Your Guide to the Year in Science: 2010

A deeper look at polar ice. An electric-car renaissance. The death and rebirth of major scientific experiments. Read on to discover what this year has in store

Our annual sci-tech forecast looks at what 2010 has in store for medicine, space, aviation, the environment, technology and entertainment.


Big pharma teeters on the edge of the patent cliff

The end of patents on some of the biggest drugs means cheaper generics now but may mean fewer new drugs later
So long, Lipitor. See you later, Advair. This year marks the beginning of the so-called patent cliff, when pharmaceutical companies lose exclusive patent rights to many of their top-selling brand-name drugs. Companies could cede $140 billion in sales by 2016 as cheap generic versions move onto the market.

“The good news is that, at least in terms of the next 10 years, prescription-drug costs will probably decline or moderate for many consumers,” says Dan Carpenter, the co-director of Harvard University’s Initiative on Medications and Society. But the savings may leave tomorrow’s medicine cabinets bare. In November 2011, Pfizer will lose patent exclusivity on its cholesterol drug Lipitor, which reaped $12.4 billion in sales in 2008 and remains one of the most profitable drugs in history. And there are no new blockbuster drugs poised to take its place. The number of drugs approved annually by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has fallen from an average of 35 approvals in 1996 through 2001, to only 22 in 2002 through 2007. Some of this decline can be traced to tighter safety regulations, partially in response to problems with Vioxx, a prescription pain reliever that received FDA approval and was then voluntarily pulled from shelves in 2004 after studies showed that up to 139,000 people taking the drug had suffered heart attacks.

Yet without that $12 billion coming from Lipitor and other brand-name pharmaceuticals, funds for the R&D of new ones could drop significantly. That would hurt us all. Research by Frank Lichtenberg, a professor of business at Columbia University, has shown that the number of new drugs available correlates with higher life expectancy. “[Drug-development choices] have long-term consequences,” says professor of strategic management Stuart Graham of the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We’re making investment decisions today about the effects of new kinds of drugs we’ll have in a decade.”

In anticipation of these changes, by 2011 drugmaker Eli Lilly aims to reduce costs by $1 billion and cut 5,500 jobs. Other companies are rushing to scoop up the few remaining promising drugs already in the pipeline; Pfizer recently finalized its purchase of Wyeth, and Roche merged with Genentech.

Ultimately, though, the end of the blockbuster-drug era may mean fundamental changes in how Big Pharma operates. Until now, thve companies have focused on developing relatively simple, profitable drugs such as statins and antidepressants. To stay profitable, companies may have to concentrate on more-complex drugs for obesity, cancer, and immunological and neurological diseases. For example, Pfizer recently announced a new drug for osteoarthritis. For the millions of people who suffer from intractable diseases, the change can’t come soon enough.
—Corey Binns


Four Drugs Set to Hit Pharmacy Shelves This Year

  • All-in-One Heart Pill: POLYPILL
    Ferrer Laboratories brings out a pill that includes three drugs to protect against heart attacks and costs less to buy than the individual pills. Combining aspirin and drugs to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, the pill could make patients more likely to take their medicine.
  • Safer Blood Thinner: PRADAXA
    Boehringer Ingelheim’s Pradaxa slashes the risk of stroke as effectively as the 50-plus-year-old Coumadin (warfarin) but doesn’t require the same kind of constant monitoring for internal bleeding and is easier on the liver.
  • Faster Weight Loss: QNEXA
    A widely prescribed obesity drug called phentermine, combined with a drug originally used for epilepsy, is California-based Vivus’s recipe for Qnexa, a capsule that leads to nearly twice the weight loss of phentermine alone: 15 percent of a patient’s body weight in 52 weeks.
  • More diabetes relief: EXENATIDE ONCE WEEKLY
    Eli Lilly/Amylin worked with Alkermes to package the injectable drug exenatide into microspheres for slow release into the blood. It’s the first once-weekly drug for Type 2 diabetes.—Carina Storrs

Space and Aviation

New Freighter Takes Flight

Last call for Airbus’s new military cargo plane
It’s four years late and an estimated $6 billion over budget, but Airbus’s ultra-light military cargo plane is finally poised to fly. When it does, the A400M will be the first craft that’s roomy enough to fit a modern military’s bulkiest tanks and choppers, light enough to land on just about any straight stretch of sand, mud, gravel or stone, and versatile enough to double as an in-flight refueling tanker, medevac, troop transport or surveillance plane.

By early summer, Airbus plans to have three test crafts aloft, each sporting four turboprop engines with counter-rotating propellers to reduce drag—an aviation first. Typically, propellers are fuel-efficient and great for low, slow-flying missions. With 44,000 horsepower, the A400M will have the ability to reach jetlike speed and altitude while hauling twice the cargo (almost 41 tons) over twice the distance (4,000 miles) as the aging turboprop plane it will replace. And because a third of the craft’s structure is made from carbon-fiber composite, the A400M can afford the extra weight to beef up its landing gear. Equipped with six pairs of titanium legs with low-pressure tires and hydraulic shock absorbers, the craft can land on soft or rough terrain, and do it so gently that A400Ms could set down on the same makeshift airfield 40 times without chewing it up.

It has been a long, hard road for the A400M. Six months ago, news of a major software glitch on its prized new engines ignited talk of customers like the U.K. canceling orders. If this year’s flights are successful, the company will make its first deliveries to France by 2013. With 192 planes on order from nine countries, the A400M could be the dominant hauler of the 21st century.
—Rena Marie Pacella

On Thin Ice

CryoSat-2 finally delivers the deepest look yet at polar ice
In late February, the European Space Agency will get a second chance to launch a satellite designed to take the most sensitive measurements yet of sea ice and glaciers. In 2005, the launch rocket failed to separate and brought the original CryoSat satellite crashing into the Arctic Ocean. After a $207-million do-over, CryoSat-2 should be releasing data by September, says Mark Drinkwater, head of the ESA Mission Science Division. During its three and a half years in orbit, CryoSat-2 will amass data on the polar ice every 30 days from an altitude of 445 miles, recording centimeter-size changes in ice thickness by measuring the ice’s height with microwaves. Because microwaves penetrate clouds better than the infrared used on NASA’s ICESat, the satellite will offer unprecedented tracking of cloud-covered regions like Greenland. “I think that the effects of climate change are felt most in terms of the changes in the polar ice masses,” Drinkwater says. Pinpointing their thickness will help climate scientists make better computer models to predict polar temperatures, ocean circulation and, perhaps most important for those of us on the rest of the planet, rising sea levels.


Who and What are Headed to Space

  • Mission: Solar Dynamics Observatory
    Who: U.S. Launch: February

    Three cameras onboard this minibus-size observatory will monitor solar activity to help scientists understand the mechanisms that underlie the sun’s behavior and the solar cycle.
  • Mission: Prisma
    Who: Sweden Launch: February

    The two Prisma craft, Mango and Tango, will dance together in orbit, testing technology that could lead to autonomous spaceflight using a combination of GPS, satellite-tracking cameras and radio signals.
  • Mission: Kanopus-V/BelKa-2
    Who: Russia/Belarus Launch: Spring

    This launch will send two satellites into orbit around Earth to collect data on both natural and man-made disasters, detect forest fires and pollution, and monitor natural resources.
  • Mission: Planet-C
    Who: Japan Launch: TBD

    The Venus Climate Orbiter, or Planet-C, will circle Venus, photographing its surface and measuring atmospheric winds, in an effort to gain information about the planet’s poorly understood atmosphere. It may also shed light on Earth’s climate evolution.
  • Mission: Chasqui 1
    Who: Peru Launch: November

    Peru’s first nanosatellite will snap photos with the eventual goal of finding remnants of ancient cities under the forest canopy.
    —Brooke Borel

Life After Death?

Say goodbye to a number of space projects – for now

Cassini Spacecraft: 1997–2010
Final act: Cassini finished its original mission of exploring Saturn and its moons in 2008. Its new Equinox mission to observe seasonal changes on Saturn extended its life to this year.
Second life? Likely to be extended again, Cassini will continue to send information and images until at least 2017. After that, researchers might crash it into Saturn to get more data about the planet, but only if they can find a way to get it through the rings intact.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: 2009–2010
Final act: Its successful primary lunar-exploration mission—searching for water and mapping suitable landing sites—ends this September.
Second life? Since it’s already up there, the orbiter’s instruments could be used for a longer, three-year science mission to measure, for example, the radiation reflected from the lunar surface or to study the evolution of the moon’s crust.

Odyssey orbiter: 2001–2010
Final act: The solar-powered craft ended its original Mars exploration mission in 2004. Odyssey will complete its third mission extension this year and is serving as the radio relay for NASA’s Mars rovers.
Second life? It will possibly make it to 2012 and beyond, where it could serve as a relay for NASA’s upcoming Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Deep Impact/EPOXI: 2005–2010
Final act: The spacecraft collected data from the comet Tempel I in 2005, showing that water ice exists on the surface of comets. The mission, renamed EPOXI in 2007, will study comet Hartley 2 late this year.
Second life? The craft could observe stars thought to have planets orbiting them, but no specific plans have been made for it.
—Sandeep Ravindran

The Environment

First-Ever Census of Marine Life

Comprehensive data will aid in ocean conservation
Scientists have identified nearly a quarter of a million marine species to date, and 1,400 more are discovered every year. A decade ago, the world’s leading ichthyologists, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, embarked on a seemingly impossible task: to create a list of all known ocean species, showing where they live and how many of them exist. The Census of Marine Life (CoML) was born.

The project has swelled into a collaboration involving over 2,000 scientists from more than 80 nations that investigates marine inhabitants from the past, present and future, approximates how many of each species exist, where they live and the ocean’s overall biodiversity. CoML will come to fruition on October 4, when the results will be made public at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London.

CoML scientists have built computer models to predict the future of the oceans’ ecosystems, examining how biodiversity shrinks every year, when species will disappear if current rates of overfishing continue, and when coral reefs might die out as a result of ocean acidification and climate change. Much of the research is done using newer technologies, including powerful sonar that can detect shrimp nearly two miles underwater, satellite tags that show tuna crossing the Pacific Ocean three times in less than a year, and DNA analysis that can rapidly monitor changes in the ocean’s biodiversity.

Scientists will use the findings to guide conservation policy and to help manage fisheries. Although CoML hasn’t sparked any bills in the U.S., it has influenced the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the only legal framework that aims to protect the open ocean and deep sea. Before CoML, these laws were held back because of a lack of hard data, but now the information rolling in from the project is informing global legislative agendas. And it’s working. As a direct result of the census, vast areas of the world’s most vulnerable oceans have been closed to fishing.

Johnny Law Goes Green

New laws that will change our eco-habits

Costly E-Waste Cleanup
Indiana joins 18 other states that have approved e-waste laws putting the bill for the recycling of sometimes-toxic electronics on device manufacturers. Seven of the states start collection this year. Manufacturers will be required to cover the cost of recycling electronics, including TVs and almost anything with a screen that measures at least four inches diagonally. E-waste amounts to three million tons in the U.S. every year. Federal lawmakers won’t take action until the state programs prove how effective they are.

Biodiesel Gets Official
Massachusetts and Pennsylvania will join three other states in requiring all diesel sold to include at least 2 percent biodiesel. Simultaneously, the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to expand older laws, like the Renewable Fuel Standard Program, to prevent new cropland from being used for growing oil-producing soybeans (instead of food) is angering those in the biodiesel and ethanol sectors.

Cap and Trade, Finally! (Maybe)
The long-discussed cap-and-trade bill would call for companies to function within set greenhouse-gas emissions limits, with the option of buying and selling rights to exceed those limits. Passed by the House of Representatives last July, the law could come before the Senate early this year but for one major obstruction: “Legislatures in general don’t like to do things that are controversial in election years,” says Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research.—Amina Elahi

Cleaning Up China

Environmental activists bring green projects to life

Hazard: Twelve new hydroelectric dams on the Yangtze River will disrupt the habitats of 188 fish species.
Cleanup Committee: The Nature Conservancy and Three Gorges Project Group Corporation will develop a restoration plan for affected wetlands and floodplains to maintain fish habitats.
Potential Stumbling Block: Lack of Chinese governmental approval; possible heavy flooding upstream.

Hazard: The nation’s nearly 21 billion square feet of buildings consume 25 percent of its total energy.
Cleanup Committee: Two buildings slated to open, Beijing Parkview Green and Venke Center, are the country’s first candidates for top LEED green and energy-efficient credentials. The Natural Resources Defense Council helped develop China’s first energy-rating and -labeling standards for buildings.
Potential Stumbling Block: China’s government is reluctant to hire third-party building energy raters to inspect buildings, preferring to rely on government officials, who can be short-handed and sometimes less capable.

Hazard: China is the number-one maker of furniture in the world—it buys one of every two tropical logs felled elsewhere.
Cleanup Committee: The Rainforest Alliance is working with Ikea to determine where the wood for the company’s Chinese-made furniture originates and whether it comes from a legal, sustainable forest.
Potential Stumbling Block: Only a loose system for tracking logs exists within the country. A more effective one has to be built from scratch.

Three Big Green Gambles

Alternate-energy projects starting up this year

Catching Solar Rays
Who: Stirling Energy Systems and Tessera Solar
Sixty SunCatcher concentrated solar dishes—the most efficient in the world at converting solar energy—will be installed in Arizona early this month, powering 202 homes annually. Larger facilities are scheduled to break ground in California and Texas later in the year.

Trapping Exhaust Heat
Devices made from thermoelectric materials installed in a car’s exhaust system capture waste heat and convert it to electricity, cutting fuel costs up to 8 percent by supplementing the electricity from the alternator. BSST will test the system this year in a BMW 5-series and a Ford Focus.

Harvesting Algae with Fish
Who: LiveFuels
Six fish can filter the same amount of algae-filled water per minute as a $250,000 centrifuge. Oil extraction is simple: Cook and press the fish to get algae oil for diesel fuel. Afterward, the fish can be fed to farm animals. The herbivorous fish also take carbon from the atmosphere and can eat algae blooms. LiveFuels hopes to open its first pond-based proof-of-concept facility this year.


TV on the Go

Watch live TV on any screen, anywhere
This year, you won’t need a living room to have a Super Bowl party. You won’t even need a TV. For the first time, broadcasters in select cities will send the game live not just to big-screen TVs but also to cellphones, netbooks and other mobile devices.

Previously, the only way to access TV on a mobile screen was by paying a subscription service to send video over an unreliable 3G wireless broadband network, and the service didn’t deliver local channels. Today, after the death of analog TV freed up parts of the broadcast spectrum for use by cellular providers, television broadcasters for 30 stations in 17 major cities have spent up to $150,000 per tower to install transmitters that send free, live broadcasts directly to specially equipped mobile devices. It costs broadcasters less than a penny a minute to provide the service, compared with the $4-per-minute price that cellular carriers pay. This new service, called Mobile Digital TV, allows any wireless device equipped with a tuner chip to receive signals directly from transmission towers.

Look for consumer products capable of receiving the signal to arrive in stores this year. This month, USB dongles that act like TV antennas for your laptop will go on sale nationwide. TV-ready cellphones, as well as add-on dongles for current phones, will be available by the second half of the year.

Popcorn Fodder

2010’s sci-fi blockbusters

Iron Man 2
May 7
Robert Downey, Jr., returns to his double role as industrialist Tony Stark and crime fighter Iron Man. This time, he takes on Russian villain Whiplash and faces the Black Widow, along with industry rival Justin Hammer. It’s Iron Man, so you know what to expect: lots of tech, big explosions and droll commentary.

Tron Legacy
December 17
Sam Flynn struggles in a fight for life or death in the cyberworld of programs and games where his father Kevin (the protagonist in the first Tron) has been lost for 25 years. This sequel to the 1982 CGI classic has the same producer as the original. We just can’t wait to see the revamped light cycles.

Gaming in 2010

Two anticipated time sinks that will destroy our social lives

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty; available by June
Seven years—that’s how long it took for Blizzard to develop the follow-up to its 11-million-copies-sold real-time strategy game StarCraft. SCII features an auto-matchmaking system that will pit you against players of similar skill level. Bring on the Zerg!

Xbox 360, PS3, PC; available in spring
Save the floating city of Ark with the help of SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) in this first-person shooter [below]. The SMART button sends your character where you want him to go with the fewest button pushes, so no more getting stuck on a table or behind a crate, a quirk of older first-person games.


Electric-Car Resurrection

Carmakers launch their battery powered rides
Nearly three years after General Motors announced a concept car called the Chevrolet Volt, setting off an avalanche of hype, skepticism and imitation from other automakers, the electric-car renaissance is here—almost. This is the year major automakers have said they would give us the electric cars we were promised. Do we think they’ll deliver? Yes, we do.

Despite surviving the biggest bankruptcy in American history, GM is still scheduled to start building Volts this winter. A four-door hatchback, the Volt will run on a lithium-ion battery for 40 miles before switching over to a four-cylinder gasoline engine. The Volt could cost as much as $40,000, although a $7,500 federal tax credit will bring that down. GM says some 50,000 customers have already lined up to buy the Volt, and for the company’s sake, it had better follow through. Throughout last year’s controversial restructuring, GM held up the Volt as a symbol of its new direction; failing to deliver the car would be a major embarrassment.

A second electric-car debut will come late this year when Nissan starts shipping its Leaf, the first truly mass-market pure-electric car. A hatchback with room for five, the Leaf skips the Volt-style range-extending gas engine in favor of a bigger battery that gets it about 100 miles on a charge. Recharging takes between 6 and 12 hours, depending on what kind of outlet you’re plugged into. The Leaf will be just as highway-worthy as any conventional car of its size, with a top speed of 87 mph. It’s expected to cost around $30,000, minus the tax credit. According to Nissan, some 22,000 customers have already signed up.

Finally, another indie electric arrives this year: the Fisker Karma. Provided the delivery date doesn’t slip again (it was scheduled to go on sale late last year), the boutique plug-in hybrid will arrive in driveways this summer. The $87,900 Karma—the primary rival to the all-electric Tesla Roadster, which is already on sale—has a powertrain similar to the Volt, in which battery power alone delivers the car up to 50 miles before a gasoline engine kicks in for backup.

Electric-car launches have a notorious history of delays and cancellations. This time, however, so many companies have put so much on the line that as long as GM, Nissan and Fisker hit their self-imposed deadlines, 2010 should be the year the electric car comes back to life.
—Seth Fletcher

Going for Green

The Progressive Automotive X Prize promises $10 million in prizes to the first cars that can maintain 100 mpg in a series of road races. Who will win? We’ve handicapped the field.

Mainstream-class: Must have at least four wheels and seat four adults
Delta Motorsport | Britain: The all-electric E-4 coupe mounts an electric motor for each wheel on the chassis, netting it up to 95 percent drivetrain efficiency, 3.5 times that of the standard car.
Chance of victory: champagne

GoMecsys | Netherlands: This team stuck with a gas engine but added an extra gear in the crankshaft that makes the power stroke last longer, yielding higher mileage, power and efficiency.
Chance of victory: sparkling wine

Team ULV-3 | Minnesota: This hybrid’s computer shuts down one or more cylinders when engine load is light. Aerodynamics and regenerative braking round out the package.
Chance of victory: sparkling wine

Alternative-class: Must have a 100-mile range and seat two adults
Western Washington University | Washington: This hybrid-electric coupe weighs 1,400 pounds yet aims to meet federal safety specs, thanks to custom impact-absorbing carbon fiber.
Chance of victory: champagne.
—Mary M. Woodsen

The Faces of 2010

Three people who could win or lose it all in the new year

Craig Venter, Biologist
Job: Build artificial life

On the agenda:Venter says he’s in the final stage of creating the first synthetic biological organisms. Man-made organisms could churn out pharmaceuticals and carbon-neutral fuels. ExxonMobil is working with Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, and, if all goes well, will invest up to $600 million in his synthetic-algae-based biofuels. If Venter can’t get results fast enough, it will be only a matter of time until one of his competitors succeeds and reaps the glory.

Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator
Job: Keep human spaceflight alive

On the agenda:The space shuttle is scheduled to retire in September, although a presidential committee predicts that it will fly into 2011. Either way, Garver is facing several years when NASA won’t be able to put humans into space by itself. This year, she must devise a plan for what the agency should do next. She plans to chart the course of human spaceflight and the life of the International Space Station beyond 2016 and assess the fate of the nascent Constellation Program, which is over budget and behind schedule and could be shelved by Congress at any time.

Randall L. Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO
Job: Keep Apple onboard

On the agenda:With the exclusive arrangement between AT&T and Apple’s iPhone reported to expire this year, Stephenson has to somehow keep the smartphone on the roster. AT&T earns twice as much from an iPhone user than from an average customer. At the same time, the mobile carrier spent up to $18 billion on boosting its networks last year, including its 3G network in more than 350 markets to handle the bandwidth-hogging ways of the iPhone. Stephenson needs to hang on to iPhone exclusivity to recoup that investment.

Births & Deaths

What’s starting up or shutting down in the world of physics

Death: Tevatron at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
The Tevatron is the most powerful proton accelerator in operation. It was due to shut down a year after the start of the higher-energy Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European center for particle physics near Geneva, Switzerland.
Second life? Until the LHC is running smoothly, the Tevatron will most likely be extended until 2011. “If, God forbid, the LHC still struggles and is not getting data, and we see something in our detectors that is captivating, it might be prudent to keep running it beyond 2011,” says physicist Robert Roser, the spokesperson for the CDF experiment at Fermilab. According to Roser, the Tevatron “is running phenomenally well right now. It’s a shame to shut
it off.”

Birth: National Ignition Facility
This summer, NIF scientists in California will aim the world’s most energetic laser at a tiny fuel capsule to ignite a nuclear fusion reaction.

Death: Planck Orbiter
Planck provides our earliest look at the universe by observing radiation left over from the big bang.
Second life? Though scheduled to end in the fall, it will probably continue being used for as long as its detectors are operational.

Birth: Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array
This mega-telescope will consist of at least 66 high-precision antennas that work together to collect millimeter and submillimeter electro-magnetic radiation to observe some of the most distant objects in the universe.