Scientists learned a lot this year, including fascinating new insights into our neighborly red planet Mars. This artist's impression depicts humans exploring the Martian surface -- perhaps the soil beneath their feet can be processed as a water resource.
As 2013 draws to an end, a look back reveals a busy year in science. Archaeologists excavated ancient civilizations; rocket scientists explored far-flung corners of the solar system; and physicists peered into the very fabric of reality.
From dinosaurs to viruses to life beneath ancient ice, discoveries abound in the world of science in 2013, making it tricky to highlight just a few. The tales that follow are the ones that perked up the imagination in the past year — and those that offer the promise of intriguing and life-altering discoveries in the year to come.
Read on for the best science stories of 2013.
The remains of King Richard III, showing a curved spine and signs of battle trauma.
Britain's "king in a car park" was the biggest archaeology story of the year. In February, University of Leicester archaeologists announced that bones found in a hasty grave beneath a parking lot belonged to Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to 1485. The medieval king's bones bore the scars of the battle that killed him, including eight wounds on his skull. He also had a curved spine, which may have contributed to Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III as a cruel hunchback. (Images: Digging at King Richard III's Grave)
After months of rumor and speculation, physicists announced in March that they'd really, really done it: They had glimpsed the Higgs boson, sometimes called the "god particle," which is theorized to explain how other particles get their mass.
Physicists experimenting at the Large Hadron Collider atom smasher on the border of France and Switzerland had first said they'd almost certainly discovered the Higgs in 2012, but they needed to analyze the full year's data before they could be sure. The analysis left them certain. Continuing work suggests the particle conforms to what was expected from the Standard Model of physics, the main theory that explains particles and their interactions.
DNA was retrieved and sequenced from a 400,000-year-old representative of
The list of mysteries surrounding the first humans continues to grow. In December, researchers announced their analysis of the oldest human DNA ever found had revealed a mystery human lineage. The DNA might belong to an unknown ancestor, or perhaps to the mysterious Denisovans, an extinct human species known only from a few scraps of bone. (In Photos: Possible New Human Ancestor Found in Spanish Cave)
The DNA came from a hominid thighbone found in Spain that dates back 400,000 years. Before this analysis, the oldest human DNA ever sequenced was 100,000 years old.
Billion-year-old sparkling water being collected.
Water discovered in a mine 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) below the Earth's surface turned out to be a staggering 2.6 billion years old, researchers announced in May. The pocket, sampled in a mine in Ontario, is older than multicellular life.
Being a good scientist, lead researcher Barbara Sherwood Lollar of the University of Toronto, couldn't resist a little sip. How does billion-year-old water taste? Terrible, apparently. It's saltier than seawater with the consistency of light maple syrup, Lollar said in June.
A massive effort to drill into an iced-over lake in Antarctica paid off this year when scientists announced they'd discovered a life in the frigid waters.
Lake Whillans, first sampled by scientists in January, is home to a thriving community of microbes that eat carbon dioxide, iron, sulfur and ammonia, according to microbiologists. The finding, announced in December, is likely only the first volley of news from the lake. Scientists are still searching the water samples for signs of single-celled animal life, and they hope to drill beneath the ice again during the next Antarctic summer. (Antarctic Album: Drilling Into Subglacial Lake Whillans)
An artistic take on
relative that lived about 80 million years ago.
Eighty million years ago, a narrow-snouted T. rex relative roamed Laramidia, an island continent created by an interior seaway that split North America in two. This year, scientists announced the discovery of this ancient beast, dubbed Lythronax argestes, in Utah's Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
The dinosaur is closely related to T. rex, despite more than 10 million years separating the two. The close relationship suggests the tyrannosaurid lineage split earlier than believed, paleontologists said. Thus, there may be many tyrannosaurus missing links awaiting discovery.
An ambitious plan to map the human brain came into focus in 2013. The National Institutes of Health's BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is set to begin in the upcoming year. The goal is to improve understanding of brain circuitry, an achievement that scientists hope will lead to better treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer's.
President Barack Obama announced the project in April. Planning is underway, and $232 million of government and private money has been pledged to the initiative, as of November. In December, the NIH announced six funding opportunities for scientists working to develop tools to map the brain. A long-term funding plan is expected in June 2014.
A self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).
Evidence that liquid water once flowed on Mars has been amassing for years, but NASA's Curiosity rover drove the point home in 2013. The rover's explorations of the Red Planet have revealed clay minerals, which form in (or are altered by) water. What's more, this water was likely neutral, rather than acidic. Other minerals discovered by Curiosity also point to flowing water that could have potentially supported life.
China's moon rover Yutu ("Jade Rabbit") rolls down a ramp on the Chang'e 3 lander after touching down on the moon's Bay of Rainbows on Dec. 14, 2013.
On Dec. 14, China successfully landed its Chang'e 3 spacecraft on the moon, the first soft landing on Earth's satellite since 1976. The spacecraft carried a moon rover, Yutu, which is now exploring a northern hemisphere site called the Bay of Rainbows ("Sinus Iridum" in Latin). Yutu's mission is expected to last 12 months.
The historic feat made China the third nation to make a soft landing on the moon, meaning a smooth landing that leaves the craft and its contents intact. The Soviet Union and the United States previously succeeded at soft landings on the moon.
With remote-sensing satellites, scientists have found the coldest places on Earth, just off a ridge in the East Antarctic Plateau.
Back on Earth, scientists found the most frigid spot on the planet. Unsurprisingly, it's on Antarctica, between two summits on the East Antarctic Plateau.
Spots along a high ice ridge between Dome Argus and Dome Fuji regularly get down to a teeth-chattering minus 136 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 93.2 degrees Celsius), according to detailed satellite measurements. The coldest temperatures were measured on Aug. 10, 2010, when the snow on the surface in these spots was colder than dry ice.
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