September 8th, 2011
01:09 PM ET

'Lucy' discoverer: Why I study human evolution

Donald C. Johanson is the director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.   He discovered the 3.18 million year old skeleton popularly known as "Lucy."

My deep commitment to understand the origins of humankind was ignited when I read Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1863 book "Man’s Place in Nature." The core idea that gripped my teenage mind was the suggestion that humans and African apes shared a common ancestor that roamed Africa millions of years ago.

I was riveted by the 1959 discovery of a 1.8 million-year-old skull at Olduvai Gorge and I knew that I wanted to travel to Africa and join the search for our ancestors. The allure of conducting fieldwork in remote unexplored regions of Africa dominated my thoughts throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies.

FULL STORY from The Chart

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Filed under: Human ancestors • Voices
September 8th, 2011
12:35 PM ET

GRAIL on the Pad

"NASA's GRAIL twin spacecraft await launch atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
Lt. Uhura's NASA homecoming
Nichelle Nichols will be at NASA today to discuss the GRAIL mission.
September 8th, 2011
12:12 PM ET

Lt. Uhura's NASA homecoming

Fans of “Star Trek” already know that Nichelle Nichols is not just the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, the iconic character on the original series. Her intelligent portrayal of the chief communications officer of the USS Enterprise ended up inspiring an entire generation of actual astronauts. The notion of being a woman who could fly in outer space is cited by more than one NASA employee.

So it’s only fitting that on the 45th anniversary of the "Star Trek" series debut, Nichols is at the Kennedy Space Center today to meet with spectators and witness NASA’s latest efforts at expanding our knowledge of the moon and future manned space missions.

NASA plans to take the first step in returning to the moon by launching a Delta II rocket with a payload dubbed the GRAIL mission (short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory). The twin spacecrafts will be flung into orbit with the moon, where they will map the planet’s gravitational field.

It’s all in an effort to better understand how the moon and the earth came into existence, but also it’s a first step in possibly setting up a permanent base on our closest celestial neighbor.

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September 8th, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Ancient fossils question human family tree

At a family reunion of the direct evolutionary predecessors of our species, there would be a lot of arguing over whether Australopithecus sediba gets in the door.

Australopithecus sediba is the name of an ancient species discovered in South Africa in 2008. Researchers now have substantial evidence, published in this week's edition of the journal Science, that Australopithecus sediba could be a direct ancestor of the Homo genus, of which humans are a part (we are Homo sapiens). If that's true, it means our family tree may have to be redrawn, with Australopithecus sediba at the stem of the Homo line.

But that's just one possibility, and a controversial one at that.


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Filed under: Human ancestors • On Earth
September 8th, 2011
09:30 AM ET

NASA scrubs moon research mission until Friday

(CNN) - NASA delayed its Thursday launch of a moon research mission because of weather issues and will retry on Friday.

The mission, called GRAIL, will study how the moon was formed. It will explore "the structure of the lunar interior, from crust to core... to advance understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon," NASA said.

Two lunar orbiters are aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, which will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA will retry the launch at 8:33 or 9:12 a.m. ET Friday.

The crafts - GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B - will eventually separate from the Delta rocket. GRAIL stands for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory.

Once in orbit, the orbiters' speeds will increase when they pass over formations on the moon's surface, allowing scientists to measure those formations based on the distance between the two spacecraft.

GRAIL is also partnering with Sally Ride Science to set up "MoonKAM," an educational program. Teachers will be able to register their classes and allow their students to explore specific regions of the moon in detail through pictures taken by the spacecraft.

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Filed under: In Space • News
September 8th, 2011
09:17 AM ET

Hearing sound in outer space?

Part philosopher, all scientist, Janna Levin is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College in New York. But her career as a scientist began half-way through college when Levin, a then philosophy major, says she was "struck by how powerful physics and math could be." Levin said she found that the sciences could change people's opinions in a way she didn't think philosophy could.

That's when she changed her focus.

When asked about her research, the "why" of what she does, Janna gives an answer that still rings of a philosopher: "What it does is it changes the way we see ourselves in the world. We realize that there are things out there that have not yet been seen, but can be heard. It gives us a deeper understanding into the universe and maybe even the origins of the universe. And I think that's a pilgrimage human beings have been on ever since they started to look out and wonder about the world.

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Filed under: CNN Ideas • Voices


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