Philae comet landing named physics breakthrough of the year

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London: The first ever landing of a man-made probe onto a comet by ESA’s Philae spacecraft has been named Physics World Breakthrough of the Year for 2014.

Nuclear fusion with lasers and a tractor beam are also among the 10 physics breakthroughs of the year, as chosen by a leading science magazine.

The historic achievement by scientists working on the Rosetta mission was singled out by the Physics World magazine for its significance and fundamental importance to space science.

The landing of the Philae probe, which captivated not only the physics community but millions of people worldwide, was the culmination of 10 years’ work by scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA), who successfully guided the Rosetta spacecraft through the inner solar system to finally meet up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August.

On November 12, a signal was received in the ESA control room confirming that the Philae lander had completed its seven-hour descent and had landed safely on the surface of Comet 67P.

While the landing was not as smooth as mission scientists would have liked, the Philae lander still managed to collect a large amount of data before entering hibernation mode.

“By landing the Philae probe on a distant comet, the Rosetta team has begun a new chapter in our understanding of how the solar system formed and evolved – and ultimately how life was able to emerge on Earth,” Dr Hamish Johnston, editor of physicsworld.com, said.

“As well as looking forward to the fascinating science that will be forthcoming from Rosetta scientists, we also acknowledge the technological tour de force of chasing a comet for 10 years and then placing an advanced laboratory on its surface,” said Johnston.

The Physics World editorial team has recognised a further nine achievements from 2014 in a range of topics from nuclear physics to nanotechnology.

The top 10 breakthroughs were selected using the following criteria: fundamental importance of research; significant advance in knowledge; strong connection between theory and experiment; and general interest to all physicists.

“In what was an exciting year for the field of physics, we commend the work of the nine runners-up, each of which represents an important step forward made by a team of creative and talented researchers,” Johnston said.

The remaining breakthroughs include: Quasar shines a bright light on cosmic web, neutrinos spotted from Sun’s main nuclear reaction, laser fusion passes milestone, first acoustic “tractor beam” that can pull an object by firing sound waves at it.

Lasers ignite ‘supernovae’ in the lab, electrons’ magnetic interactions isolated at long last, disorder sharpens optical-fibre images, data stored in magnetic holograms and quantum data compressed for the first time also made it to the top 10 breakthrough list.

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