The 10 Best Scientific Discoveries of 2016

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The 10 Best Scientific Discoveries of 2016

With the launch of our new Science section here at Paste, we thought it fitting to continue our annual tradition of collecting the very best scientific discoveries of 2016. These are the discoveries and stories from this year that stood out, actually made us talk to our friends about science, and maybe even made us think existentially about our existence on our tiny blue dot.

So from space to dinosaurs to climate change, here are the 10 best scientific discoveries of 2016:

10. We might have a ninth planet in our solar system again?

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That’s right—and it ain’t Pluto. Astronomers from the California Institute of Technology have reported new evidence that a large, icy planet has been patiently waiting to be found in the darkness beyond Pluto’s orbit.

How do we know about it? Well—the evidence comes from the strange orbital patterns of nearby objects in the Kuiper Belt. According to the math, astronomers think that the planet could five to ten times bigger than Earth. Welcome to the Solar System!

9. Earth has a tiny second moon

According to NASA, we’re no longer a single moon-planet. A small asteroid known as 2016 HO3 has become trapped in the Earth’s orbit, although in quite an irregular fashion. It might be fairly small and insubstantial, but according to the people over at NASA, it’ll be around for awhile:

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

8. There are ten times more galaxies in the universe than we thought

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Getting an idea of how many galaxies there are in the universe has always been limited by the technology of our telescopes. But now, new mathematical models and points of analysis have allowed researchers to infer more about the number of galaxies in our universe, even far beyond what our telescopes can see. Thanks to the Hubble telescope, we now know that there are significantly more galaxies in the observable universe than we thought—and not just because the universe is constantly expanding.

“These results are powerful evidence that a significant galaxy evolution has taken place throughout the universe’s history, which dramatically reduced the number of galaxies through mergers between them—thus reducing their total number.” says Christopher Conselice of the University of Nottingham. “This gives us a verification of the so-called top-down formation of structure in the universe.”

7. Cavefish can walk up walls like reptiles

This one might sound like just a random cool animal fact—and it is—but if you’re interested at all about the evolutionary development of land-walking creatures, you’ll find this to be pretty important. The species of cavefish (the cryptotora thamicola) was found by researchers in the completely dark caves of northern Thailand.

Not only is it interesting that these blind fish live and move completely without sight, they can actually move up the sides of cavern walls against the movement of the water. These fish could be an important discovery in learning more about how seafaring creatures made the evolutionary jump up to the terrestrial mammals we call our ancestors.

6. Venus may have been a habitable planet in the ancient past

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We’ve always looked to Mars as the most habitable planet nearest to us, but recent findings could indicate that Venus may have had a very different past than we once thought. According to new discoveries over at NASA, for a couple billion years in Venus’ early history, the planet may have had a shallow liquid-water ocean and surfaces temperatures much cooler than its current 864 degree climate.

“Many of the same tools we use to model climate change on Earth can be adapted to study climates on other planets, both past and present,” said Michael Way, a researcher at GISS and the paper’s lead author. “These results show ancient Venus may have been a very different place than it is today.”

5. Superwheat could help solve future overpopulation problems

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In the popular zeitgeist, GMOs still don’t have a great reputation. However, GMOs have been on the up and up in the science world. The newest finding is something scientists are calling “superwheat,” which performs photosynthesis far more efficiently than regular old wheat. The result is a wheat that could yield up 40 percent more crop and help solve the future overpopulation problem we’ll eventually have in a significant way.

4. Dragonfly 44 is a galaxy made up entirely of dark matter

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Discovered by the Dragonfly Telephoto Array just last year, the Dragonfly 44 is an ultra diffuse galaxy in the Coma Cluster that emits only one percent of the light that the Milky Way produces (and is nearly 330 million light years from Earth). Despite the fact that it has very few stars, the Dragonfly 44 is as massive as our own galaxy. All of that seems strange enough in itself.

But new research from the _Astrophysical Journal Letters asserts that the galaxy might in fact be made up of 99.99 percent dark matter. Add to that the fact that we don’t even really know what dark matter truly is—and it’s enough to make your brain hurt. But either way, this gives astronomers much more to work with in the study of what dark matter is and why it exists.

3. Stem cells safely healed stroke patients

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Though it was just a small trialreleases/2016-06/sumc-scs052616.php, researchers have successfully used stem cells to help chronic stroke patients see significant improvements. The patients had each suffered a stroke and had permanently lost some kind of motor skills, including not being able to walk at all.

Not only did patients see substantial improvements (including allowing people in wheelchairs to walk again), there were no serious side effects and had patients going home the very next day. Clinically, it’s an incredible triumph and has even led researchers to be able to rethink the permanence of brain damage.

2. CO2 turns into solid stone when pumped into the ground

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Photo by Oli Scarff / Getty Images.

As we continue to have the “discussion” about climate control in political forum of the US, science is pushing on to find ways to actually do something about it. In a report from Science, researchers have discovered a new way to possibly lock away carbon dioxide beneath the earth.

The idea here is that you can capture CO2 directly from power plants and storing it beneath the earth by injecting it right into volcanic rock. Doing this causes a reaction to occur that turns the CO2 into new carbonate materials, a process that has been sped up to under two years. While the technology comes at a price, it’s really nice to know that once corporations and governments come around to really getting serious about climate change, there are some options for moving forward.

1. Dinosaur tail feathers has been found in amber

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No science story got the whole world buzzing quite like this one. Even though it may have had more to do with Jurassic Park callbacks than anything else, the discovery really is quite incredible. Preserved in amber (or fossilized tree sap, to be more specific) we now have a dinosaur feather that once belonged to a dinosaur nearly 99 million years ago. Strangely enough, it was found at an amber market in Myanmar by a paleontologist from China University of Geosciences.

Over at Current Biology, researchers are thinking that the feather once sat on the tail of a dinosaur called a coelurosaur based on the vertebral outline and curvature. It’s a small, two-legged dinosaur that (as Science points out)just happens to appear in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, as shown below:

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While Jurassic Park doesn’t include feathers in its dinosaurs, the discovery might also reveal some more information on the evolution of feathers. Eventually, we may even get a dinosaur film that acknowledges that birds actually are modern-day dinosaurs.

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