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The artist's concept depicts Kepler-62f, a super-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star smaller and cooler than the sun, located about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra.

Kepler-62f is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star about 1,200 light-years from Earth (artist's rendering).

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NASA/AMES/JPL-CALTECH

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published December 20, 2013

Science mattered more than ever in 2013. Climate science questions raged after Super Typhoon Haiyan pummeled the Philippines. And scientific expertise figured in disarmament debates in Syria and in Iran's proposed halt to its nuclear activities.

Meanwhile, on the pure research front, investigators made plenty of intriguing discoveries in 2013. With plenty to choose from, and argue over, here's a top five list of some favorites from the year. And while you're at it, check out National Geographic's Year in Review.

1. Space gets more crowded. "Buy land, they're not making it anymore," Mark Twain famously advised investors. Twain never heard of exoplanets, of course. Caltech researchers suggested this year that at least 100 billion such worlds orbit stars in our Milky Way galaxy. That's a lot of new real estate. (See "Smallest Exoplanets Found—Each Tinier Than Earth.")

Of course, not all of them are places you would want to live. A November analysis from NASA's Keck Observatory team suggested that one in five stars may have Earth-size planets orbiting in their "habitable zones"—zones that could be friendly to surface oceans. A more recent climate analysis of habitable zones said that number may be too high, but that is still plenty of planets.

2. Human embryonic stem cells cloned.

A scientist removes the nucleus from a human egg using a pipette.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF OHSU PHOTOS
A scientist removes the nucleus from a human egg using a pipette. This is the first step to making personalized embryonic stem cells.

After more than a decade of false starts, Oregon Health and Science University researchers announced they had cloned human embryos and collected stem cells from them. They also grew the cells into specialized skin and heart cells, a first step toward using them in transplant medicine.

The key to the team's success turned out to be the addition of caffeine to the cloning process. Now researchers will seek to discover whether these cells or similar "induced" stem cells, made without embryos, will have the most medical use.

3. Voyager reaches edge of the solar wind.

An illustration of the Voyager spacecraft.
Illustration courtesy Caltech/NASA
An illustration of the Voyager spacecraft.

One of the year's biggest announcements came from news that actually happened in 2012. The aftershocks of a pair of solar storms in September confirmed that NASA's venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft had actually entered interstellar space. (See "Voyager 1 Leaves Solar System, NASA Confirms.")

"It is an incredible event, to send the first human object into interstellar space," study lead author Donald Gurnett, of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, told National Geographic.

NASA had long been hoping to announce that the far-flung spacecraft, launched in 1977, had passed the edges of the solar wind. Voyager 1's twin, Voyager 2, is also expected to soon reach interstellar space.

4. Mars lake looks hospitable to ancient life.

NASA’s Curiosity rover lands in a Martian crater on Mars.
Photograph courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS
NASA's Curiosity rover landed in the Martian crater known as Gale Crater, which is approximately the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

NASA's Curiosity rover continued to make historic tracks in 2013, finding that a vanished lake on the red planet could have supported life there more than three billion years ago.

The discovery is seen as vindication of NASA's efforts to look for past habitable conditions on Mars. The $2.5 billion rover next heads for Mount Sharp, in the center of Gale Crater, its original destination after landing. (See also: "Did Life on Earth Come From Mars?")

5. Lord of the Rings looking more like a documentary.

A new hominid skull.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GEORGIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM
This skull's features resemble those of both earlier and later humans.

The human family tree suddenly sprouted some funky-looking shoots after a year of ancient DNA and fossil discoveries.

At the Dmanisi site in the Republic of Georgia, for example, researchers reported that what seemed like a lot of different-looking early human species likely were just one, Homo erectus. They based the claim on the discovery of a 1.8-million-year-old skull blessed with a mixture of more ancient and more recent characteristics. (See "Beautiful Skull Spurs Debate on Human History.")

On the genetic front, what looked like a Neanderthal bone in a Spanish cave turned out to actually possess the genes—the oldest DNA yet sequenced—of a different vanished early human species, the Denisovans.

Meanwhile, Siberia's Denisova cave, where Denisovan fossils were first discovered in 2008, yielded a toe bone that belonged to a Neanderthal woman from perhaps 140,000 years ago. (See "Ancient Incest Uncovered in Neanderthal Genome.")

This finding suggests that archaic humans mated with Homo erectus, as well as with some early modern humans in prehistory. A lot of modern people have a little archaic human in their genes, it turns out.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

28 comments
Alan Robertson
Alan Robertson

does this mean we can have archaic and eat it too?

Willam Nat
Willam Nat

How about at least the recognition that the manipulation and killing of human embryos might be ethically questionable.

Claire Lenahan
Claire Lenahan

It's so exciting as a biochemistry student to read about such recent breakthroughs in human cloning. It really makes you feel as though you're lucky enough to be living at the best possible time for scientific research. And that the incorporation of something so seemingly unremarkable as caffeine could make such a difference to the process, only makes it all the more incredible! (14050448)

Jad Odeh
Jad Odeh

Moat science fiction movies are being proven real by science almost every year. I won't be surprised if "Journey To The Center Of The Earth" is real too.

Gabriele Menefee
Gabriele Menefee

Isn't the universe wonderful!  It's just amazing that we can look out that far.  The skulls are interesting to. 

Katrina Lisa
Katrina Lisa

Amazing! That skull truly does look like it belonged in a fantasy tale. Also, way to go Voyager!

keerthi kumar
keerthi kumar

Wonder full world, there are many things to knew,up gradation is  is continue process

Mujeeb Baag
Mujeeb Baag

hope so success in  cloning of stem cell success should be used for only treating the diseases only and help the chronic patients. great break through in transplant rejection problems. 

Stef Stosic
Stef Stosic

Exciting and very educational.Never stop discovering!! Merry Holidays :)))

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

They'll probably discover that jelly fish were descended from dinosaur snot, or something else COMPLETELY unexpected!

Happy Holidays Everyone!!!

Steve Veenstra
Steve Veenstra

...and, we may ask, what will 2014 bring? I can't wait.

Alena Merimee
Alena Merimee

It's pretty incredible that we can do all of this, but upon reading about the cloning of human embryos, I can't help asking: just because we can, does it mean we should? This truly is the widescale creation and destruction of human life in the name of research and science. I realize how groundbreaking this new step is, but there are completely ethical ways of obtaining stem cells that do not require a utilitarian attitude toward human life. I understand that this is simply an article to highlight new scientific discoveries, but it is nonetheless unsettling that this particular discovery is lauded as something admirable.

Timothy Luoma
Timothy Luoma

Exciting articles....new discoveries every year.....very interesting. 

Jaume Ginard
Jaume Ginard

So where do we come from if they have discoverd a mixture of DNA in Dmanisi skulls? Human evolution is a nature game.

Jason Russ
Jason Russ

Nice list. Surprised the Higgs Boson confirmation didn't make the cut though.

Jeff Emler
Jeff Emler

Was it Leakey who named Homo erectus? Why not Homo uprighticus?

Zoey M
Zoey M

We are amazing. Becoming scientifically advanced every day. Think about what we will be able to accomplish in 20 years... awesome

Jeff Crespo
Jeff Crespo

The value of human life comes from self awarness, and the ability to feel both physically as well as emotionally this research does nothing but put a even higher value on existing sentient beings it would be archaic and primitive o allow such an advance to fall by the wayside based on either uneducated feeling or at best misguided moral imparitive to preserve what you feel is human life that in actuality is a catalyst to SAVE human lives

Dan Vergano
Dan Vergano

@Jason RussCertainly coulda been a contender, but since so much of the Higgs news came n 2012, seemed like piling on to add it this year.

Willam Nat
Willam Nat

@Jeff Crespo So, I'm being "archaic and primitive" and "uneducated" if I don't agree with your definition of the value of human life? I don't think so! A life is human if the DNA is human. Period. During the 1930s there was a certain European country that also tried to redefine human life. We known how that ended up.

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