Japan has launched a miniature space elevator
- It will be used to test the viability of a full-sized space elevator.
- Questions still remain about what materials could be used to build the elevator.
- If successful, a space elevator would be a cheaper way of reaching space.
On September 22nd — after waiting out a delay imposed by Typhoon Mangkhut — a satellite launched containing a miniature space elevator designed by researchers at Shizuoka University. It intends to serve as a test model of a future space elevator that the Obayashi Corp. hopes to construct in the next 30 years.
The idea of a space elevator was first inspired by a Russian recluse scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who, in observing the Eiffel Tower, imagined a "celestial castle" attached to it in geosynchronous Earth orbit.
Though there is a practical draw to consider here — a space elevator is an appealing project because it would, in theory, cost less to send something up a space elevator than via a rocket — there are other hard practical realities to consider as well. As Jason Daley notes in Smithsonian, there is currently no material strong enough to work as the elevator's cables are supposed to work. "Even carbon nanotubes," he writes, "the strongest material we've devised so far, would shred under the stress."
How should a space elevator work, anyway? Well — the further we get from the earth, the greater the likelihood that whatever is escaping earth will encounter centrifugal force. There is a point between earth and space where the gravitational tug and centrifugal force are perfectly balanced against each other. That's called the 'geosynchronous equatorial orbit.' It's here that Obayashi imagines a space station of some kind. Beyond the floating structure occupying this point — at the other end of the line — would be a weight. The combination of this weight and the centrifugal force of the weight pulling on the other end of this line would keep the 'elevator' line in place.
Though this isn't explicitly stated, one would imagine that one benefit of testing a mini-space elevator would be in testing how well this machine in miniature works at a certain level of gravity.
What else would need to be tested? What sort of elevator cable material could withstand space debris, be strong enough to hold weights going up and down the line, and also potentially change size the further it gets away from the reach of the gravity of the planet, for one. Perhaps there can be a collaboration with the British RemoveDebris Mission, where a net is fired out into space to wrap itself web-like around any potential passing debris.
The full extent of Obayashi's plans are ambitious. It isn't just the elevator they're building; if the video on their landing page is any indication, they're planning to build a slew of things. From a structure at the Mars Gravity Center — a point above the earth where the gravity is the same as it is on Mars — to a "Low Earth Orbit" gate from which one can deploy satellites back to earth.
The goal is to have the elevator completed, up and running, by 2050.
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Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.
- Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
- For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
- Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.
Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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