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Science stories of the week: June 11, 2016

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‘Hobbit’ fossils uncovered in Indonesia

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On the Indonesian island of Flores, scientists have uncovered fossils proving that “Hobbits" could have existed.

Much smaller than the previously discovered Homo floresiensis (pictured), researchers say that the newly discovered species resemble the larger-brained Homo erectus, who are the direct ancestors of Homo sapiens.

After a 20-year long expedition, the new "hobbit" fossils were uncovered at the Mata Menge site, located in the So’a Basin in central Flores.

The remains date back to over 700,000 years. According to study researcher Yousuke Kaifu, these humans resided in Flores before any modern humans appeared elsewhere. Most research show that the modern humans came into existence about 200,000 years ago in Africa.

Paleotologist and geologist Gerrit van der Bergh said, “If we continue excavating this layer further, the likelihood of finding more human fossils is enormous.”

(Pictured above) An artist's illustration shows the head of the hobbit species.

Up next: World’s first passenger drone to begin tests…

World’s first passenger drones cleared for testing

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Shaped like a small car, the world’s first passenger drone, Ehang 184, has been cleared for flight tests in Nevada, U.S.

Having debuted at CES 2016 in January, the electric drone has a capacity of carrying a 220 pound (99 kg) load and can fly under 650 feet (198 m) in the air for 23 minutes at an average speed of 62 mph. The drone gets fully charged in two to four hours.

EHang will join hands with Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems to test the drone’s flight abilities and other aspects like training and development at the FAA unmanned aircraft systems test site.

Tom Wilczek, an aerospace and defense industry specialist for the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said, "I personally look forward to the day when drone taxis are part of Nevada's transportation system."

Up next: Asteroid spaceships to help space mining…

Asteroid spaceships to help in off-planet mining

© Victor Habbick Visions/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

American space technology development company, Made In Space, has envisioned a project that could turn asteroids into controllable spacecraft which can be used to reach mining outposts in space.

The project, known as RAMA (Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata), is part of the company’s vision to make space colonization and off-earth mining economically sustainable. The company was recently awarded NASA funding to take the program forward.

Jason Dunn, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said, “Today, we have the ability to bring resources from Earth. But when we get to a tipping point where we need the resources in space, then the question becomes, 'Where do they come from and how do we get them, and how do we deliver them to the location that we need?' This is a way to do it.”

To turn an asteroid into a controllable body, a “seed craft” would be first sent to an asteroid from Earth. Using on-site 3D printing technology, the craft would harvest material from the asteroid itself and develop the systems to enable propulsion, navigation, energy storage and other key components, essentially turning the asteroid into a programmable spaceship. It would then be directed to a mining station in space.

The new approach is hugely cost-effective, as it would make the building of a new space exploration probe unnecessary. Still in its early stages, project RAMA may take 20 years to develop and Dunn expects the first “seed craft” may be sent into space in 2030.

Up next: Names for four new elements on periodic table…

Names proposed for four new elements

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In January of this year, four new elements were added in the periodic table. Now, the suggested names of these four elements have been revealed by scientists.

The suggestions are nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc) tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og). To date they have been referred to by the number of protons in each atom – 113, 115, 117 and 118, respectively..

The names must be approved by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry after a consultation period of five months.

The four elements were created synthetically and are named by the scientists who discovered them. They are also the first ones to be added to the table since 2011.

Here are the meanings of the names:

Nihonium refers to the Japanese name for Japan, since it was discovered at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator Science. (Pictured above) Kosuke Morita, researcher of the institute, who led the discovery of the element, points to a periodic table during a press conference at the institution in Wako, northwest of Tokyo, Japan on June 9.

Moscovium refers to the Moscow region, where the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research is located in Dubna, Russia.

Tennessine refers to Tennessee, U.S., as it was discovered by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Vanderbilt University.

Oganesson is named after nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian, who played an important role in search of new elements including this one.

Up next: Fish can remember your face…

Fish can remember and recognize faces, reveals study

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A recent study has shown that like other intelligent pets, fish can also remember and recognize human faces.

Recognizing a human face requires identifying subtle differences in facial structures. The brain’s neocortex as well as the fusiform gyrus helps in that process. Previous researches showed that domesticated animals with neocortex – horses, cows, dogs and some birds – can recognize the face of their caregiver.

The new research aimed to see whether an animal who doesn't possess a neocortex are able to do the same. The archerfish was selected as a test subject and with time, it was trained to spit water at a particular image of a human face on a computer screen kept above the aquarium.

During the final tests, the face was placed among 44 unfamiliar faces. Amazingly, the fish spit water at the correct face 81 per cent of time on average. When the researchers made the test harder by using similar head shapes and black and white photos, the fish displayed a selection accuracy of 86 per cent.

Researchers believe that since the fish cannot process other details of a human, like its gender or age, it distinguishes complex facial patterns to recognize faces.

"The fact that we are able to train the fish shows that they have an impressive memory for detailed images and that these memories last much more than 3 seconds," said researcher and zoologist Cait Newport.

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