The Ten Most Significant Science Stories of 2022

From Omicron’s spread to a revelation made using ancient DNA, these were the biggest moments of the past year

Collage of top science stories of 2022
Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz

2022 marked a year when the world continued to feel its way through the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet another new variant upended the desire to arrive at a “new normal,” but the development of improved vaccines kept utter despondency at bay. In many ways, the pandemic became part of the noise surrounding us on a daily basis, maintaining its place as not just a major science story, but a geopolitical one as well.

The rest of the science world upended our lives, too, in good ways and bad. Jaw-dropping images from space kept our eyes looking upward, and discoveries about our ancient past kept our interests back on Earth. Natural disasters left deadly scars, and a new outbreak left us worried about what diseases awaited us on the horizon.

Before we jump forward into 2023, we wanted to take one last look at the stories that affected us the most the past 12 months. Here are the discoveries and events that marked 2022 as a major year in science.

The James Webb Space Telescope sends back mind-bending images

Tarantula Nebula
James Webb Space Telescope's mosaic image of the Tarantula Nebula Courtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Sure, the James Webb Space Telescope launched Christmas of last year, but that gift was by no means the end of its story. The observatory had to make a 30-day, million-mile journey, then unwrap itself over the course of several months, showcasing an 18-segment, 21.3-foot hexagonal gold and beryllium mirror that became operational this year. On July 12, NASA released the first series of breathtaking images from the groundbreaking, $10 billion telescope. The shots included the deepest, sharpest infrared image of the distant universe, a snapshot of a turbulent region of star birth and death, and an image showing the presence of atmospheric water vapor on a planet 1,150 light years from Earth. In the months that followed, more spectacular shots of our universe—Jupiter, Mars and the Cartwheel Galaxy—were unveiled, delighting everyone from astronomers to the general public. Beyond a visual feast, the data from the telescope will help researchers understand how early galaxies formed and grew, and detect signatures of life on other planets. The telescope is far from finished with its work, as it will likely deliver more astronomical presents for years to come. (Joe Spring)

An eruption in Tonga creates shock waves

The mid-January eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Haʻapai volcano in Tonga generated nearly 50-foot tsunami waves that hit the country, damaging more than 100 homes and killing three people. The explosion, which was hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, created a shock wave that circled the Earth for days. It all began with rumblings on January 14, but the main event, the most powerful eruption of the 21st century, occurred a day later on January 15. The caldera of the volcano sits roughly 500 feet below sea level, and when it lit up, it sent a three-mile-wide plume of steam and ash as high as 35 miles into the sky. Research from NASA showed the event sent enough water vapor into the air to fill 58,000 Olympic swimming pools. Those droplets may sit there for five to ten years and impact our climate. Though past volcanic eruptions have had a temporary cooling effect on Earth because ash and dust reflect sunlight back to space, due to water vapor’s heat-trapping properties, this one will likely raise temperatures. (J.S.)

Omicron spikes, and a booster shot is met with ambivalence

Man receives Covid-19 vaccine
A man receives a Covid-19 vaccine in January as the Omicron variant surged across the United States. Nick Wagner / Xinhua via Getty Images

First, some bad news. In the United States, a daily average of more than 66,000 cases, 40,000 hospitalizations and 426 deaths are still occurring due to Covid-19, as roughly a third of the U.S. population haven’t even finished their primary series of vaccines. The good news is that case numbers have droppe d significantly from the Omicron surge of earlier this year, when an average of more than 800,000 cases and 1,900 deaths a day were reported. According to a Nature article from February, U.S. data showed people with three doses of the vaccine were much more likely to have so-called breakthrough infections from Omicron than from the previous Delta variant. The dramatic spike of the more transmissible variant followed similar patterns in other countries around the world.

But U.S. cases and deaths had dropped by late February, for a number of reasons, including the adoption of mitigation behaviors by the public. An “increase in testing and implementation of public health interventions helps us not only reduce transmission, but also more accurately and timely identify dips in cases,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, wrote in an email to Vox in late January. To further help fight Omicron, on August 31 the Food and Drug Administration authorized bivalent boosters targeted at the variant, which also work against previous variants. But by mid-December only about 14 percent of the U.S. population ages 5 and older had received the updated booster in addition to their original shots. And that lag in acceptance may have consequences, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced two studies show that the bivalent shots reduce hospitalizations more than the original vaccines. (J.S.)

NASA lets out its inner toddler and proves it could save the world

In September, NASA crashed a $300 million spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,000 miles per hour—on purpose. The craft, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART for short, began its 6.8-million-mile journey in November 2021. It had one mission: slam into Dimorphos, a 500-foot-wide asteroid, in an attempt to alter its trajectory.

Ten months later, as DART’s moment of collision drew nearer, the spacecraft beamed a series of images back to Earth at the rate of about one per second. These images showed Dimorphos looming larger and larger until DART stopped transmitting altogether, signaling that it had completed its mission. With the spacecraft successfully destroyed, NASA researchers turned their attention to calculating whether the collision had put Dimorphos on a new path. In two weeks’ time, they announced yet another success: Dimorphos’ orbit around its sister asteroid was shortened by 32 minutes, exceeding NASA’s benchmark goal by more than 25 times.

The asteroid hadn’t been a threat to Earth, but the test demonstrated that NASA could shift the trajectory of an incoming space rock in the future. Currently, about 2,000 asteroids are identified as “potentially hazardous” due to their size or proximity to Earth’s orbit. None poses an immediate risk, but scientists want to be ready for when or if one does. (Carlyn Kranking)

Climate protests escalate

The human toll of climate change is climbing. This year, devastating floods in Pakistan killed almost 1,700 people and injured nearly 13,000 others. Nigeria faced its worst flooding in a decade, drought plagued the American West and wildfires blazed through the Amazon. Activists have demanded government action for decades, and this year was no exception as their alarms broke through the noise.

In the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, which warned that drastic cuts to emissions are required by 2025 to prevent catastrophic climate impacts, scientists worldwide staged demonstrations. They chained themselves to buildings and even threw fake blood on the facade of Spain’s National Congress. Throughout the year, other activists took to throwing food at world-renowned masterpieces. From hurling soup at a van Gogh, to tossing mashed potatoes at a Vermeer, to smearing cake on the protective glass covering the Mona Lisa, environmental protesters caused scenes in several museums around the world. Some glued their hands to frames, and others tried to do the same. All aimed to draw attention to the importance of advancing climate goals or halting the use of fossil fuels.

But at the 27th annual United Nations climate summit (COP27) in November, countries used what Teresa Anderson, global climate justice lead for ActionAid International, referred to as “weak language on fossil fuels” in a statement. The final agreement called for curbing coal and gradually removing some fossil fuel subsidies, but the total phaseout that many activists called for did not materialize. Still, delegates established a loss and damage fund that would have high-emitting countries give financial support to nations that are at a greater risk from climate change. (C.K.)

Ancient DNA reveals the first known Neanderthal family

An illustration of a Neanderthal father and his daughter
An illustration of a Neanderthal father and his daughter Tom Bjorklund

In one of the latest achievements in the remarkable field of ancient DNA analysis, scientists were able to identify a Neanderthal family for the first time. A team that included Svante Pääbo, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, extracted DNA from the bones and teeth of 13 individuals who lived in Siberian caves roughly 54,000 years ago. After analysis, they identified a father and a teenage daughter, and other probable relatives, who may have met a tragic end in one cave. Tools and butchered bison bones were found at the site, but researchers suspect the Neanderthals likely died around the same time from starvation. The team’s results, published in October in Nature, added another missing piece to the puzzle of what life was like for Neanderthals, who inhabited Europe and Asia for more than 350,000 years before disappearing 40,000 years ago. The find even surprised Pääbo, who has studied Neanderthals for more than two decades. “It has been an amazing journey,” he told the New York Times. (J.S.)

A successful mission takes the United States one step closer to returning to the moon

On November 16, NASA launched its most powerful rocket to date as the first phase of the agency’s plans to return Americans to the moon. Artemis 1 was an uncrewed test of the equipment that will be used on the crewed Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 missions, the latter of which will bring astronauts to the lunar surface. This initial mission scrutinized how the heat shield of the crew capsule Orion would hold up against the 5,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures generated upon re-entry and provided an opportunity for NASA to collect data on the possible health effects of space radiation.

For most of the year, though, things looked bleak for the multibillion-dollar program. The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s test runs were repeatedly plagued by a faulty vent valve and leaking hydrogen. Technical issues and storms foiled several launch attempts, and in November, both the SLS and Orion stood unsheltered on the launch pad as Hurricane Nicole battered Florida. But once Orion began its journey, everything went “exceedingly well,” NASA officials said. Over 25.5 days, the capsule maneuvered out of Earth’s orbit, released small satellites carrying science experiments, sent back breathtaking images of the Earth and moon, and completed multiple flybys of the lunar surface; it flew farther away from Earth than any spacecraft built for human occupancy had flown before. On December 11, Orion splashed down successfully off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California. With Artemis 1 in the rearview mirror, NASA has set its sights on the program’s next phase: crewed moon missions. (C.K.)

Lost cities of the Amazon are discovered

3-D Animation of Lost Amazon City
A 3D animation created using data from LiDAR shows the urban center of Cotoca. H. Prümers / DAI

For centuries, legends have existed of lost cities of the Amazon, inspiring quests like that described in David Grann’s 2009 book, The Lost City of Z, about British explorer Percy Fawcett’s mission to find a metropolis in the jungle. Fawcett vanished, but this year a scientist with the German Archaeological Institute and his colleagues succeeded where Fawcett likely failed. They attached light-based remote sensing technology (known as “lidar”) to a helicopter and scanned through the canopy of the Bolivian Amazon from 650 feet in the sky. The images they created showed vast urban settlements under the forest around Llanos de Mojos that included monumental platform and pyramid architecture. Raised causeways connected the urban centers to suburban settlements complete with canals and reservoirs.

The finding, published in May in Nature, reverses the narrative that the Amazon was a mostly wild and sparsely populated landscape before Europeans arrived. Scientists hypothesize that the settlements, built by the Casarabe culture, were abandoned around 1400 C.E., possibly due to drought. Researchers say this find emphasizes the need to study and preserve parts of the Amazon before they are developed. “I’m sure that in the next 10 or 20 years we’ll see a lot of these cities, and some even bigger than the ones we are presenting in our paper,” study co-author Heiko Prümers, of the German Archaeological Institute, told Smithsonian. (J.S.)

Mpox spreads against a meager response

In May, doctors in the United States detected two cases of mpox (formerly known as monkeypox). The disease, which can cause painful blisters on the skin, had also popped up in England, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Italy and France. What made these cases different than previous outbreaks is that mpox rarely spreads outside West and Central Africa. The disease passes from one person to the next through close physical contact, and as cases moved across the U.S. over the summer, researchers noted that more than 90 percent of cases occurred in men who were in sexual or close contact with other men—though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that anyone in close contact with an infected person can contract the virus.

Though the U.S. had some preparations for an outbreak, the available vaccine and four medications used to treat the disease were at first hard to come by. In August, the disease overwhelmed the country’s meager preparations, and the Biden administration declared mpox a public health emergency. By December, roughly 30,000 mpox cases and 20 related deaths were recorded in the U.S.—more than a third of total cases reported around the world. The failure to control mpox was yet another reminder the U.S. has a long way to go in building a more robust public health infrastructure to deal with potentially disastrous outbreaks. (J.S.)

A fusion breakthrough could advance clean energy

Scientists have long believed that nuclear fusion could be key to slowing the effects of climate change by reducing humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels. This atom-fusing process that powers the cores of stars seemed like a golden opportunity for generating zero-carbon energy on Earth. For at least 30 years, nuclear researchers had been unable to initiate a fusion reaction that produced more energy than it required to get started. But on December 5, a team of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory did just that—as nuclear physicists would say, they achieved “ignition.”

In their experiment, the team concentrated 192 laser beams on a gold cylinder, inside of which were two isotopes of hydrogen encased in a diamond capsule. The lasers instantaneously vaporized the gold and converted the diamond to plasma. As these precious materials were blown to smithereens, they initiated a shock wave that blasted the hydrogen isotopes with X-rays, fusing them together. In the near future, the military might benefit the most from this advance—using data from this experiment, experts can model explosions of the country’s nuclear weapons, effectively estimating how much power warheads still have without needing to conduct real-world explosive tests. As for clean energy, though, a nuclear fusion power plant is still decades down the line, not likely to come to fruition until at least the 2060s or 2070s, experts say. Several logistical problems still must be ironed out—such as the vast space and impractical quantity of power required to run such a facility—before the technology can be used at scale. But the breakthrough signals that innovation is possible, and a future powered by fusion is within reach. (C.K.)

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