News Notes

Field Notes
by Laura Wright

Losing Landsat 4
The operational costs of the U.S. Geological Survey’s aging Landsat 4 and 5 Earth observation satellites have surpassed their scientific utility. The agency has already begun to decommission those satellites and push forward with Landsat 7, the survey announced May 8.
The Landsat mission was launched in 1972 with Landsat 1. Since then, successive satellites have gradually collected a global archive of Earth images exhibiting both natural and human-induced changes in surface cover. Landsat 4 and 5 were put into operation in 1982 and 1984, respectively. Congress turned over their operations to the private sector in 1985 in hopes of spurring outside interest for later missions. The satellites were expected to last no more than two years, according to original USGS estimates, but Landsat 4 continued to relay land-surface images at a 100-mile resolution until just a few years ago when its communication hardware failed. Landsat 5 can still send high-quality image data back to antennas on Earth, but compared to the cost and benefit of the newer Landsat 7, the Landsat 5 mission is no longer cost-effective and is slated to end, the USGS says.

Signals from space
On April 28, scientists in Madrid received weak signals from what at first appeared to be the constellation Taurus, but was soon discovered to be Pioneer 10, launched from Cape Kennedy in 1972. Revolutionary for its time, Pioneer 10 was the fastest spacecraft ever built and was the first to travel through the asteroid belt, the first to use a planet’s gravitational pull to change its course and also the first to reach solar-system escape velocity. Now, nearly 30 years later, Pioneer 10 has traveled twice as far from the Sun as Pluto, outliving its life expectancy by 27 years.
The radio signals that reached Earth on April 28 took 11 hours to make a 7.3-billion-mile journey — that’s 78 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Engineers believe that its radio transmitter is still being powered by electricity generated by heat from decaying plutonium-238. However, the thermocouple device — the part of the spacecraft that converts the heat energy to electricity — is decaying more rapidly than the plutonium and NASA scientists do not expect the radio to transmit signals much longer.
Once its power runs out, Pioneer 10 will continue to travel deeper into space. In about 300,000 years it will pass within three light years of a star — the red dwarf Ross 248 in the constellation Taurus. Over the next million years, if the 570-pound spacecraft is still intact, it will pass 10 stars within a distance of nine light years. And in about 5 billion years, Pioneer 10 will most likely be traveling through the Milky Way when the Sun becomes a red giant and destroys Earth.

Supporting ‘Out of Africa’
Reporting in the May 11 Science, an international team of molecular biologists rejected the idea that ancient humans in Asia contributed genetically to modern humans. The team based their findings on analyses of genetic mutations of the Y-chromosome in 12,127 Asian males.
The Y-chromosome is one of the best tools for tracing human evolutionary history. The scientists looked for a particular mutation of the Y-chromosome that molecular biologists believe evolved between 35,000 and 89,000 years ago — spanning the period of time during which humans migrated out of Africa. Under that lineage there are three additional mutations that can be used as markers to determine whether all humans descended from the “Out of Africa” lineage. In the absence of at least one of those three mutations, it could be deemed that humans migrating from Africa had not replaced all humans in Asia, refuting the theory that all modern humans came from Africa. What the scientists found was that each of the males sampled carried one of the three mutations under the “Out of Africa” lineage, indicating that modern humans of African origin completely replaced earlier Asian populations. This is further evidence for the “Out of Africa” theory.

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