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Science news digest - 13th February 2014

In the science news this week, earliest human footprints outside of Africa are found on Norfolk coast, the testing of the satellite, Gaia, gets going, and finally…miserable penguins are given a boost.

Earliest footprints outside of Africa are discovered in Norfolk

The earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa have been discovered on the coast of Norfolk in the East of England, reported the BBC.

Found on the shores of Happisburgh, the footprints are more than 800,000 years old, giving direct evidence of early humans in northern Europe.

The prints have been described by Dr Nick Ashton, from the British Museum, as "one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain's] shores".

"It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," he explained.

The footprints were first identified in May 2013 during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach, revealing the prints underneath.

The Happisburgh prints are the only ones of this age in Europe and there are only three other sets that are older – all of which are on the African continent.

3D scans were taken of the prints – but it was a race against time. The hollows have now been washed away by the wind, rain and sea, but thankfully they were analysed quickly enough that all was not lost.

The analysis of the images was done by Dr Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University. She has found that the prints belong to a group of possibly five people – one adult male and some children.

"When I was told about the footprints, I was absolutely stunned," Dr De Groote said.

"They appear to have been made by one adult male who was about 5ft 9in (175cm) tall and the shortest was about 3ft. The other larger footprints could come from young adult males or have been left by females. The glimpse of the past that we are seeing is that we have a family group moving together across the landscape."

However, it is unclear who these humans were. Scientists believe the prints could have been made by a species called Homo antecessor, which are known to have lived in southern Europe. Potentially these humans could have got to the UK when it was still connected to mainland Europe.

"This discovery gives us even more concrete evidence that there were people there," said Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum, and is also involved in the Happisburgh research.

"We can now start to look at a group of people and their everyday activities. And if we keep looking, we will find even more evidence of them, hopefully even human fossils. That would be my dream".

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Gaia test image gives hope for the future

The European Space Agency’s star-surveyor, Gaia, is now in its observing position 1.5 million km from the Earth, reported the BBC.

Launched in December, the satellite should be able to start operations in the next couple of months after it successfully sent a preliminary image of a small star cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) – a galaxy about 160,000 light years away.

Gaia has two telescopes and three instruments that are all designed to precisely measure the positions and motions of one billion stars.

The aim of the mission is to produce an incredibly accurate map of the sky, which can then be used to measure the distance of other observable objects.

Prof Gerry Gilmore, the UK Gaia principal investigator from Cambridge University, explained: "This image tells us that they've turned on the electronics, that they've turned on the computer, and that they've turned on Gaia's incredible British-built camera - and it's all working.

"Gaia was not designed to take Hubble-like pictures; this is not its operating mode at all. What it will eventually do is draw little boxes around each of the stars you see in this picture and send just that information to the ground."

The satellite has a mission-duration of about five years and will repeatedly view its targets for all that time. Eventually, the satellite will be able to measure the coordinates down to an error of just seven micro-arcseconds – an angle equivalent to a euro coin on the Moon being observed from Earth.

This map will then be used to refine the distance “ladder” used to measure the scale of the Universe.

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And finally…

Windswept Scarborough penguins are miserable

The weather has been pretty horrible recently, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the residents at the Sea Life Centre in Scarborough. The Humboldt penguins at the sanctuary are being given antidepressants in order to combat the effects of the constant wind and rain, reported the Guardian.

The centre's display curator Lyndsey Crawford explained: "Humboldts in the wild on the coast of Peru and Chile can be subjected to some pretty wild extremes of weather. What they don't get though is weeks of almost daily downpours and high winds.

"After the first week, our birds were just a bit subdued, but after over a month now, they are thoroughly fed-up and miserable, much like the rest of us."

It can be pretty dangerous for penguins to remain depressed for long periods of time as it lowers the animals’ natural defences even more so than in humans.

"They [the antidepressants] are doing the trick so far, but we are all praying for the weather to change and at least a few successive days of sunshine to give the penguins the tonic they really need," said Crawford.

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