WASHINGTON — A prehistoric opossum-sized critter dubbed the “crazy beast” that inhabited Madagascar at the end of the age of dinosaurs is providing scientists insight into early mammalian evolution even as they scratch their heads over its bewildering anatomy.
Researchers on Wednesday described an exquisitely preserved fossil of the plant-eating mammal named Adalatherium hui, which lived 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period and superficially resembled a badger with its long torso and stubby tail.
Scientists had known precious little about southern hemisphere mammals during the Mesozoic Era, the age of dinosaurs, with the fossil record from the northern hemisphere much more extensive.
Adalatherium offers by far the most complete skeleton of a Mesozoic mammal from Gondwana, which was Earth’s southern supercontinent encompassing Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica. It also is the fullest fossil representing an enigmatic mammal group called gondwanatherians that thrived for tens of millions of years but died out about 45 million years ago leaving no living relatives.
Its name means “crazy beast,” with good reason.
“Its many uniquely bizarre features defied explanation in terms of relationships to other mammals. In this sense, it was a ‘crazy beast,’” said Denver Museum of Nature and Science paleontologist David Krause, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.
“We suspect some of this bizarreness might be due to evolution in isolation on an island,” added New York Institute of Technology paleontologist and study co-author Simone Hoffmann.
Life on islands develops differently than on the mainland, isolated with idiosyncratic food sources, competitors and predators. Madagascar at the time boasted other oddballs including a huge 16-inch (40-cm) frog named Beelzebufo that may have eaten baby dinosaurs and a pug-nosed plant-eating crocodile named Simosuchus.
Mammals first appeared during the Triassic Period more than 200 million years ago and remained bit players until an asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago, eradicating the dinosaurs and paving the way for mammals to dominate.
The fossil represented an individual not fully grown, at about 20 inches (52 cm) long and 6.8 pounds (3.1 kg). Most Mesozoic mammals were mouse-sized, about 100 times smaller than Adalatherium.
“Adalatherium was a giant in its time,” Krause said.
Adalatherium would have moved differently from today’s mammals, with it back legs in a more sprawling posture – extending away from the body like reptiles – while its front legs where placed underneath the body like most other mammals. When Adalatherium walked, its spine would have bent side to side in a reptile-like manner.
Its body was elongated with more back vertebrae than any other Mesozoic mammal. Its strong back and hind limb muscles and its long claws on its back feet indicated Adalatherium was an adept digger that possibly excavated burrows.
Its rodent-like front teeth may have helped it gnaw on roots or other plant material while its molars were unlike any other mammal. Its cranium had more facial holes than any other mammal, serving as passageways for nerves and blood vessels supplying a sensitive whisker-covered snout.
Madagascar was a dangerous place. Adalatherium may have been hunted by meat-eating dinosaurs, large crocodiles and a huge constrictor snake.
“Figuring out how Adalatherium might have moved or eaten with basically no modern analog is one of the most intriguing parts of this project,” Hoffmann said.
Watch SpaceX launch its latest batch of Starlink satellites, including one with a sun visor – TechCrunch
SpaceX just launched its most important and historic launch ever this past weekend, flying NASA astronauts for the first time – on Wednesday, it’s set to follow that up with a less significant Falcon 9 rocket launch, but one that’s still vital to the company’s future. This mission is the latest of SpaceX’s Starlink launches, which the company is using to put up a vast network of small satellites to provide low-cost, high-bandwidth internet access to customers globally.
SpaceX’s Starlink mission today has a launch window of 9:25 PM EDT (6:25 PM PDT) and includes a payload of 60 more satellites for the constellation, which already has 420 operating in low Earth orbit. The goal is ultimately to launch as many as 40,000 or of these small satellites in order to blanket the globe with connectivity that’s broadly available, and that provides rock solid network consistency by handing off connections among the satellites as they make their way around the Earth.
This launch was originally scheduled to fly the week prior to SpaceX’s Demo-2 crewed mission, which carried NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on Saturday and Sunday, but was bumped due to a scheduling conflict with a ULA launch, and then further postponed until after the astronaut flight. It’s still already the fifth batch of 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX has flown in 2020. In total, SpaceX is hoping for up to two dozen Starlink launches in total before year’s end, which will help it meet its goal of launching an initial beta service in Canada and the U.S. later this year, with a more global rollout following in 2021 or 2022.
This launch will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and will use a Falcon 9 first stage that flew previously on four previous missions. SpaceX will attempt to recover the booster again through a controlled landing, and will also try to catch the fairing halves used to protect the satellite cargo using its ‘Ms. Tree’ and ‘Ms. Chief’ ships.
One key novel element for this flight is the test of a new technology SpaceX is hoping will help mitigate the impact of the Starlink constellation on night sky observation from Earth. Scientists have complained that Starlink is bright enough to interfere with sensitive optical instrumentation used to gather data deep space bodies and phenomena. To address that, SpaceX has designed a deployable ‘visor’ system which extends from Starlink satellites post-launch and attempts to block sunlight reflecting off of their communications arrays.
SpaceX has equipped one of the 60 satellites on this launch with that system, as way of testing its efficacy before making it a standard part of the Starlink satellite build going forward. Depending on results, it could become a permanent fixture on all SpaceX’s Starlink spacecraft for future missions.
Should today’s launch be delayed (weather is currently looking around 60% favorable for the mission), there’s a backup opportunity tomorrow, June 4 at 9:03 PM EDT (6:03 PM PDT).
Why a rocket launch can’t unite us right now – The Verge
At 9:30AM ET on Tuesday, three American astronauts symbolically rang the Nasdaq opening bell from space — a celebration of SpaceX’s historic launch that sent astronauts into orbit three days prior. The short ceremony played out live on the Nasdaq’s giant screen in Times Square, with various NASA personnel clapping as one astronaut clanged a bell on the International Space Station.
The video glowed over the same streets where, in the days and nights before, thousands of demonstrators had gathered nearby to protest systemic racism and police brutality against black Americans.
This kind of cognitive dissonance has permeated SpaceX’s first passenger flight — the first time that NASA astronauts have launched from the US in nearly a decade. NASA has been waiting for this moment since the last Space Shuttle landed in 2011, and now the agency wants to celebrate. It wants the United States and the world to celebrate, too. But if the space community expects the world to care about the things we do in space, there must be an acknowledgment of how broken things are on the ground and the injustices that still exist in the United States.
That might mean passing up the chance to ring the bell on Wall Street while the economy remains in tatters. It might mean a compassionate statement from the crew addressing the people on the Earth below, instead of answering rote questions from dignitaries and press.
There are eerie echoes between this SpaceX launch and Apollo 8, as others have pointed out. That mission, the first to reach the vicinity of the Moon, launched in 1968, a year that mirrors 2020 in its apocalyptic bleakness. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had sparked protests throughout the country. Space enthusiasts like to look back on that mission with rose-colored glasses, as something that served as a shining beacon of hope during a tough time for the country.
But as others have pointed out, Apollo 8 didn’t fix the turmoil of the time. Just look at where we stand today. Likewise, SpaceX’s launch did not unite the country or the world, though NASA certainly tried to make that claim. “This was an amazing moment of unity for the nation,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a call with the astronauts after the launch. “It was an amazing moment for the whole world to look out in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges. We’re able to have very, very special moments where we can all look at the future and say that things are going to be brighter tomorrow than they are today.”
If only it were that simple. The problem that NASA and the space community doesn’t often understand is that spaceflight still isn’t inclusive. These launches may be fun and emotional to watch, but they don’t always feel like they’re for everyone. Space is still an exclusive and expensive domain, and the people who are in charge of this industry are still predominately male and white. The idea that a launch could bring the public together during a time when widespread racism and injustice are at the forefront of people’s minds is naive at best.
To be fair to NASA, Bridenstine acknowledged that an important space launch couldn’t “fix” the world. “Look, I think what NASA does is astonishing. It’s impressive, and it does bring people together,” he said. “If the expectation was that things on the ground were going to change because we launched a rocket, I think maybe the expectation might have been a little high.” He then proceeded to talk about just how many people tuned into NASA and SpaceX’s launch coverage over the weekend.
Those numbers are just not important right now. Yes, the launch must have been a small bright moment for people who turned their attention to a rocket soaring into space for one brief moment this weekend. But if the space community wants to really have a uniting effect on the world, it must be deeply rooted in the happenings of Earth. And the space world seems to exist in a bubble where these things just don’t have an effect.
While NASA acknowledged the problems going on down on the surface throughout the SpaceX launch, the statements didn’t stray much from touting the idea that this launch was a beacon of hope for the world during a difficult time. Meanwhile, the industry has mostly sheltered in its celebratory bubble. While many other major industries have issued a flurry of statements addressing the protests, the giants of the spaceflight industry remained silent.
Instead, compassionate demands for change have been left to individuals in the spaceflight world, including former astronauts.
“It is not this mission that will bring us together but the individual people following it who step forward to lock arms with people we don’t know but must learn to trust,” former astronaut and former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on Twitter.
“Today demands we take pride not only in reaching the sky, but also sustained heights of decency, truth, compassion and justice for all, now!” former astronaut Mae Jemison said on Twitter.
“America let’s get our crap together,” former astronaut Leland Melvin said during a Facebook video. “This is unsatisfactory. We’ve got to stop this. And it’s going to be the good people that do nothing now that start doing something to stamp this hatred, evil, and racism out.”
Even if the space industry were to come out with a unified statement, from the outside, it feels like it’s more or less business as usual within the space world. NASA and space companies continue to move forward with many of the same things they had planned, such as handing out contracts for major programs, making major announcements, and launching vehicles. But the times are anything but business as usual. If the space community wants to unite people, then it must make people feel like they are part of space, and that means being conscious of where people’s lives are on the ground. It means committing to fix the wrongs in our society while also building vehicles to break the bonds of gravity.
Only then will people feel like they can come together to wonder in our journey toward the stars.
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Watch SpaceX launch its latest batch of Starlink satellites, including one with a sun visor – TechCrunch
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