Photograph by Morry Gash, AP
Photograph by Morry Gash, AP
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What are the decade's biggest discoveries?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

I remember standing next to the countdown clock on an overcast Florida morning in 2011 as the last space shuttle hurled itself skyward (above). The air was thick with more than humidity; the throng of people gathered around me seemed weighted down with sadness, as we lamented the end of an era in human spaceflight. But sometimes when a door closes, a window opens, and private spaceflight companies rushed in to fill the void. I’ve been amazed at the progress in getting new, reusable rockets regularly carrying cargo into orbit, and I am cautiously optimistic we’ll see the first commercial crew flights in the next few years.

This spaceflight renaissance is just one of 20 big discoveries and trends we rounded up as we looked back on this decade in science. As our Michael Greshko notes, we’ve “made remarkable progress toward understanding the human body, our planet, and the cosmos that surrounds us.” Crucially, this is also the decade in which the world woke up to the perils of climate change. Our Alejandra Borunda and Kennedy Elliott gathered the many records we’ve broken in terms of feeling the effects of a warming world. The good news is that as the signs have become more obvious, attitudes about fixing the problem are changing. “There’s a whole new energy and dynamism,” says UC Santa Barbara’s Leah Stokes. Hopefully, that means the next decade will put us on a better path.

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Today in a minute

Lunar mystery: How much was the moon and, by proxy, Earth being bombarded by meteors in the early days of the solar system? Scientists trying to solve this puzzle found something extra during their examination of a giant lunar impact basin, writer Robin George Andrews reports for Nat Geo. There’s a geologic blister the size of Washington, D.C., inside one of the basin’s craters, cracked and inflated by peculiar underground activity. “I’m thoroughly confused by it,” says lunar geologist Clive Neal.

Help from afar: Where did burn victims of a volcano eruption in New Zealand get help? From Ohio, the Washington Post reports. After the deadly blast December 9 in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, Ohio’s Community Tissue Services swiftly shipped about 300 square feet of human skin from cadavers. That’s enough to fully cover more than 15 bodies. The nonprofit has helped in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a tanker truck explosion in Pakistan in 2017, and a nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003.

Diet for a warming planet: Gleaned sweet potatoes. French onion lentil gratin. Sautéed cauliflower and broccoli leaves. Students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are getting plant-based food choices as part of a movement toward “climate-friendly eating,” the Christian Science Monitor reports. Chefs have long noticed how extreme weather has affected their supply chains; now customers are understanding too, says Katherine Miller of the James Beard Foundation.

Methane: It’s invisible to the naked eye, but it’s a big factor in global warming. If methane is not burned off when released, it can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. A New York Times investigation used infrared cameras to show massive methane leaks in the United States, some by energy producers who have won relaxed enforcement against such pollution.

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A quick victory against polio: Seeking out the unvaccinated in Karachi, Pakistan, a health worker finds a boy who lacks the mark on his finger that would indicate he’s previously been inoculated against polio. The worker dispenses the oral vaccine quickly, before the train on which the boy is riding pulls out.

Related: The race to vaccinate children in developing countries

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This week in the night sky

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Ring of fire eclipse: A stunning annular solar eclipse will grace the skies on Thursday along a narrow path across the Middle East and southern Asia. During an annular eclipse, the disk of the moon appears slightly smaller than the sun, creating an eye-catching ring of sunlight. Broader regions across the Eastern Hemisphere will see a partial eclipse of the sun. For all sky-watchers, look for a thin waxing crescent moon (pictured) at sunset Saturday having a stunning close encounter with the planet Venus in the southwestern sky. —Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

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One last glimpse

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To the moon! Five months before Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the moon in 1969, National Geographic published a supplement with exhaustive mapping of the lunar surface, including prospective landing locations. Producing the map, the first to show both sides of the moon in a single sheet, was a monumental task. Below, the cartographic staff built this ingenious rig, with a 40-inch globe representing the moon, to fix the exact position of the thousands of features, with precise latitudes and longitudes.

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This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar. Have an idea, a link, a lunar story? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for reading!