Science and Technology – A Yearly Review

Image taken from Flickr
An image of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft (credit: NASA)

s&tBy Stuart Proctor – Reporter


So, after a very busy year in both my life and the scientific world, the Pluto’s science blog is back.

After a year-long hiatus, during which many remarkable events (for better or worse) occurred, I figured that we were about due a catch-up. So buckle in for a quick tour of the year; a year in which we battled a bug, contacted a comet, said hi to a dwarf planet and vaccinated for viruses.

  1. Ebola killed thousands of people in Western Africa, and nearly spread elsewhere.

The summer of 2014 saw the academic year finish on a sour note as the Ebola virus, specifically the Zaire Ebola Virus (or ZEBOV), swept through Western Africa and killed thousands along the way.

14723720857_3b2890a7fb_oBy August, it was estimated that around 3000 people had been infected by this deadly strain, around half of whom had subsequently succumbed to its effects; a mortality rate of about 50%, level with pneumonic plague and gastrointestinal anthrax. The historical mortality rate of ZEBOV is 83%.

The symptoms are nasty too. Ebola is a type of illness known as a haemorrhagghic fever, meaning that one of the main symptoms is a large amount of blood loss, leading to failure of the circulatory system, and by extension, the organs upon which the body relies.

Sufferers may also exhibit similar symptoms to flu, such as vomiting and diarrhoea. All of this makes Ebola particularly difficult to treat, especially as it is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of another infected person; a number of medical staff involved in treating those infected were themselves infected as a result.

Now, though, treatments are on the horizon. 2 vaccines, ChAd3-ZEBOV and VSV-EBOV, are undergoing phased trials in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Other vaccines and treatments are also under consideration. Soon then, the Ebola outbreak may be contained.

  1. We landed on a comet, although not quite as we intended.

A little later, deep into the first semester when the air was starting to get a little chilly, a machine on a lump of ice and rock millions of kilometres away said “Touchdown.” After ten years of hitching a lift from the Rosetta spacecraft, little Philae bounced its way onto the surface of 67P (or to give it its full name, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko; try saying that after a few drinks!). The bouncing was not intentional; on the way down, the harpoons meant to tie the craft to the comet failed, resulting in a 2-hour trampoline ride and a landing below a cliff face – not exactly ideal for a solar-powered spacecraft with only a few days of battery life.

The project’s scientists quickly set Philae to work, drilling into the surface to gather as much data as possible before the lander shut down. In the end, they managed to complete most of the priority tasks, ensuring that whatever happened afterwards, the mission could be regarded as a success. As it happens, Philae awoke again months later, to reveal that it had discovered complex organic compounds – the building blocks for life as we know it. Though it is not known whether these compounds originated on the comet or elsewhere in space, one thing is for sure; comets like 67P could have given life to the early Earth.

  1. We finally finished our first tour of the planets, and that’s really kind of cool.

    Image taken from Flickr
    An image of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft (credit: NASA)

Moving on a few seasons, well past the New Year, another long-term voyage achieved its mission; 9 years of travelling had taken New Horizons to within 12500 kilometres (7800 miles) of the dwarf planet Pluto.

Launched in January 2006 (incidentally just months before Pluto’s controversial ‘downgrade’ from Planet to Dwarf Planet), the mission set records even as it left Earth orbit; at just over 16 kilometres per second, it is the fastest-launched mission ever to leave Earth.

After receiving a gravity assist from Jupiter, New Horizons reached Pluto in July 2015, taking photographs as it approached and passed the dwarf planet; these photographs provided never-before-seen detail of the surface.

In complete contrast to the blurry splodges provided by the Hubble telescope, the photographs from the 21st century mission showed icy mountains and glaciers in some areas, and very flat terrain in others – the latter could be evidence of relatively recent geological activity, a discovery which surprised planetary scientists.

Perhaps the most endearing image, though, is the one taken of Pluto at closest approach; New Horizons snapped a huge ‘love heart’ in the southern hemisphere. The public are still seemingly attached to Pluto; maybe Pluto likes us too?

  1. Students now have to think about Meningitis.

Finally we get to the present, and a story that neatly (though nastily) bookends the academic year 2014-15 with another dangerous bug. Cases of Meningitis W have been on a steep rise since 2009, and it’s finally serious enough to concern experts; therefore, a new vaccination programme has been introduced to try to combat the spread – with university students at the top of the list.

First-time students are in that position on the list because they are generally moving away from home and into housing shared with people from different areas of the world, bringing with them (of course unintentionally) new illnesses that fellow students do not have an immunity to.

This is generally regarded as the cause of the infamous Freshers’ flu that can strike down entire classes – but in this case, rather than fairly ‘minor’ illnesses, the threat is from a bacterial disease with a mortality rate of 13%, and a non-infected carrier rate of around 1 in 10. So if you think about the people you know, on average about 10% of them will be carrying the disease.

So let’s talk about the vaccine. It’s initially being offered to a number of groups: Year 13 students, those going to university for the first time, and those in year 9/10; this will be followed up by offering the vaccine to children aged 14-17 over the next 2 years. Hopefully this will curb the spread, but it isn’t hard to imagine that some students already at university may feel a little aggrieved that they are not being offered the vaccine as of yet; generally though, these students have moved out of halls, and into private rented accommodation, so the risk level isn’t quite as high. It remains to be seen how effective the programme will be.

We certainly live in interesting times.

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