Despite recent budget cuts, NASA has made significant progress, not only in re-establishing human spaceflight, but actually going beyond Earth and sending astronauts deeper into space. After the Constellation Program was cancelled in 2010, many claimed that manned exploration of space would be placed on the backburner. In fact, this was simply untrue. New space vehicles were being developed with the specific aim of returning to the Moon and studying asteroids, before eventually going to Mars.
In 2014, a first unmanned test of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle took place, reaching a higher altitude than any craft intended for human use since 1973.* This was followed by the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2017,* intended to carry Orion. Future upgrades of the SLS would allow even larger versions, with a 130-ton payload making it the biggest rocket ever built. The first manned outpost beyond the Moon began construction in 2019. This "Gateway Spacecraft", placed at Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2 (L2), would function as a stepping stone for journeys to more remote destinations.*
In 2021, a first manned test of the SLS is conducted. In this same year, a crewed asteroid mission takes place. Using a robotic probe, NASA captures a small rock, which is dragged into a stable orbit around the Moon.* Astronauts are then sent to explore it, travelling on-board the SLS, before moving in closer with the Orion, followed by a smaller craft known as the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV).
The success of this first expedition leads to further asteroid missions in subsequent years.* Experience is gained in finding ways to deflect potentially harmful rocks that may threaten Earth. On-site examination also provides new insights into the economic value of these space rocks and the resources they contain – adding to the knowledge from private ventures like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. Perhaps more importantly, technologies can be tested, alongside training of processes, for later use in Mars missions during the 2030s.
average temperatures have risen by 1°C
on both land and sea have continued to rise, due to increasing CO2 levels.
By the early 2020s they are 1°C (1.8°F) higher relative to 1961-1990.* This is
merely the global average, however – many inland areas
are subjected to larger fluctuations. Great Plains in the USA is one
such region. Kansas, Nebraska and other nearby states are now experiencing
"dustbowl" conditions even worse than those seen in the 1930s.*
having a considerable impact on agriculture and the economy, exacerbating
the damage caused by higher fuel prices. Some of the larger dust storms
are alarming in their scale and severity. Topsoil, eroded and carried
east by strong continental winds, is reaching as far as Chicago on occasions.
the last remaining snow has disappeared from Mount Kilimanjaro, leaving
the entire continent ice-free for the first time in 11,000 years.
Bangladesh is now affected by torrential flooding and storm surges on
a regular basis. The country is particularly vulnerable to sea levels.
Within a few years it will experience a refugee crisis unparalleled
in its history.*
has seen the biggest temperature increase of all. By the middle of this
decade, it will change from a carbon sink to a carbon source, eventually
releasing more than 100 gigatons of CO2.*
chronic water shortages are being experienced in the southwestern states
of the USA.
crisis in southwest USA
parts of the USA – including Nevada, Arizona and southern California
– are now faced with crippling water shortages, on a scale normally
only seen in Third World countries.
a key source of water for over 25 million people (about 8% of
the US population), is running dry as a result of climate change.* Increased population growth and associated demand for water resources
have also played a part.
largest reservoir in the country, its capacity has declined to almost
nothing due to the Colorado River’s net deficit of nearly 1 million
acre-feet of water per year. This crisis has occurred despite mitigation
measures implemented in the previous decade.
as providing fresh water, Lake Mead has been a major source of hydroelectric
power, via the Hoover Dam. Blackouts are now occurring across much of
the area. Las Vegas and its famous lights are particularly hard hit.
Authorities have been attempting to stabilise the situation by constructing
solar power facilities both in and around the city, as well as laying
groundwater pipelines from elsewhere in Nevada.* New techniques for improved farming and water conservation have also been introduced. However, even these measures are proving
to be insufficient, and major socio-economic disruption is unavoidable.
Lake Mead as seen from the Hoover Dam, clearly showing
the "bathtub ring". Credit: Cmpxchg8b
The world's largest insect swarm re-emerges
Brood X is the largest of 15 groups of 17-year cicadas. Its members, all of the genus Magicicada, tunnel to the surface en masse, mate and lay eggs, then die. This is the biggest swarm of insects in the world. The area covered stretches from New York, down the East Coast to Georgia and west to Illinois.
The last time Brood X emerged was in 2004.* Countless billions of the insects infest the Eastern USA, with any existing tranquillity ruined by their incessant buzzing during the mating ritual, which is audible from a mile away. Despite the nuisance it causes, the emergence of this swarm is relatively short-lived. It also delivers vital nutrients to the topsoil, leaving the native environment noticeably better in the weeks after the ensuing die-off.
Five-year survival rates for breast cancer are approaching 100%
Worldwide, breast cancer accounts for nearly 23% of all cancers in women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers). In 2008, it caused 458,000 deaths, 13.7% of cancer deaths in women. It is over 100 times more common in women than in men, although men tend to have poorer outcomes due to delays in diagnosis.
In 2011, advances in genetics led researchers to identify 10 subtypes of breast cancer, each with its own unique genetic fingerprint.* In that same year, three genes linked to the most common form of breast cancer were found, including one responsible for driving the growth of tumours.*
Combined with personalised genomics, this paved the way for a new generation of drugs and other treatments that were precisely customisable for a particular individual. In many Western countries, five-year survival rates are now approaching 100%,** with 10-year survival likely to meet this level in the mid-2030s.*
Male birth control pills are entering the market
Early in this decade, the first male birth control pills are available for mass consumption.** Methods of chemical male birth control had been around for a few decades. Early efforts focused on using testosterone and synthetic hormones to limit sperm production, in a similar way to female birth control's effect on egg production. However, these proved to have too many negative side effects and were subsequently abandoned.
Other, non-hormonal methods were tried. Among the most successful was a compound known as JQ1, developed by US researchers in 2012.* This worked by targeting a testis-specific protein called BRDT that is essential for fertility. When mice were given the BRDT-inhibiting molecule, they began producing fewer sperm and those they did produce were unable to swim properly. Mating studies confirmed that JQ1 indeed worked as an effective male contraception. Even better, the effects were completely reversible, without adverse consequences for the animals' testosterone levels or behaviour. The molecule also left no apparent side effects on the males' future offspring.
The success of this new compound and the strong similarity between mouse and human BRDT proteins allowed JQ1 to proceed to clinical trials, beginning in 2013.* Following an eight year period,* it is available in pill form by 2021. This becomes the first new reversible contraceptive for men since the development of the condom, centuries ago.
The world's first artificial kidney
Kidneys perform a vital role in the human body: filtering blood, removing excess fluid and eliminating waste products. They are essential to the urinary system, the regulation of blood pressure (via salt and water balance) and the production of various hormones.
Kidney diseases are diverse, but their primary causes over the long-term are diabetes and high blood pressure. Among the most serious clinical conditions is end-stage renal disease (ESRD), affecting 2 million people worldwide. This can lead to complete failure of the kidneys to work at a level needed for day-to-day life. In the later stages of the illness, the only treatment options are dialysis or transplant. Although dialysis can be life-saving, it lasts for only a short time and then the procedure must be repeated. Organ transplants can help patients to regain their strength and mobility, allowing a return to more normal activities; but there is often a shortage of donors, plus the risk of rejection by their immune system. Stem cell treatments are beginning to emerge,* but have yet to include a complete replacement for kidneys.
A third option has been explored, however, which is now becoming available for the first time: fully artificial kidneys. This idea was researched at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), leading to a prototype model in 2010* and clinical trials beginning in 2017.* As part of a government innovation programme,* the development process for this particular project was accelerated, cutting the time required for approval.*
Using nanotechnology, the device can mimic almost all the vital functions of the kidney, while a bioreactor performs other renal activities. This is done without the need for pumps or electrical power – filtration is pushed along by the body's own blood pressure. Furthermore, the device has an indefinite lifespan, unlike real transplanted kidneys which typically last for 10 to 12 years.
technology is being deployed for security purposes
years on from 9/11, mind readers are now a common feature of airport
security, as well as sports stadiums and other high profile events.
This technology faced problems to begin with, as there were false positives
recorded by the machines – but recent advances in neuroscience
and computer analysing software have greatly improved their accuracy.
uses "non-invasive" sensors and imagers. These observe a person's
emotional state, facial expression, body language, body temperature,
heart rate, breathing pattern and other cues. Analysed together, these
factors can determine whether they are planning to commit a crime.
words, phrases and imagery within the person's brain are still years
away from being fully decipherable. However, it is now possible to establish
their basic, overall intentions beyond any reasonable doubt.*
Another technology to emerge recently is a form of highly sensitive voice-recognition software, which parses a person's speech, then uses algorithms to detect when lies are being told.*
The first Arabian mission to Mars
This year sees the first mission to Mars by an Arabian country – in this case, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which sends an unmanned probe. The Arab League nations have established a pan-Arab space agency by now, headed by the UAE. This functions in a similar way to the European Space Agency.
The UAE had already invested more than 20 billion dirham (US$5.4 billion) in the space sector by 2014. This further expansion was aimed at diversifying its economy away from reliance on hydrocarbons and fostering new talent in technology and aerospace fields. It was also motivated by concerns over national security and the growing importance of satellite data, mobile communications, Earth mapping and observation. Thanks to its hi-tech facilities, Dubai is now a regional hub for satellite design and construction.* The Mars mission coincides with the 50th anniversary of the UAE's formation. It is helped by the fact that space projects are becoming increasingly cheap, easy and reliable, through a new generation of rockets and fuels.
In 2014, ruler of the UAE's emirate of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said the mission would prove the Arab world was still capable of delivering scientific contributions to humanity, despite the many conflicts across the Middle East: "Our region is a region of civilization. Our destiny is – once again – to explore, to create, to build and to civilize."*
The maiden flight of Ariane 6
The Ariane family of rockets has been operational since 1979, taking hundreds of satellites into orbit, along with famous telescopes and probes. They are manufactured under the authority of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES).
For many years, Ariane 5 had been Europe's flagship launch vehicle. Some of its payloads had included the Herschel Space Observatory (the largest infrared telescope ever launched), Planck observatory, Rosetta probe and the Automated Transfer Vehicle for resupplying the International Space Station.
Although highly reliable, this large rocket had become expensive to operate by the 2010s, with support costs of €120 million euros ($154 million) per year. At the same time, a number of entrepreneurs were presenting serious competition in the satellite market.* In order to address these concerns, a new generation of Ariane rockets would need to be devised.
Ariane 5 would be followed by Ariane 5 ME (Mid-life Evolution) in 2017. This would feature a new upper stage, with increased propellant volume, powered by the Vinci expander cycle engine. Able to restart up to five times, allowing for more complex missions – such as direct insertion to geostationary orbit – it would also include a longer payload fairing to accommodate larger satellites.
Ariane 5 ME would then be followed by Ariane 6 – a simpler, cheaper and more flexible launcher, with smaller payloads of between three and 6.5 tonnes, but incorporating the Vinci restartable upper-stage of the 5 ME. Production and operation costs would be €70 million euros ($89 million) per launch, around half that of Ariane 5. The basic design for Ariane 6 was agreed upon in July 2013* and the maiden flight occurs in 2021.* It remains in operation until the 2030s.
Credit: ESA–D. Ducros, 2013
reusable, single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft
all orbital spacecraft have used multiple stages. This has required
jettisoning parts of a launch vehicle during the flight, in order to
reduce weight. In the early 2020s, however,* a new prototype "space
plane" is developed with funding from the EU. This can operate
without the need for booster rockets, fuel tanks, engines or other external
components, instead utilising a hybrid jet/rocket system.*
The vehicle takes
off from a specially strengthened runway. It uses a precooled jet engine
(rather than scramjet) to reach speeds of Mach 5.5 (1700 m/s), then
closes the air inlet and operates as a highly efficient rocket to complete
the journey to orbit.
its payload is only 12 tons (about one-third the capacity of the space
shuttle), the craft is substantially cheaper (about 1/10th) and far
more efficient (about 400-fold) than earlier spacecraft.* After completing a mission, it reenters the atmosphere with its skin
protected by a strong ceramic, landing back on the runway like a normal
aeroplane. It then undergoes any necessary maintenance and is capable
of flying again in just two days (compared to two months for the space
are initially unmanned. However, later versions will be used for space
tourism – capable of transporting up to 20 passengers in a purpose-built
module and costing around $500,000 per person.
A rapidly changing workforce
to cut real estate costs, become more eco-friendly, and attract the growing
number of people seeking work-life balance, most companies by now have
adopted a "work wherever you want, whenever you want" policy. An increasingly
global talent pool is emerging, with firms aggressively pursuing
the best available workers – regardless of where they reside. Recruitment has shifted away from traditional print adverts and online jobs boards, focussing instead on social networking sites.
Rising travel costs have also encouraged these trends. Many employees now work a
four-day week, consisting of four 10-hour days – while telecommuting and teleconferencing have been further boosted by the growth of superfast broadband. This combination
of technology and work options is leading to
improved speed, productivity and efficiency in companies around the
Multi-touch surface computing is widespread, along with seamless integration of wireless devices and applications.
Near-paperless offices are becoming a reality.
Wireless electricity is reaching critical mass
Most of the latest electric/electronic devices now have antennas in place of batteries, drawing power from a single node mounted in the ceiling of a room. This eliminates the need for multiple wall sockets and bulky cables, greatly reducing clutter in homes and workplaces. It also allows for lighter and more compact handheld devices than ever before.
A magnetic coil is housed in a small box, which can be set into a wall or ceiling. Powered by mains, this resonates at a specific frequency. Electromagnetic waves are transmitted through the air, which are received by a second magnetic coil, fitted in the laptop/TV or other appliance. This resonates at the same frequency as the first coil and absorbs energy, charging the product.*
Wireless electricity development began with small, short-range devices like phone charger pads and electric toothbrush holders. Improving efficiency made it possible to beam power over distances of several metres. Gradually, it was incorporated into larger and more energy-hungry products – such as televisions, computers and even vehicles. A universal standard was also adopted, ensuring compatibility and expanding its mass market appeal significantly. By the early 2020s, the industry is generating over $15 billion in worldwide annual revenue and the system is fairly commonplace in homes and offices.** Laptop users in cafes, airport terminals and other public areas can now utilise "Wi-Tricity" hotspots. This does for battery life what Wi-Fi did for the Internet. Electric vehicle (EV) charging has been another successful growth area. EV drivers can charge by simply parking over a disk placed on the floor or embedded in the pavement.
These networks are completely safe to humans, with no possibility of being electrocuted by the invisible beams. Eventually, power lines begin to disappear from streets, electricity instead being passed wirelessly and unobtrusively from building to building. The first "wireless cities" emerge, with less visual clutter allowing for better urban design and aesthetics. Further into the future, this trend expands to encompass the entire world.
microchips are reaching the limits of miniaturisation
manufacturers are reaching the limits of miniaturisation for computer chips.
The smallest transistors are now being fabricated with a 4-nanometre (nm) manufacturing
process. This is close to the size of individual atoms. Silicon is impossible
to scale below this size, due to the effects of quantum tunnelling. Moore's
Law, the trend which sees computer power double every 18 months, has entered a new paradigm shift, with traditional microchips now being abandoned
in favour of graphene, "stacked" 3-dimensional circuits and other novel concepts.*
China has now completed the second of two megabridges across the Pearl River Delta – one of the most densely urbanised regions in the world and a major hub of the nation's economic growth. The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge is a 50 km (31 mi) series of bridges and tunnels, first proposed in the early 1980s, with construction beginning in 2009 and finishing in 2015.* Costing over US$10 billion, it slashes journey times between Hong Kong and Zhuhai or Macau from 4.5 hours (by road) to just 40 minutes. The eastern end of the route lies in close proximity to Hong Kong International Airport.
Further to the north – and constructed from 2015 to 2021 – is the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge. This project consists of the main bridge sections, plus a 6.7 km (4.2 mi) tunnel on the eastern side, linking to Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport. There are four lanes running in each direction, with a maximum speed of 100 km/h (62 mph). Travel times between Shenzhen and Zhongshan are cut from two hours to 30 minutes.
Hong Kong and Shenzhen, two of China's most important cities, are competing for growth in the west of the region where land and labour are cheaper.*
The more successful of these bridges turns out to be the Shenzhen-Zhongshan route, drawing as much as 40% of traffic away from the Hong Kong-
Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and reducing the regional dominance of Hong Kong's airport and harbour.*
By Croquant (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
22 "Many standard treatments used today are the result of past clinical trials, which involve a strict and rigorous, multi-step process that takes eight years on average to complete." See Frequently Asked Questions, The University of Arizona Cancer Center: http://azcc.arizona.edu/patients/clinical-trials/faq
Accessed 19th August 2012.