In 2020, incredible scientific discoveries didn’t stop because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
First and foremost was the phenomenal work done by scientists to study the disease and develop vaccines in record time to put the brakes on the global pandemic. It was a truly Herculean effort by literally thousands of scientists around the world.
Otherwise, while nothing can compare to the vaccine effort for impact, we discovered there could be water on the sunlit surface of the moon, potentially life on Venus, “Marsquakes” on Mars, and the chance that dozens of intelligent civilizations could be scattered across our Milky Way galaxy.
Closer to home, we uncovered prehistoric evidence of a ferocious tyrannosaur in Canada, a car-sized turtle in South America, and the oldest bird fossil ever found, dubbed the “wonderchicken.”
And as for us humans, we listened to a mummy speak after 3,000 years, found Africa’s oldest human footprints, and even realized that Neanderthals were skilled fishermen.
Here are just a few of the amazing science stories of 2020:
We heard the voice of an ancient mummy
In January, scientists re-created the voice of an ancient, 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy using 3D printing, medical scanners and an electronic larynx, a study said. They were able to reproduce a single vowel sound, which sounds like something between the vowels in the words “bed” and “bad.” Listen for yourself below.
‘Boiling’ plasma was spotted on the sun
Also that month, we saw the most detailed photos of the sun ever taken. One of the images showed a pattern of turbulent “boiling” plasma that covers the entire sun. The cell-like structures – each about the size of Texas – are the signature of violent motions that carry heat from the inside of the sun to its surface.
Scientists discovered the fossil of a giant turtle
In February, paleontologists discovered what they called the “reaper of death,” a fearsome new species of dinosaur that was the “oldest occurrence of a large tyrannosaur in Canada.”
Also in February, scientists announced the discovery of a huge turtle fossil in South America. It’s “one of the largest, if not the largest, turtle that ever existed,” scientists said, noting that the colossal, long-extinct beast lived 5 million to 10 million years ago and measured 9½ feet, roughly the size and shape of a midsized car.
NASA’s robot detected hundreds of ‘marsquakes’
And that month we also heard about “marsquakes,” and the fact that our red neighbor planet had hundreds of quakes over the past year. The marsquakes were recorded by NASA’s InSight, a robot spacecraft that landed on Mars in November 2018. “We’ve finally, for the first time, established that Mars is a seismically active planet,” said NASA’s Bruce Banerdt.
‘Wonderchicken’ becomes oldest bird fossil ever
In March, our attention turned to a creature dubbed the “wonderchicken,” a seagull-size shorebird with features of ducks, chickens and turkeys. The nearly complete skull was hidden inside nondescript pieces of rock, and it dates to more than 66 million years ago – which makes it the oldest bird fossil ever discovered. (That’s less than 1 million years before the asteroid impact that killed off all the large dinosaurs.)
“The moment I first saw what was beneath the rock was the most exciting moment of my scientific career,” said study lead author Daniel Field.
We also learned about an ancient wormlike creature that’s the ancestor of all animals. The tiny thing, about the size of a grain of rice, lived about 555 million years ago.
We learned Neanderthals were actually skilled fishermen
Also in March, the reputation of Neanderthals got a boost when we found out that they weren’t just the club-wielding brutes of popular legend, hunting and eating only woolly mammoths in frozen northern climates.
A study, for the first time, suggested that they were skilled fishermen and that seafood was a key ingredient in their diets.
A comet from outside our solar system paid a visit
In April, we tracked an unusual visitor from outer space: Comet 2I/Borisov, which astronomers described as a “snowman from a dark and cold place,” because “comets are leftover building blocks from the time of planet formation.”
“This is the first time we’ve ever looked inside a comet from outside our solar system,” said NASA astrochemist Martin Cordiner.
Bizarre mammal called ‘crazy beast’ fossil discovered in Madagascar
Also in April, we learned about the fossil of a bizarre mammal, called “crazy beast,” which was discovered in Madagascar. The skeleton is the most complete for any Mesozoic mammal yet discovered in the Southern Hemisphere.
The 66-million-year-old opossum-size fossil represented a new species, which the study authors have named “Adalatherium hui,” from a Malagasy word meaning “crazy” and the Greek word for “beast.”
Scientists spot ‘incredibly rare’ Super-Earth
Meanwhile, in May, scientists announced the discovery of an incredibly rare “Super-Earth,” which they said was a “one in a million” find. Also calling it “incredibly rare,” New Zealand astronomers say the planet “is one of only a handful that have been discovered with both size and orbit comparable to that of Earth.”
Africa’s largest group of human fossil footprints were uncovered
May also was when we found out about Africa’s largest group of human fossil footprints, which were discovered in Tanzania. Thousands of years ago, a group of 17 people took a walk through the mud in eastern Africa. Amazingly, their footprints are still there today, and were recently identified by archaeologists.
We learned there could be ‘dozens’ of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy
In June, we got the news that we’re probably not alone in our galaxy: There could be “dozens” of intelligent civilizations scattered throughout the Milky Way.
“There should be at least a few dozen active civilizations in our galaxy under the assumption that it takes 5 billion years for intelligent life to form on other planets, as on Earth,” University of Nottingham astrophysicist Christopher Conselice said.
This estimate assumes that intelligent life forms on other planets in a similar way as it does on Earth.
An asteroid impact, not volcanoes, killed off dinosaurs
Also in June we learned for sure that an asteroid impact – not volcanic eruptions – killed off the dinosaurs. The asteroid strike would have released particles and gases high into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun for years and causing permanent winters, a study said.
“Our study confirms, for the first time quantitatively, that the only plausible explanation for the extinction is the impact winter that eradicated dinosaur habitats worldwide,” said study lead author Alessandro Chiarenza of Imperial College London.
Scientists confirmed the universe is 13.8 billion years old
The discoveries continued in the second half of the year: Scientists confirmed in July that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. While this estimate had been known, in recent years other scientific measurements had suggested instead the universe may be hundreds of millions of years younger than that. The scientists studied an image of the oldest light in the universe to confirm its age of 13.8 billion years.
Comet Neowise made a rare appearance
Also in July, folks got a rare chance to spot another interstellar interloper: Comet Neowise. “Discovered on March 27, 2020, by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission, Comet Neowise is putting on a dazzling display for skywatchers before it disappears, not to be seen again for another 6,800 years,” NASA said in July.
Greenland’s melting ice sheet passed the point of no return
Also in August, in unsettling news, scientists said Greenland’s melting ice sheet had passed the point of no return. In fact, glaciers on the island have shrunk so much that even if global warming were to stop today, the ice sheet would continue shrinking, a study suggested.
“Glacier retreat has knocked the dynamics of the whole ice sheet into a constant state of loss,” said study co-author Ian Howat, an earth scientist from Ohio State University.
Astronomers see hint of life on Venus
Scientists in September announced the discovery of a possible sign of life high in the clouds of Venus. Using telescopes based in Chile and Hawaii, astronomers spotted in Venus’ clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is associated only with life. Based on the many scenarios the astronomers considered, the team concluded there is no explanation for the phosphine in Venus’ clouds other than the presence of life.
Water discovered on sunlit part of the moon for the first time
In October, we learned that water had been discovered on the sunlit surface of the moon for the first time. NASA said this was an important revelation that indicates water may be distributed across the lunar surface – and not just limited to its cold, shadowed places such as the poles. This is good news for astronauts at future lunar bases who could tap into those resources for drinking and rocket fuel production.
“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the moon,” said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in the science mission directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration.”
There’s a metal asteroid out there worth $10,000 quadrillion
This isn’t your typical space rock. Also in October, we found out that the asteroid 16 Psyche – one of the most massive objects in the main asteroid belt orbiting between Mars and Jupiter – could be made entirely of metal, according to a study.
Even more intriguing, the asteroid’s metal is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion (that’s 15 more zeroes), more than the entire economy of Earth.
Radio bursts were detected from within our Milky Way for first time
For the first time, astronomers in November discovered a “fast radio burst” that came from within our own Milky Way galaxy.
They also believe they have found a source of one of the bursts, which are extremely bright flashes of energy that last for a fraction of a second, during which they can blast out more than 100 million times more power than our sun.
It appears the radio pulses were produced by a magnetar – a type of neutron star with a hugely powerful magnetic field.
A 50-year-old science problem was solved
And in December, we learned about the arcane field of “protein folding.” A new discovery about the field could unlock a world of possibilities into the understanding of everything from diseases to drugs, researchers say. The breakthrough sent ripples of excitement through the science and medical communities because it deals with the shapes tiny proteins in our bodies – essential to all life – fold into.
The “protein-folding problem” has puzzled scientists for five decades, and the discovery from the London-based artificial intelligence lab DeepMind was heralded as a major milestone.
“This computational work represents a stunning advance on the protein-folding problem, a 50-year old grand challenge in biology,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the U.K.’s Royal Society.
We learned mass extinctions of Earth’s land animals follow a cycle
Also in December, we found out that mass extinctions of life on Earth appear to follow a regular pattern, according to a study. In fact, widespread die-offs of land-dwelling animals – which include amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds – follow a cycle of about 27 million years, the study reports. The study also said these mass extinctions coincide with major asteroid impacts and devastating volcanic outpourings of lava.
“The global mass extinctions were apparently caused by the largest cataclysmic impacts and massive volcanism, perhaps sometimes working in concert,” said study lead author Michael Rampino of New York University.
More news from 2020 you don’t want to forget