2014 Year of Science

Lasers Unleash A Flood Of Space Data

In January 2013, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter received a historic transmission: an image of the Mona Lisa. It was the first time scientists used a laser to send data to the moon, a feat that promises to exponentially increase the flow of information to and from space.

For the past 50 years, spacecraft have relied on radio waves to communicate with Earth. But radio has limitations. Airwaves are crowded. Signals degrade with distance, so transmissions require power-hungry generators and large antennas. Focused laser light operates in wavelengths 10,000 times shorter than radio, pumping out more waves—and more information—each second. Lasers maintain signal strength across large distances, so transmitters require less power. And spacecraft carrying smaller receivers would be cheaper to launch.

In October, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (Ladee) performed another successful test in which it beamed laser pulses containing high-definition video between three different Earth receivers. The European Space Agency’s Alphasat, launched in July, will use lasers to relay data from other satellites observing Earth. And NASA engineers have begun to construct the next-generation system, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, to launch in 2017.

If space-based laser communication works—and there’s little reason to believe it won’t—it could change how humans explore the solar system. Rovers could pack extra tools and beam back more sophisticated data. High-def video streaming could enable scientists to track storms on Saturn as they do on Earth. And astronauts could Skype home. Dave Israel, lead investigator for the laser relay team at Goddard Space Flight Center, puts it this way: “This jump is an equivalent order of magnitude from dial-up Internet to high-speed into your house.” –Rebecca Boyle


Computers Decode Our Brains

On October 7, 2013, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, one of the most ambitious brain-research projects in history officially kicked off. The Human Brain Project—backed by 1.2 billion euros and more than 250 researchers—aims to create the first complete computer simulation of the human brain. Over the course of a decade, everything we know about the organ’s biology will be modeled. Eventually, virtual neurons will even be subjected to virtual drugs.


The Human Brain Project is one element in a larger, interdisciplinary surge in brain research that has pulled engineers, data theorists, and other non-neuroscientists into various efforts. In the U.S., the government-led Brain Initiative plans to deliver its own “first”: a detailed map of all brain activity. The future potential ranges from the borderline poetic—watching a memory form as activity flows across multiple circuits of neurons—to the clinically useful, such as a device that could directly alter those circuits to possibly diagnose and treat disorders. Other projects starting in 2014 include a five-year, eight-institution plan led by Penn State University to simulate the visual cortex in silicon.

Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, explains why such projects are suddenly gaining traction. “We now have the computational and statistical tools that we need to make sense out of billions of individual neurons, each becoming active and inactive on complex time scales,” she says. So while 2014 won’t be the year that the brain is fully mapped, simulated, or hijacked, it will be the year that the quest to do all of that—and much more—truly gets under way. –Erik Sofge


First-Responder Bots Face Off

In December 2014, autonomous robots from about a dozen teams will compete in the final DARPA Robotics Challenge event, performing rescue operations in a simulated disaster.


Drones Get The Green Light

The domestic-drone age will officially begin by year’s end. That’s when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will issue a draft rule regulating the use of drones under 55 pounds in U.S. airspace, a category that includes most commercial models. But the devices will be in the air before then. Flight tests planned for 2014 will shape the future of unmanned aircraft for years and perhaps decades to come.

At press time, groups from 24 states were competing to house six sanctioned test sites, where drone models and flight protocols will be evaluated. And although the FAA is expected to be restrictive in its initial guidelines—likely requiring constant line of sight between pilots and unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as well as an altitude ceiling of 400 feet—the testing at those sites will explore more ambitious capabilities, including autonomous sense-and-avoid systems that would allow drones to operate at higher altitudes, sharing the air with manned aircraft.

In the meantime, the FAA has already cleared hundreds of police departments, public universities, and other applicants to fly in a not-for-profit capacity. Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University, says drone activity will reach unprecedented levels in 2014, as centers like his continue to gather test data for UAS researchers and the FAA. This is great news for farmers, real estate agents, and anyone else hoping for cheap aerial footage. For those still dreading robotic overflights, the invasion is already happening. –Erik Sofge


Celebrities Go To Space

Virgin Galactic plans to begin commercial operations in 2014, taking paying passengers—including pop star Katy Perry—to the edge of space


Physicists Create Spyproof Code

It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for privacy. Revelations of the National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance efforts underscored the obvious need for better data security. Recent breakthroughs in quantum cryptography could provide just that: spyproof encryption that’s no longer lodged in laboratories or stuck at industrial-grade price points.

Quantum key distribution (QKD) is an essentially unbreakable encryption protocol that exploits one of quantum physics’ more head-spinning principles—that simply observing information changes it. In a QKD-based system, a randomly generated key is encoded on light particles and shared through fiber-optic cables before being used to encrypt sensitive data. Any attempt to detect the key en route will alter its photons, indicating that the transmission has been intercepted and a new key is necessary.

So far, QKD has remained tethered to fiber-optic networks. It also requires large emitters and detectors, but now researchers are working to miniaturize them: Nokia and the University of Bristol in England are collaborating on a quantum source small enough to fit in a phone, while physicists at the Institute of Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Ontario, are developing microsatellites that could beam encoded photons across the globe.

The best evidence of QKD’s momentum might be GridCOM Technologies, which plans to launch the first commercial quantum-encrypted data network in San Diego by September. Although the company’s initial focus is on securing infrastructure—the network will protect a portion of the city’s electrical grid against cyberattack—GridCOM co-founder Duncan Earl, a physicist formerly at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wants to scale up to larger bandwidths suitable for mobile phones and PCs. “In five years, this technology will be everywhere,” Earl says. “We’re about to enter the age of cryptography. We have to have it, to support the world we’ve created.” –Erik Sofge

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source:  January 2014 issue of Popular Science (http://www.popsci.com/article/science/year-science-2014)