The principal events in Russian science in 2013

In February, a large meteorite fell in Chelyabinsk, a major industrial center of the Urals. Source: PhotoXPress

In February, a large meteorite fell in Chelyabinsk, a major industrial center of the Urals. Source: PhotoXPress

Meteorites, previously unknown bacteria, reforms and new evidence of panspermia, what will Russian science be remembered for this year?

The main event of 2013 came from outer space: in mid-February an asteroid 20-metres in size exploded over Chelyabinsk. This was the most powerful event in probably the last 100 years, since the catastrophe at Tunguska.

The passage of the meteor and the subsequent explosion was recorded with an accuracy never encountered before. Scientists received a huge number of recordings made on dashboard cameras, closed circuit TV cameras and mobile phones appeared. This allowed them to establish not only the trajectory of the Chelyabinsk meteor, but also its parent body, from which it had broken away.

The remains of this visitor from outer space were collected from across the region over the course of several months. The largest of these was raised from the bottom of Lake Chebarukl, after which this visitor was named the Chebarukl meteorite.   

The Chelyabinsk event also gained political significance: It forced the leaders of the United States, Russia and the European Union to return once again to the problem of the asteroid-comet threat. Specifically NASA officially launched a project to capture a small asteroid and transport it into orbit around the moon. Russia’s leadership announced their intention to start developing an anti-asteroid protection system.

‘Eastern’ life

Research into water samples, obtained from the connate Antarctic lake Vostok, produced sensational results: Sergey Bulat from the St. Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics announced that bacteria had been discovered in the samples, which cannot be linked to any known subkingdom.

Antarctic lake Vostok

Antarctic lake Vostok. Source: RIA Novosti

Lake Vostok, hidden under four kilometers of Antarctic ice, was cut off from the outside world several million years ago. Scientists suspected that extraterrestrial microorganisms, able to withstand the high concentrations of oxygen in the water could live in the lake. These organisms were up until now unknown to scientists.

Bulat and his colleagues researched the first samples taken from the waters of the lake, which were frozen inside a drilling assembly. The scientists identified all the microorganisms and isolated the bacteria, which had previously been discovered in the arctic ice or in the drilling fluid.

A comprehensive analysis led to the discovery of a group of bacteria, which turned out to be ‘unknown’ – this meant that there really were ‘extraterrestrials’ in the lake.

Now Bulat’s group are researching pure samples delivered to St. Petersburg in May. They have yet to confirm their findings.

Imported life

In 2013 Russian scientists successfully carried out the first experiment with a biosatellite since 2007. The ‘Bion-M1’ spacecraft spent one month in space with animals on board after which it landed in the Orenburg region.

Bion 1

For the Mongolian gerbils it was the second space operation: they have already been out above the sky in 2007. Source: Alamy / Legion Media

Although the majority of the animals died, those that lived fully justified the experiment. Specifically the results of the Meteorite experiment demonstrated that life on Earth could have evolved from the advent of microorganisms on its surface along with falling asteroids.

In order to carry out the experiment scientists from the Institute of Biomedical Issues at the Russian Academy of Sciences placed tablets containing bacterial spores into Bion’s basaltic casing.

On re-entry into the atmosphere, the spacecraft’s casing fused. It appeared that at least one strain of microbes survived. This opened a debate about microbes possibly drifting onto our planet from outer space.   

Reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences

The Russian scientific world entered an era of change in 2013, when the system of research institutes subordinate to the RAN established back in Soviet times gave way to the introduction of a Federal agency of scientific organizations. The RAN itself became a ‘club for scientists’ who retained responsibilities as experts. 

Reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences

What awaits Russian science? Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Reform was announced at the end of June, less than a month after the election of the new President of RAN Vladimir Fortov. The initial variant of the reform submitted to the State Duma for review proposed liquidation of the current RAN and the creation of a new public and state owned organization under the same name.

This would also incorporate the Academy of Medical and Agricultural Sciences. The plans for reform gave rise to antagonism in some sectors of the scientific community.

By the second reading of the bill the point concerning the liquidation of the academy had vanished. The proposal to transfer all academic institutes under the control of ‘a mandated federal executive body’ however remained.

The reform bill was passed in the autumn and the mandated body was formed. The Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations is led by the 36-year old Deputy Finance Minister Mikhail Kotyukov.

First published in Russian in RIA Novosti.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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