Science Scanner: Jumping on the Asteroid Belt Between Mars and Jupiter

Posted July 20th, 2011 at 8:25 pm (UTC-4)
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In the first stop of its mission to explore the origins of the solar system,  NASA’s space probe Dawn sent back its first close-up picture of the giant asteroid Vesta on Friday, July 15.

Dawn is the very first spacecraft to orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Vesta is 530 kilometers in diameter and is the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory say that the image shows Vesta in greater detail than ever before.

Dawn’s ambitious mission began with its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Sept. 27, 2007.

After spending a year orbiting Vesta, Dawn heads to the largest and most massive object in the asteroid belt, the dwarf planet Ceres, where it’s expected to arrive in February 2015.

Dawn will provide data to help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system, which also paves the way for future human space missions.

The Dawn space probe is propelled by ion engines, which expel ions to create thrust and provide higher spacecraft speeds than any other technology currently available.

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Russian Space Telescope Surpasses Hubble

Russia launched the Spektr-R (Spectrum-R) radio telescope into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, July 18.

The most advanced such device ever, it’s expected to be thousands of times more powerful than the Hubble telescope.

Spektr-R,  the first deep-space observatory launched by Moscow in 25 years, has been plagued by delays since the 1980s.

While Russia is taking the lead, Spektr-R involves scientists from 20 nations, who are either providing on-board hardware or offering co-operation from their terrestrial antennas.

According to Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, Spektr-R will scour the fringes of the universe for black holes, mysterious quasar radio sources and the fast-rotating stellar remnants known as pulsars.

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Rock, Paper, Scissors Illustrates a Natural Human Behavior

Most of us, at one time or another, have played the two-person hand game, “Rock, paper, scissors“.

A recently published study shows that players of the game tend to subconsciously copy each other’s hand shapes, which significantly increases the chance of the game ending in a draw.

The researchers gathered 45 people to play rock-paper-scissors in one of two conditions.

In one of the conditions, both of the players were blindfolded. In the other, only one player was blindfolded and the other was not.

When both participants were blindfolded, one-third of the games ended in a draw, exactly as chance predicts.

But when only one player was blindfolded, significantly more games ended in a draw.

The researchers say that this suggests that the sighted player was most likely copying the gestures of the blindfolded one – even when it was best for them not to do so.

Richard Cook  at the University College of London was a lead author of the study. “This experience causes the impulse to imitate to become so ingrained it is often subconscious,” he says. “For example, when one person starts tapping their foot in a waiting room it is not uncommon for the whole room to start tapping their feet without thinking.”

The study also confirmed that imitation is often ‘automatic’ in the sense of being hard to stop.

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Did Humans Walk Millions of Years Earlier than We Thought?

Ancient footprints suggest that one of our human ancestors began walking nearly four million years ago, almost two million years earlier than previously thought.

Scientists at the University of Liverpool – in collaboration with the University of Manchester and Bournemouth University –  found the impressions, which belong to a species called Australopithecus afarensis.

According to researchers, the prints show features of the foot which bear more similarities to the gait of modern humans, than to the  bipedal walking used by primates such as chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas.

The footprints were found at a site in Laetoli, Tanzania, which contains the earliest known trail made by human ancestors. There are 11 individual prints in good condition.

Past studies of the footprints have been primarily based on the examination of single prints. Researchers might have misinterpreted artificial features and conditions such as erosion and other environmental factors as reflecting the actual features of the footprint.

The scientists said that the foot function represented by the prints is most similar to patterns seen in modern humans. This is important because the development of human foot function helped our ancestors expand further out of Africa.

The research team hopes to determine when our ancestors first walked, or ran, over very long distances, a function which helped humans travel and populate the world.

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Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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