Apollo moon samples, ancient DNA and otters: This week in space and science
This week, a new crew has docked at the International Space Station, ancient DNA revealed how gene pools shifted over time, and pristine samples from the Apollo moon landings are going to be studied for the first time.
The Opportunity rover also provided one last photo from Mars, scientists simulated the reversal of time, and apparently, otters are recording their own history.
And that’s just some of the space and science news you missed this week.
NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin launched from Kazakhstan on Thursday on a Soyuz spacecraft that docked with the International Space Station. Naturally, they launched at 3:14 p.m. ET on Pi Day.
They’re joining NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Roscosmos station commander Oleg Kononenko and the Canadian Space Agency’s David Saint-Jacques.
This will be only the fourth time that a NASA Expedition crew to the space station includes two female astronauts. On March 29, Koch — who will be on her first trip to space — and McClain will participate in the first all-female spacewalk.
And the second time was the charm for Hague and Ovchinin, who were due on station in October, but their Soyuz launch failed, and they were forced to land. The Expedition 59 crew will spend 6½ months conducting hundreds of experiments. But don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the view in between all of the science.
Between moon and Mars
Even though we bid farewell to the intrepid Opportunity rover in February at the conclusion of its 15-year Mars mission, it still had one last gift to give.
This week, NASA shared a panorama stitching together the last 354 photos the rover took of its resting place, Perseverance Valley. The photos were taken from the time it arrived in May until June 10, when the ill-fated planet-encircling dust storm struck and spelled the end for Oppy.
If you want to feel especially sad, the black and white squares are where Opportunity’s camera started to fail as the storm hit. Happy trails, Oppy, and thanks for all of the photos.
NASA also revealed this week that it has selected nine teams to study untouched moon samples collected during the final three Apollo missions.
Six of the nine teams will study the Apollo 17 sample, delivered to Earth in a vacuum-sealed drive tube that astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan hammered into the lunar surface to collect a material core in 1972. The other teams will study samples kept frozen or stored in helium from the final moon missions.
But they weren’t just forgotten in storage; this was on purpose, because NASA knew that it needed to wait to have the right technology to unlock the moon’s secrets. The researchers hope to learn more about how radiation interacts with the moon’s surface and soil, and about what’s locked up within the soil and rocks. Although there’s no expectation of signs of life, this could tell us more about water and other resources that will assist in future missions, since we’re going back to the moon.
If I could turn back time
Time travel keeps cropping up in shows and movies as a cruel reminder that we can’t actually do it. Or can we? This week, physicists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology used a quantum computer to simulate the reversal of time.
Although it would have been cooler if they actually went back in time, the simulation is key. Rather than the idea of going back in time, it’s more like rewinding a video (remember when we had to do that?); nothing changes.
And before you ask, no, Hank Pym was not part of this experiment.
You otter record this
In addition to being absolutely adorable and, in some cases, unfortunately threatened as a species, otters are recording their own history. They probably didn’t assume anyone else would, so they took matters into their own paws.
A 10-year study observing sea otters in California showed that they prefer using stationary shoreline rocks as anvils to crack open their favorite hard-shelled food, live mussels and clams. They smash the shells against the rocks, leaving distinctive patterns. And then the shells crack open in a distinctive way.
Now that researchers know what those markings look like, they can use them when studying coastal areas where ancient humans lived. And the otters can get some credit for their crafty technique, rather than the humans taking it all. But it also helps researchers extend the field of animal archeology so we can all appreciate the history of otters and how long they’ve been smashing shells and being cute.
This dino comes from the land down under
Before there were wallabies and other, larger members of the kangaroo family hopping across Australia, there were dinosaurs about the size of wallabies. And in case you can’t recall anything about wallabies, they can be between a foot and 3.2 feet tall.
This week, researchers announced the discovery of a small herbivorous dinosaur that also bounded around on powerful back legs.
The dinosaur Galleonosaurus dorisae would have been a small yet quick member of the large family called ornithopods, which also included iguanodons.
“These small dinosaurs would have been agile runners on their powerful hind legs,” said Matthew Herne, lead author of the study on the dino and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New England in New South Wales, in a statement.
Parties at Stonehenge
We learned a lot from the ancients this week.
Evidence of the earliest celebrations in Britain, which drew people and animals from hundreds of miles away, has been uncovered at four Late Neolithic complexes near Stonehenge — and pig was on the menu, according to a new study.
The bones from 131 pigs were excavated at these sites, and researchers used isotope analysis to identify chemical signatures of the food and water the animals consumed to determine where they were from. Surprisingly, the animals came from as far away as Scotland, North East England and West Wales.
That means the people who came from all over for these henge celebrations brought their food with them when it was still kicking. And at a time when there were many disparate groups living across Britain, this brought them together.
It sounds like the kind of barbecue where people made friends rather than getting mad at Aunt Dolores for bringing the wrong potato salad.
Speaking of something to chew on, another study this week proposes the idea that human speech sounds evolved once we adopted a diet of softer foods. It’s less about mashed potatoes and more about how hunter-gatherers had a tough diet of meat (with more bone and cartilage in it than we’re used to). This diet caused them to have an edge-to-edge bite that brought the ends of their teeth together in the front.
Later, when milling grain became more common, we adapted to maintain the overbite that we’re born with, enabling us to make “f” and “v” sounds called labiodentals. So we’re able to say all kinds of fun words and make interesting sounds because of a softer diet. Who knows what we’ll sound like in hundreds of years from now if our diets get softer?
A set of ancient DNA studies this week also filled in the missing gaps of the unique history of the Iberian Peninsula.
There were many takeaways. But the researchers were surprised to discover that local men living on the Iberian Peninsula during the Bronze Age were replaced in the gene pool, their Y chromosomes supplanted by those of men who migrated to the area.
“This is one of the strongest pieces of evidence in ancient-DNA research of sex bias in the prehistoric period,” said Iñigo Olalde, study author and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, in a statement.
The difference was obvious in the DNA. The remains of a man and a woman buried together at a Spanish Bronze Age site called Castillejo de Bonete showed that the woman was a local and the man’s most recent ancestors had come from central Europe.
Hey, look, it’s Big Bird
So this Paleolithic rock art may not feature Big Bird, but it could be an ancestor.
And before anyone cries foul and says, “Hey, that’s just someone holding a transparency of art over a rock!” — let’s clarify. This limestone found in Catalonia was engraved 12,500 years ago, so it’s understandably been through some things and lots of weathering. Researchers did a 3D copy of the art to study it in detail. Holding that over the rock makes the engravings more clear.
It’s an incredible find because scenes are not common in Paleolithic art, and if individuals are represented, they’re usually mammals. This pictorial scene shows humans and birds trying to interact in a narration of hunting and motherhood.
Previously, only three scenes of Paleolithic art featuring humans and birds in Europe have been found.
So just think of the shakeup in the art world a millennium from now when someone finds your toddler’s pet rock sporting googly eyes.