A new ape species, where gold comes from, strides in space travel and other top science stories of 2017

A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The year 2017 yielded big discoveries and events from a rare solar eclipse, to the fiery demise of a long-serving NASA spacecraft in Saturn's atmosphere, to new gene editing techniques.

It is impossible to include every significant research event this year, but here is a list of some of the most-watched events and most-read stories.

Neutron stars collide

Artist’s concept of the explosive collision of two neutron stars.
Source: The Carnegie Institution for Science

In October scientists from several institutions around the world said they discovered two neutron stars merging for the first time. Researchers detected the event 130 million light years away through the gravitational waves the stars gave off before merging. The event yielded several scientific discoveries — among them that such events are how neutron-rich elements, such as gold, are created. Fully 3,674 researchers and 953 institutions contributed to one paper summarizing the findings.

Commercial space race heats up

New Shepard Booster landing on the pad in West Texas after a successful Mission 7.
Blue Origin

It was a big year for the commercial space race. 2017 will mark the first time commercial launches across the globe outpaced government-sponsored launches. Through September, there were 41 commercial launches and 28 under government contract.

SpaceX became the first to both launch and land two different rockets within a 48-hour window. It also became the first company to launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station on a reused rocket. Blue Origin launched and landed a New Shepard booster for the first time in 14 months, while also successfully deploying its Crew Capsule 2.0 for the first time.

Solar eclipse

composite image of 21 separate photographs taken with a single fixed camera shows the solar eclipse as it creates the effect of a diamond ring at totality as seen from Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet (2,025m) is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, U.S. August 21, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The total solar eclipse was a rare event that offered scientists a chance to try out some new experiments on the ground. In particular, eclipses allow scientists to glimpse the areas at the every edges of the sun, such as the corona. Normally, this area is obscured by the much brighter center of the sun. One team tested some new techniques meant to protect satellites and the power grid from solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The eclipse also gave a chance to examine the impact of shocks to the solar power grid, and the effect of solar eclipses on animal behavior.

How AI is changing medicine

MIT Professors Tommi Jaakkola, left, and Regina Barzilay poses for a portrait in Cambridge, MA on Apr. 5, 2017. They teach a popular course on machine learning.
Jonathan Wiggs | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Researchers such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Regina Barzilay are trying to use artificial intelligence to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment. It is one of several examples of the increasing utility of computing in the medical field.

"The potential is perhaps the biggest in any type of technology we've ever had in the field of medicine," said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute. "Computing capability can transcend what a human being could ever do in their lifetime."

New ape species

A male Tapanuli orangutan.
Tim Laman | Wikipedia

In November, researchers said they discovered a new species of orangutan in the forests of Sumatra, now named Pongo tapanuliensis. It is the first time a new species of ape has been discovered in almost 90 years. Of course, they are already considered the most endangered ape species in the world, with only about 800 left in the wild.


Cassini Spacecraft orbiting Saturn.
Source: NASA

After a 13-year mission, the spacecraft Cassini descended into Saturn's atmosphere and immediately disintegrated, all according to plan. The project was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The craft explored not only Saturn itself, but the moons of Titan and Enceladus — a moon that may have the necessary conditions for sustaining life. The mission also gave scientists an unprecedented amount of information about Saturn, including what makes up its rings.

Human origins

A skull found in Morocco dating over 315,000 years old.
Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig

In June 2017, fossils were uncovered in Morocco that dated over 300,000 years old. The discovery provides evidence that the first humans may have lived 100,000 years earlier than previously thought and may rewrite the story of human origins.

Separately, an extremely rare 13 million-year-old skull was found in Kenya, possibly the most intact primate fossil skull ever found. It sheds light on a little known period of primate evolution.

CRISPR developments

CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes.
Molekull | Science Photo Library

There were several developments in CRISPR gene editing in 2017. Among some of the notable achievements, two different papers published in October demonstrated new techniques that in one case make CRISPR editing more efficient for some applications, and in the other case make them less risky.

One team developed a method for editing small "point mutations," which account for a range of diseases, from genetic blindness to sickle-cell anemia to metabolic disorders to cystic fibrosis.

Another team developed a method for editing RNA instead of DNA, which would allow scientists to use CRISPR to treat diseases without permanently changing a patient's genome.

Elsewhere, a group of researchers used the highly efficient process to create a skin graft capable of reducing the symptoms of diabetes and obesity in mice. Another group of scientists published research that brought the world one step closer to growing transplantable human organs in the bodies of pigs.

Juno mission to Jupiter makes first report

Scientists published a mound of some 40 papers discussing the , continuing the exploration of the largest planet in the solar system. The findings shed light on Jupiter's massive magnetic field, unexpected structures beneath its cloud tops, and massive storms brewing around the planet.

"There is so much going on here that we didn't expect that we have had to take a step back and begin to rethink of this as a whole new Jupiter," said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, at the time.

The craft also .

The Juno space craft is set to finish its mission in February 2018, when it will descend into Jupiter's atmosphere and be destroyed.

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