It's been just nine years since the visionary, sci-fi western, TV mash-up "Firefly" initially aired on the FOX network in 2002. That really isn't such a long time, but in the rear-view mirror of rapidly accelerating technological, social and geopolitical change, in some ways, it already seems like the distant past.
To give you a few examples, in those days, people still used fax machines and cathode-ray tube TV sets. Computer memory was still measured in megabytes, and a Palm Pilot attached to one's belt was a sign you were a cutting-edge technophile. Blogging was still in its infancy, and Americans were more worried about terrorism than the economy. The human genome was still unmapped, and drivers still scrawled directions on pieces of paper. Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet, and the Space Shuttle program was going great guns. A lot of things that are now ubiquitous, globally-influential phenomena, like Twitter and Facebook, hadn't even been invented yet.
Here's a list of important developments since 2002 that might have seemed like far-out science fiction to Firefly's original viewers.
10: Vast Numbers of Extrasolar Planets Discovered
The first planet outside our solar system was discovered in 1988, according to CBC News, but for a decade or so afterward, the discovery of additional worlds proceeded at what now would seem like a snail's pace. By mid-2002, fewer than 100 exoplanets had been discovered. Since then, however, NASA says the number of confirmed exoplanets has quintupled, to 531, and the Kepler orbital space observatory, launched in 2009, identified 1,235 more possible planets in its first four months of operation, according to Space.com. Scientists now think the Milky Way alone may contain 50 billion planets.
9: The Asian Space Race Begins
In the 26th-century world depicted in "Firefly," the United States and China, the world's two surviving superpowers, have formed an alliance to rule the planet. In 2003, the year after the series aired, China took a step toward parity with the United States by becoming the third nation to launch a manned spacecraft. But at least one other fast-growing regional power, India, is determined to compete in an Asian space race. In 2008, a Chinese astronaut performed that nation's first successful spacewalk, and the Indians managed to successfully land a probe on the Moon. Since then, however, India's space program has suffered some embarrassing setbacks, including two space rockets that veered off course after launch and crashed in 2010, according to BBC News.
8: Pluto Demoted from Planet Status
When "Firefly" was last on the air, our solar system had nine planets. But in 2006, in a controversial vote, the International Astronomical Union decided to demote Pluto, the smallest and most distant of the nine planets, from full-fledged planet status. Pluto was reclassified as a "dwarf planet," because although it was round like a planet, it lacked the gravity to clear the neighborhood around its orbit, as Earth and other planets have. Astronomers said the new category eventually might grow to hundreds of objects as they're discovered, according to Space.com.
7: Human Genome Sequenced
In 2003, the year after "Firefly" aired, scientists published the first virtually complete genetic blueprint for Homo sapiens, leaving only a few tiny gaps that were judged too costly to fill. Knowing close to the entire sequence of the roughly 3 billion letters of genetic code in human DNA is a breakthrough that eventually may lead scientists to identify which genes influence various human characteristics. And it could help them explore the extent to which genes determine who and what we are. It also opens to the door for medical researchers to find new treatments for genetically-based diseases, according to BBC News.
6: Social Networking Explodes
In 2002, the Web still was largely a platform in which users experienced content created by professionals and owners of Web sites. Since then, however, the Internet has shifted dramatically, so that it's dominated increasingly by user-generated content and interaction among networks of users. The most prominent social networking site is Facebook, a Web site started up in 2004 that allows users around the globe to inform friends instantly of their daily activities, opinions, and favorite Web articles, songs and videos. By July 2010, the site had 500 million users.
5: Internet Zombie Armies Increase
In the late 1990s, computer hackers figured out how to spread malware programs that enslaved vast numbers of infected computers, turning them into "zombies" that surreptitiously did a hacker's bidding. At the time that "Firefly" aired in 2002, however, botnets, as these armies of slave computers came to be called, were still in their infancy. Since then, however, the phenomenon has exploded. USA Today reported in 2008 that botnet hackers controlled more than 7.3 million computers worldwide.
4: Optical Camouflage Invented
In 2003, University of Tokyo researchers created an optical camouflage system that made anyone wearing a special reflective material seem to disappear, by projecting a video image of the scenery behind the subject onto the reflective surface, according to TIME. But a few years later, scientists were exploring a different, potentially more promising method: the use of special materials, known as metamaterials, which have the capability to deflect light so that it moves in waves around an object, like water flowing around a rock in a stream. The technology offers the tantalizing possibility that someday, a real-life Harry Potter will possess a cloak of invisibility, according to the AP.
3: Skype is Founded
Visionaries have dreamed for years of an age in which people would see each others' faces as they made phone calls. The first crude version of such technology was developed in the 1930s in Germany, but video phones never really caught on. In the 1980s, researchers developed Internet-based video conferencing, but it was cumbersome and required expensive equipment and bandwidth. By the end of 2002, however, advances in compression software, which made it possible to stream high-quality video transmissions, and the growing availability of wider Internet bandwidth made video calling over the Internet feasible for anyone equipped with an inexpensive PC and webcam. The following year, in 2003, Skype, a European-based service that eventually made it easy for users to make video calls all over the planet, was founded. By late 2010, each month, 124 million Skype users worldwide were gazing at each other via webcam.
2: Touchscreen Computing Becomes Ubiquitous
Touchscreen computing and phones were around long before "Firefly." Hewlett-Packard introduced its first touchscreen personal computer, the HP-150, back in 1983. IBM's Simon Personal Communicator was the first mobile device to utilize a touchscreen, back in 1992. But touchscreens didn't really become the vogue until the advent of Apple's iPhone in 2007. The iPhone had a high-resolution, high-sensitivity screen, and more importantly, it ran on the iPhone OS (later renamed iOS), the first operating system that really was designed for keyless mobile use. In 2010, Apple followed up with another innovation, the iPad, a touchscreen tablet that reportedly became the fastest-selling non-phone electronic gadget in consumer history, according to TIME.
1: Climate Change Effects Are More Obvious
Scientists were sounding the warnings about global warming, driven by human burning of carbon-based fuels, long before the debut of "Firefly." In 2002, the year the show aired, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that noted that roughly half the increase in temperature of the North Atlantic's waters in the past 10,000 years had been achieved in only a decade.
But since then, some of the effects of the changing climate have become more obvious -- and destructive. A 2010 Huffington Post article detailed many of these alarming signs, ranging from the bleaching and death of coral reefs from increased ocean temperatures, to the complete disappearance of Alaska's Muir Glacier, which was 2,000 feet thick in 1941. In low-lying coastal areas of the developing world, people already are being forced to relocate because of rising sea levels. The problems, unfortunately, are likely to become much worse. Some experts predict that the planet could have 1 billion climate refugees by 2050.