Breakthroughs from the petri dish to outer space
In 2006, rockets soared for fun and profit, microbes got down to work, and the solar system lost a planet.
Microscopic creatures were much in demand, with scientists examining myriad ways to harness the untapped power of bacteria. If a small group of start-ups and research projects succeed, single-celled animals might be some of the most important figures in high technology in the next decade.
MIT researchers, for example, pinpointed microbes that one day could be capable of detecting stress points and small fractures on airplane wings. Scientists at Rice University began enlisting a strain of electron-releasing bacteria as a secret ingredient for developing fuel cells for spy drones and small robots. Investors even looked to manure as an upcoming alternative energy source.
Scientists also sought inspiration from nature to come up with innovative technology design, in a burgeoning field known as biomimicry. One California-based upstart mirrored the natural design of spirals to improve the fluid dynamics of PC fans.
In aeronautics, entrepreneurs and government officials were paving the way for a new age of space tourism. The industry celebrated launching the first female tourist into space, and the year's rocketry efforts culminated at the 2006 X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, N.M., where attendees got a preview of everything from next-generation lunar landers to orbital elevators.
Outer space is the place for a certain breed of robot: NASA launched twin robotic satellites into orbit to study solar flares for the first time. Other landmarks in robotics were reached right here on Earth. Cornell researchers conjured up a starfish-shaped robot that figures out all by itself what it is and how to move. And the day is fast approaching when consumers will be able to buy a robotic dinosaur that reacts "emotionally" to its surroundings.
Scientists this year also heralded technologies that can help predict earthquakes, as San Francisco marked the centennial of the massive quake that shook the city in 1906.
The year also kicked off a slew of new research endeavors, including an initiative to research the effects of technology on society. Entrepreneurs and scientists are still working away at cognitive computing, a field in which computers process information the same way the brain does. Projects ranged from digitally mapping the human brain to developing microcircuits that can repair brain damage. The commercialization of science also continued, with companies selling DNA tests directly to consumers online.
One old science fiction standby came closer to reality this year: the flying car. MIT start-up Terrafugia showed off what it calls the Transition "personal air vehicle," a vehicle resembling a sport-utility vehicle with retractable wings.
Finally, like an unlucky contestant on a reality TV show, Pluto was voted out of the ranks of full-fledged planets. It will now be considered a "dwarf planet," according to the General Assembly of the 2006 International Astronomical Union.
New technology promises to help people protect their skin from further sun damage and from cancer. Photos: Getting the skinny on skin
Did Brad Pitt meet up with aliens at the World Economic Forum? Software for detecting photo fraud may have the answer. Photos: Pictures that lie
MIT students working on a vehicle--resembling an SUV with retractable wings--they hope will carry two people on 100- to 500-mile hops. Images: Terrafugia's flying car
A start-up is trying to make everything from PC fans to water purifiers more efficient with a design inspired by nature. Images: From nature to the lab
Microbe that releases electrons as a waste product someday could fit in a fuel cell.
SRI head Curt Carlson tells why these are heady days and where things are going from here. Photos: Innovation on display at SRI
Single-celled animals might be some of the most important figures in high tech.
As San Francisco marks the centennial of the great quake, technologies that help predict quakes and determine potential damage take confab spotlight.
The Internet is making it easy to get DNA testing, but the results could be disturbing if not handled correctly.
Cognitive computing experts say the day that computers work like brains is getting closer.
Forget what your science textbook taught you about the nine planets--Pluto doesn't loom large enough any more.
Executives and government officials discuss commercializing space exploration. Hint: There will be a Starbucks. Photos: Soon-to-be-bustling space hubs?
New Mexico fest is the place to see the next new things in space tech, from rockets to orbital elevators. Photos: Rocketeers aim high at X Prize Cup
The two-year mission aims to capture the first-ever 3D images of solar storms--which can pack the punch of an armory's worth of nuclear bombs. Photos: Twin robots to map the sun
Researchers are studying nature to find ways to do everything from conserving energy to creating better skid-resistance. Photos: Nature's brainstorms
A robotic dinosaur that gets depressed when its owner is curt? Yes, this highly sensitive little pet is coming in 2007.Photos: Pleo the sensitive bot