 1995 until 2003).

When it gets there, Juno will be travelling at the mind-bending speed of 265,000km/h (165,000mph) relative to Earth - a velocity record for a human-made object, which puts 2016's assault on the land speed title into perspective.

Giant planets like Jupiter are central to the formation of planetary systems: they are born early on in the process and shape the orbits of other objects in the cosmic neighbourhood. The mission will study Jupiter's core, look for water and map its clouds.

But the craft, which was launched in 2012, won't be able to shed much light on one of the jewels of the Jupiter system: its icy moon Europa. Detailed investigation of that world, which is one of the primary targets in the search for life beyond Earth, will have to wait for the launch of another US mission in the 2020s.

The big European hope for next year is the first mission in its programme of Mars exploration known as Exomars. In March, an orbiter and technology demonstrator will be launched on a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Image copyright ESA

The spacecraft arrive in Martian orbit in October. The orbiter will search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active processes on the Red Planet, while the lander - named Schiaparelli - will descend through the atmosphere and attempt to touch down successfully on the Martian surface.

The lander is designed to pave the way for future landing craft, including a rover. As such, it carries only a very limited science payload - and no surface camera.

Shaping the planet

Image copyright AFP

The Anthropocene is a term formulated in 2000 to denote the present age, where humans are dramatically altering many geologically important conditions. It might already have penetrated the surface of popular culture, but it is not an officially recognised term.

As far as geologists are concerned, we are still in the Holocene, which begins around 11,700 years ago with the end of the last Ice Age.

In 2016, a working group convened by Leicester University Prof Jan Zalasiewicz will put its evidence and recommendations about formalising the Anthropocene before the International Commission on Stratigraphy. This could set in motion a process that will see it officially accepted as a geological epoch - with the same hierarchical standing as the Holocene or the Pleistocene. However, defining a geological epoch is a large and complicated job, with just one of the bones of contention being when to start it from.

Human impacts on natural systems are likely to be in sharp focus again next year, especially if 2016 turns out to be one of the hottest years on record. The UK Met Office says that 2016 could be at least as warm, if not warmer, than 2015.

Climate change, along with the ongoing effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon, could help drive the global mean temperature beyond the high set in 2015. If the forecasts turn out to be correct, by the end of the year we may see three record or near-record years in a row for global temperatures.

Loop the loop

Image copyright Reuters

Two big engineering projects are likely to be making headlines next year. Back in 2013, SpaceX founder Elon Musk officially unveiled the idea for a high-speed public transport system called the Hyperloop. Here's the concept: pressurised passenger capsules ride through low-pressure tubes on a cushion of air, accelerated to high speeds by a series of magnets.

If it all sounds a bit "Jetsons" to you, you're not alone. But in Summer 2016, Musk is running an open competition to test out different pod designs (PDF) from independent engineers and students. The contest will take place over one weekend at a 2km-long test track near SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. If the Hyperloop is indeed a viable idea, this might give a small glimpse of how it could work.

And 2016 looks like it could be the year for Bloodhound. The 15th of October is the date that has been set. That would be exactly 19 years to the day since the current land speed record was set by Thrust SSC in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. The new attempt by Bloodhound SSC will aim to nudge the existing mark of 763mph to over 800mph.

Image copyright BLOODHOUND SSC/STEFAN MARJORAM

Most of the car is built and ready to roll on its specially prepared track at Hakskeen Pan, a dried-out lake bed in Northern Cape, South Africa. The major element still outstanding is the rocket system that will be used in tandem with a Eurofighter jet engine. The rocket is coming from Norwegian experts, Nammo. Their motors are proven. What still needs work is the pump set-up that will feed the hybrid rocket with its oxidiser liquid.

This is the Bloodhound team's own design and it is due to undergo final testing and qualification in the New Year. Assuming this work goes to plan, Bloodhound should be able to start low-speed trials at Hakskeen in the weeks preceding 15 October. A successful record bid would then be followed by a redesign of the back of the car and a boost in the rocket's thrust to take Bloodhound beyond 1,000mph (1,610km/h) in 2017.

Catching the wave

And could 2016 finally be the year that physicists detect gravitational waves?

Science has been on a decades-long quest to try to sense the warping of space and time predicted by Einstein to occur whenever massive objects are accelerated. Example events would be the merger of black holes, or the end-of-life explosion of colossal stars.

Even with such violence, the signals would be super-faint, however. Nonetheless, researchers do now believe they have the experimental set-up capable of making a detection, thanks to the Advanced Ligo labs that came online in September.

Rumours are circulating that they may already have done so. No-one will know, though, until just before any official announcement is made. That's because a handful of senior figures at Advanced Ligo have the means to inject false signals into the detectors, in order to keep everyone on their toes.

It is something they famously did back in 2010 during an earlier phase of the experiment. So watch this space. 2016 could soon witness what would be a nailed-on Nobel-winning discovery.

Image copyright ADVANCED LIGO

Follow Paul and Jonathan on Twitter.