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Science Q & A


Are U.S. spacecraft marked as Earth-made?

Are U.S. spacecraft marked as Earth-made?

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Q: Do the spacecraft we have sent to investigate the universe carry any identification of their human and earthly origin?

In 1972 and 1973, the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were launched on long-distance space journeys with plaques intended to show where they came from and who made them, in case they encountered any intelligent life.

The plaques include drawings of nude male and female figures; a simple map of the solar system; and a diagram showing its location in relation to 14 quasars, or very bright objects in deep space. The transition between two states of the hydrogen atom is also shown schematically.

The two Voyager spacecraft, both launched in 1977, carry more elaborate messages – the so-called Golden Record, etched on gold-plated copper disks that offer recordings of diverse earthly sounds and 115 analog images. Needles and playing instructions are included.

Voyager 1, launched by NASA and managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is now humankind’s most distant object, about 11.5 billon miles away from the sun.

Many other spacecraft carry depictions of American flags, and some have microchips etched with the names and signatures of members of the public. Whether any would be understood remains to be seen.

Q: Why are some of our internal organs on one side rather than the other? Does anyone ever get an organ on the “wrong” side?

Organ placement is “the result of millions of years of evolution,” said Dr. Jean Emond, chief of transplant services at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

The organs are perfectly arranged to carry out their tasks, Emond said, including the asymmetrically arranged ones like the liver and heart.

“During very early development,” he said, “the organs originate from the single row of cells in the fetus and through an elaborate choreography that is programmed in the DNA, grow and rotate and eventually reach the ideal position at birth.”

In a process that is still incompletely understood, some organs result from double embryonic buds, some from a single one. The left-right asymmetry for certain organs is shared with all vertebrates.

Other experts suggest that in human beings, a relatively small set of genes is responsible for sending the signals that control the asymmetry.

Because of errors in development or genetic abnormalities, Emond said, “some babies are born with abnormally formed internal organs that may be in the wrong position.” Some patients require major surgical reconstruction, while others can function normally.

“A complete reversal of the internal organs can occur in a condition called situs inversus,” Emond said.

This is seen in some mirror-image twins.

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