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How 2-Million-Year-Old Ancestor Moved: Sediba’s Ribcage and Feet Were Not Suitable for Running

Researchers at Wits University in South Africa, including Peter Schmid from the University of Zurich, have described the anatomy of a single early hominin in six new studies. Australopithecus sediba was discovered near Johannesburg in 2008. The studies in Science demonstrate how our 2-million-year-old ancestor walked, chewed and moved.

The fossils discovered four years ago in Malapa near Johannesburg show a mixture of primitive features of australopiths and advanced features of later human species. The researchers led by Prof Lee Berger of Wits University are therefore of the opinion that the new species is currently the best candidate for a direct ancestor of our own genus Homo. Researchers are now presenting new studies, including those of Peter Schmid, who taught and did research at the University of Zurich until he retired. Also involved were UZH students Nakita Frater, Sandra Mathews a

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nd Eveline Weissen.

 

Schmid has described the remains of Au. sediba‘s thorax. “They show a narrow upper ribcage, as the large apes have such as orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas,” says Peter Schmid. The human thorax on the other hand is uniformly cylindrical. Along with the largely complete remnants of the pectoral girdle, we see the morphological picture of a conical ribcage with a raised shoulder joint, which looks like a permanent shrug. The less well-preserved elements of the lower thorax on the other hand indicate a slim waist, similar to that of a human being.

 

Conical ribcage makes it difficult to swing arms when walking

 

The narrow upper thorax of apes enables them to move the shoulder blade, which is important for climbing and brachiation in trees. Its conical shape makes it difficult, however, to swing their arms when walking upright or running, plus they were a similar length to an ape’s. This is why Schmid assumes that Au. sediba was not able to walk or run on both feet as well as humans. “They probably couldn’t run over longer distances, especially as they were unable to swing their arms, which saves energy,” says Schmid.

 

An examination of the lower extremities shows a heel, metatarsus, knee, hips and back, which are unique and unprecedented. Sediba must have walked with feet turned sharply inwards. This inward turn distinguishes it from other australopiths. The conclusion to be drawn is that our early ancestors were able to move around in a different way.

 

Arms for climbing and brachiation

 

Au. sediba was an experienced climber. This is shown by the remains of the upper arm, radius, ulna, scapula, clavicle and fragment of sternum found in Malapa. These clearly belong to a single individual, which is unique in the entire previously known fossil record of the earliest hominins. With the exception of the hand bones described above, the upper extremity is exceptionally original. Au. sediba, like all the other representatives of the Australopithecus genus, had arms that were suitable for climbing as well as possibly for brachiation. Perhaps this capability was even more pronounced than has been assumed for this genus hitherto.

 

Differences from Australopithecus afarensis

 

Based on the dental crowns the researchers assume that Au. sediba does not belong phylogenetically to the eastern African australopiths but is closer to Au. africanus and thus forms a southern African sister group. This has an impact on our modern understanding of the evolution of early hominins from the late Pliocene. As such, Au. sediba and maybe even Au. africanus were not descended from Au. afarensis.

 

The lower jaw of the female skeleton was also examined along with previously unknown incisors and premolars. As noted already on the skull and other areas of the skeleton, the mandibular remains show similarities with other australopiths. They differ, however, in size and shape as well as in ontogenetic growth changes of Au. africanus. These results support the hypothesis that Au. sediba is taxonomically different from Au. africanus. In the relevant differences the parts of the lower jaw appear most to resemble those representatives of early Homo.

 

An analysis of the cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral region of the spinal column shows that Au. sediba had the same number of lumbar vertebrae as modern man. The strong hollow back suggests that he was more advanced in this area than Au. africanus and may be more likely compared with Homo erectus.

 

The new studies show a unique image of a human species with a mosaic-like physique. Some body parts are similar to those of earlier and others to those of later hominins. “The numerous similarities with Homo erectus suggest that Au. sediba represents the most appropriate early form of the genus Homo,” says Peter Schmid. The previous candidates are too fragmentary to be capable of occupying this position.

Win a trip too space with KLM

KLM has lanced this week’s contest “Claim your place in Space. Participants in this competition can win the ultimate prize: a trip through space. And also you can join!

Joining this contest is simple. On Monday, April 22, KLM will launch a balloon with onboard cameras and a GPS in the Nevada desert.  Once the balloon reach, it will expand and eventually pop apart. The load  in the balloon along with it, then sail to a parachute back to earth.

Win

To win you just have to predict when to balloon pops and were it will pop.

Go to klm space to make a chance!

 

 

The hidden planet of the Incas

Deep in the jungle and high in the mountains of Peru, live the last members of an ancient highly developed civilization. Discover the hidden planet of the Incas.

From the thirteenth century the Incas to an unprecedented expansion in the difficult terrain Andean region.

Eighty years later extended the power of the Incas themselves from the extreme south of Colombia to the northwest of Argentina and Chile, over a length of 4000 km. This was the Inca empire territorially the largest in the world.

Characteristic of the Inca Empire was the high degree of political and cultural integration. Aided by an extensive road network were the Inca rulers their empire under control. Their religion based on worship of the sun god Inti, spread throughout the empire.

The Incas had no formal writing, but through knotted ropes or messages were passed. The discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 eventually led to the fall of the empire.

 

asteroid-mining-deep-space-industriesNewly formed Deep Space Industries unveiled an ambitious plan on Tuesday to extract raw materials from nearby asteroids and turn it into fuel and spare parts for satellites.

It may sound like science fiction, but the company’s chief technology officer, John Mankins, who previously worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said there’s really nothing magical about it.

“The technology may not have been used in space for the exact purposes that we propose, but the fundamental technologies are really at hand,” Mankins said at a press conference at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, Calif., to announce the new venture.

Interestingly, another startup, Planetary Resources, rolled out a similar business plan in April. Though the two companies may end up vying for the same customers, they are taking different paths.

Planetary Resources plans to start off building, launching and operating small telescopes in Earth orbit to scout for potential mining targets. Deep Space Industries’ idea is to use inexpensive, off-the-shelf CubeSat-based spacecraft to visit select asteroids.

The six-month “Firefly” missions, each of which would cost about $20 million, would begin in 2015, said Deep Space chief executive David Gump told Discovery News.

Those would be followed a year later by slightly larger “Dragonfly” spacecraft capable of putting themselves into orbit around a target and extracting up to about 100 pounds of material to bring back to Earth.

Gump figures money for the venture will come from space agencies, including NASA and other research institutions, as well as from companies interested in advertising, sponsorships and marketing programs.

Ultimately, Deep Space wants to extract water and other volatile materials from huge chunks of asteroids brought back to Earth orbit. The materials would be used to make fuel for communications satellites, adding another $20 million to $25 million in value to each. Gump figures a commercial refueling service should be available by 2020.

Also of value are the asteroid’s metals, which could be used in 3D space printers to manufacture solar cells and other satellite components.

The company’s founders include engineer Stephen Covey, who has a patent application pending for what he calls a “Microgravity Foundry,” — a 3D printer that uses lasers to etch patterns in a nickel-charged gas. The process deposits the metal in precise patterns, similar to how Earth-based 3D printers use nickel powder to produce components.

There should be more than enough asteroids to go around. Recent surveys, initially launched to find asteroids with the potential to hit Earth, are adding about 1,000 targets a year to the list of nearby asteroids, the vast majority of which pose no threat.

Currently there’s about 9,500 known near-Earth asteroids, about 850 of which are bigger than 1 kilometer (.62 mile).

“They are the planet-busters. If they hit the Earth there is worldwide climate disruption. They’re the sorts of things that killed off the dinosaurs,” said mining consultant Mark Sonter, a Deep Space Industries science adviser.

About 2,900 of the known asteroids are bigger than about 300 meters (984 feet) and millions in the 10-meter to 20-meter (33- to 66-foot) diameter range.

“The number of near-Earth asteroids is going up all the time. It’s going up very fast. This represents the number of our potential targets for mining or for resource recovery,” Sonter said.

Deep Space Industries will send ‘FireFly’ ships to prospect for mineable asteroids in 2015

asteroid-mining-deep-space-industriesWho would have thought that within a year, we’d have multiple, competing asteroid mining startups? Deep Space Industries, which will hold its official launch on Tuesday at Santa Monica’s Museum of Flying, is the latest of several ambitious private companies to announce plans for the final frontier: in its case, to prospect near-Earth asteroids with an eye towards using materials in them to build a permanent presence in space. In 2015, it says it will begin sending unmanned “FireFly” spacecraft to explore asteroids that fly near Earth, followed by heavier “DragonFly” craft that will bring back samples from likely candidates between 2016 and 2020.

If these initial steps pan out, DSI has far more ambitious plans. Among them is a “Microgravity Foundry,” a 3D printing technology that uses nickel-charged gas to print metal components in zero gravity. The company says a patent is pending, but we’re not sure how far along the tech is — though 3D printing has been tried successfully in zero gravity. DSI also promises the same things we’ve heard from other asteroid mining proponents: if the resources in an asteroid can be successfully recovered, they’ll provide things like fuel or metals to current-generation spacecraft. “In a decade,” a statement says, “Deep Space will be harvesting asteroids for metals and other building materials, to construct large communications platforms to replace communications satellites, and later solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy to consumers on Earth.”

In terms of the feasibility of its claims, DSI is roughly on par with Planetary Resources, which announced its own asteroid mining plans in April 2012. Neither company has a proven record like breakout success SpaceX, but nor are their goals as fanciful as the Golden Spike proposal to profitably reach the Moon by 2020. What Deep Space Industries may lack, however, is funding. Planetary Resources was backed by millionaire director James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among others; DSI hasn’t indicated that it has access to pockets nearly so deep, and it’s looking for sponsorship for the initial missions. CEO David Gump (previously of Astrobotic, another space exploration company) says that “the public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide,” helping to fund the flights. No deals have been disclosed, though DSI says there’s “interest” from NASA and others.

Besides Gump, we haven’t yet got a full list of the people behind Deep Space Industry, but it’s chaired by space luminary Rick Tumlinson, an early space tourist and founding trustee of the X Prize. Geoffrey Notkin of the Science Channel show Meteorite Men and space analyst Mark Sonter are also part of the project, and 3D printing entrepreneur James Wolff is listed as a co-founder elsewhere online. We’re still awaiting more details from the conference itself, which will be streamed live at Spacevidcast starting at 12PM ET.

NASA Beams Mona Lisa to Moon with Laser

mona-lisa-nasa-laser-520x280Call it the ultimate in high art: Using a well-timed laser, NASA scientists have beamed a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, to a powerful spacecraft orbiting the moon, marking a first in laser communication.

The laser signal, fired from an installation in Maryland, beamed the Mona Lisa to the moon to be received 240,000 miles (384,400 km) away by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009. The Mona Lisa transmission, NASA scientists said, is a major advance in laser communication for interplanetary spacecraft.

“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances,” David Smith, a researcher working with the LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter — which received the Mona Lisa message — said in a statement. “In the near future, this type of simple laser communication might serve as a backup for the radio communication that satellites use. In the more distance future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide.”

The LRO spacecraft was the prime choice to test out the novel communication method because the spacecraft was already equipped with a laser receiver. While most spacecraft exploring the solar system today are tracked using radio signals, NASA is tracking LRO via lasers as well.

But the timing had to be just right.

NASA used its Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging station at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to send the Mona Lisa signal to LRO. The team divided the famous da Vinci painting into sections measuring 150 by 200 pixels and then transmitted them via the pulsing of the laser to the orbiter at a data rate of about 300 bits per second.

Once the lunar orbiter received the image, it reconstructed the photo, corrected for distortions created as the laser signal zipped through Earth’s atmosphere, and then sent the image back to Earth using its normal form of communication: radio waves.

“This pathfinding achievement sets the stage for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration,” Richard Vondrak, another researcher with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter said, “a high data rate laser-communication-demonstrations that will be a central feature of NASA’s next moon mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust environment Explorer.”

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer is slated to launch toward the moon later this year and will focus on mapping the lunar atmosphere and environment.

 

Watery Science ‘Jackpot’ Discovered by Curiosity

Curiosity-Yellowknife-Bay-Sol-157_4Ca_Ken-Kremer-580x267Curiosity found widespread evidence for flowing water in the highly diverse, rocky scenery shown in this photo mosaic from the edge of Yellowknife Bay on Sol 157 (Jan 14, 2013). The rover will soon conduct 1st Martian rock drilling operation at flat, light toned rocks at the outcrop called “John Klein”, at center. ‘John Klein’ drill site and ‘Sheep Bed’ outcrop ledges to right of rover arm are filled with numerous mineral veins and spherical concretions which strongly suggest precipitation of minerals from liquid water. ‘Snake River’ rock formation is the linear chain of rocks protruding up from the Martian sand near rover wheel. Credit: NASA

The Curiosity rover hit the science “jackpot” and has discovered widespread further evidence of multiple episodes of liquid water flowing over ancient Mars billions of years ago when the planet was warmer and wetter, scientists announced. The watery evidence comes in the form of water bearing mineral veins, cross-bedded layering, nodules and spherical sedimentary concretions.