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Scientists Suggest that Surprisingly Recently, Denisovans Lived on the Tibetan Plateau

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A new study that expands scientific knowledge of the mysterious ancient humans initially discovered in 2010 indicates that Denisovans lived and prospered on the high-altitude Tibetan plateau for over 100,000 years.

Thousands of animal bone fragments that were discovered at Baishiya Karst Cave, 3,280 meters above sea level, close to the Chinese city of Xiahe in Gansu province—one of only three locations where it is known that extinct humans formerly resided—were examined by researchers. According to their research, Denisovans were able to hunt, kill, and prepare a variety of large and small animals, including as birds, woolly rhinoceros, blue sheep, wild yaks, and marmots.

The rib bone fragment, the oldest of the few known Denisovan fossils, was found by the archaeology team at the cave in a layer of sediment that dates back between 48,000 and 32,000 years. This discovery suggests that the species was more recent than previously believed.

The lack of fossil evidence has left us with few details about the lives of these prehistoric human forebears. However, the new research shows that the Denisovans who inhabited Baishiya Karst Cave were extraordinarily hardy, managing to thrive in one of the harshest habitats on Earth during both warmer and colder seasons while making the most of the variety of animal resources found in the grassland area.

“We know that the Denisovans lived, occupied the cave and this Tibetan plateau for such a long time, we really want to know, how did they live there? How did they adapt to the environment?” stated Dongju Zhang, a co-lead author of the study that was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday and an archaeologist and professor at Lanzhou University in China.

Zhang continued, “They used all these animals available to them, so that means their behavior is flexible,”

According to research coauthor Frido Welker, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Biomolecular Paleoanthropology Group at the Globe Institute, the rib belonged to Denisovan, who most likely lived at the period when modern humans were spreading throughout the Eurasian continent. He noted that more studies in the area and at the location might clarify whether or not the two groups interacted there.

He found it fascinating that “it does put this fossil and the (sediment) layer in a context where we know in the wider region humans were likely to be present.”

A Series of Hints from Denisovan

DNA sequences taken from a little piece of finger bone were used in a lab setting to identify Denisovans for the first time a little over ten years ago. Less than a dozen Denisovan fossils have been discovered globally since then.

The majority of them were discovered in Denisova Cave in the Siberian Altai Mountains, which is how the group earned its name. Subsequent genetic studies demonstrated that Denisovans and Neanderthals had interbred with contemporary humans. Denisovan DNA traces discovered in modern humans imply that the extinct species most likely once inhabited most of Asia.

But it wasn’t until 2019 that scientists discovered the first Denisovan fossil outside of the cave with the same name.

At least 160,000 years ago, a monk discovered a jawbone with teeth at Baishiya Karst Cave, a sacred site for Tibetan Buddhists. The jawbone had a Denisovan molecular signature. More proof that Denisovans had formerly lived in the region was provided by the discovery of DNA from silt at the location, which was reported a year later.

Scientists discovered a tooth in a Laos cave that they recognized as belonging to the Denisovan species in 2022. This discovery put the species for the first time in Southeast Asia. Since it was not possible to extract DNA from the tooth, as was the case with the jawbone, scientists looked instead at the minute remains of proteins, which survive better than DNA but are less instructive.

More than 2,500 pieces of animal bone that were found during 2018 and 2019 digs at Baishiya cave were evaluated in the study, which was published on Wednesday.

Given that the majority of the fragments were too minute to identify by eye, the researchers used a relatively new method called Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS), which enables them to glean important information from specimens that may have previously gone unnoticed.

ZooMS assisted the researchers in identifying the type of animal Baishiya’s place in the Denisovan narrative based on subtle variations in the amino acid sequence of collagen preserved inside the bone.

The research identified carnivores such as hyenas in addition to large and small herbivores. In the Himalayas today, certain species are still common, such the blue sheep.

Cut markings on many of the bones indicated that the Denisovans were processing the animals for their hides in addition to their meat and bone marrow. According to the study, some bones were also utilized as instruments.

Overall, the variety of animal species discovered indicates that the region surrounding the cave was primarily covered in grasslands with a few tiny forested patches. This is comparable to the area today, though Zhang pointed out that the majority of the animals residing there now are domesticated goats and yaks.

The five-centimeter-long piece of rib bone was discovered by the scientists during the arduous, multi-month process of classifying the bones. Nevertheless, the protein information’s resolution was insufficiently clear to identify the type of human it had belonged to right away. Welker conducted additional study on the surviving ancient proteins, which identified it as Denisovan.

The scientists had previously collected Denisovan DNA from a layer of sediment from which the rib bone originated, and Zhang stated that they are attempting to recover DNA from the new specimen. The owner of the rib and the larger Denisovan community that formerly inhabited the region may be better understood genetically thanks to that approach.

Because there is so little known about the Denisovans, “each discovery is of major importance,” and the zooarchaeological analysis done by the authors of the new study was “particularly insightful,” according to Samantha Brown, an archaeologist and junior group leader for paleoproteomics at the University of Tübingen in Germany who has worked with Denisova Cave remains.

“The young age of the fossil was definitely surprising. At this time period we have evidence for modern humans occupying sites all the way (to) Australia. This really opens up conversations about the possibility of those groups interacting as modern humans moved into Asia and the Pacific but more evidence will likely be needed to understand the nature of those interactions,” said Brown, who was not involved in the research.

Zhang is excavating a second paleolithic site in the area that may have been inhabited by Denisovans or later modern people, while work at Baishiya Karst Cave is still ongoing, she said.

Current evidence indicates that Denisovans were the only human group to exist at Baishiya Karst Cave, unlike Denisova Cave, which was inhabited by Neanderthals, early modern humans, and Denisovans, according to Zhang. Because of this, the Tibetan plateau, sometimes referred to as “the roof of the world,” is an especially important location in the hunt for the answers to the numerous unanswered questions regarding the identity of the Denisovans, their appearance, their disappearance, and their position on the human family tree. The bones were legitimate.

The role of Baishiya in the Denisovan narrative

The investigation uncovered carnivores like hyenas in addition to big and small herbivores. Even now, the Himalayas remain home to several of the animals, such the blue sheep.

The Denisovans were processing the animals for their hides in addition to their meat and bone marrow, as evidenced by the cut marks on many of the bones. The research also found that certain bones were utilized as instruments.

Although Zhang pointed out that the majority of the animals residing there now are tamed yaks and goats, the diversity of animal species discovered collectively indicates the area surrounding the cave was dominated by a grass landscape with some minor woodland sections — similar to today.

The five-centimeter-long piece of rib bone was discovered by the scientists during the arduous, multi-month process of classifying the bones. Nevertheless, the protein information’s resolution was insufficiently clear to identify the type of human it had belonged to right away. Welker conducted additional study on the surviving ancient proteins, which identified it as Denisovan.

The scientists had previously collected Denisovan DNA from a layer of sediment from which the rib bone originated, and Zhang stated that they are attempting to recover DNA from the new specimen. The owner of the rib and the larger Denisovan community that formerly inhabited the region may be better understood genetically thanks to that approach.

Because there is so little known about the Denisovans, “each discovery is of major importance” and the zooarchaeological analysis carried out by the new study’s authors was “particularly insightful,”  according to Samantha Brown, an archaeologist and junior group leader for paleoproteomics at the University of Tübingen in Germany who has worked with Denisova Cave remains.

“The young age of the fossil was definitely surprising. At this time period we have evidence for modern humans occupying sites all the way (to) Australia. This really opens up conversations about the possibility of those groups interacting as modern humans moved into Asia and the Pacific but more evidence will likely be needed to understand the nature of those interactions,” said Brown, who was not involved in the research.

Zhang is excavating a second paleolithic site in the area that may have been inhabited by Denisovans or later modern people, while work at Baishiya Karst Cave is still ongoing, she said.

Current evidence indicates that Denisovans were the only human group to exist at Baishiya Karst Cave, unlike Denisova Cave, which was inhabited by Neanderthals, early modern humans, and Denisovans, according to Zhang. Because of this, the Tibetan plateau, sometimes referred to as “the roof of the world,” is an especially important location in the hunt for the answers to the numerous unanswered questions regarding the identity of the Denisovans, their appearance, their disappearance, and their position on the human family tree.

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NASA Releases a New Study by Sunita Williams While the Boeing Starliner Remains in Orbit

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The two astronauts who were sent as part of Boeing’s Crew Flight Test were Sunita “Suni” Williams and Butch Wilmore.

For more than a month now, Boeing’s Starliner has been trapped in orbit. The spacecraft was originally scheduled for a 10-day mission when it launched on June 5. But when it docked at the International Space Station the following day, it ran into unanticipated problems with its thrusters. The astronauts are conducting research while in orbit as they continue to work on a solution.

NASA releases research on space plants by Sunita Williams

As part of Boeing’s Crew Flight Test, two astronauts were deployed: Sunita “Suni” Williams and Butch Wilmore. According to a NASA statement, the two, with plenty of free time on their hands, conducted research on space plants and free-flying robots on Wednesday. According to the US space agency, Wilmore and Williams are “exploring ways to effectively water plants in the weightless environment.”

The announcement also stated that “The duo took turns throughout the day in the Harmony module, testing how root models and plants of various sizes would absorb water in microgravity . The Plant Water Management study looks at techniques such as hydroponics and air circulation to nourish plants growing aboard spacecraft and space habitats.”

NASA noted in an earlier statement that the two astronauts’ primary focus was testing various techniques for watering plants grown in the weightless microgravity environment without soil. According to the statement, “Williams first set up the Plant Water Management hardware in the Harmony module then tested a variety of liquid flow methods while video recording the results,”

It continues, “Following her work, Wilmore ran more tests using hydroponics and air circulation techniques to learn how to effectively nourish a variety of plants on spacecraft and space habitats.” In the meantime, the agency stated that the two “started their day servicing a variety of research hardware” in the release on Thursday.

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New Era of Space Storm Warnings Could Protect Earth’s Technological Infrastructure

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Our understanding of the precise moment when a strong solar eruption may strike Earth has advanced to the point where space storms may soon be foretold with ever-greater accuracy.

Even before a coronal mass ejection (CME) has completely erupted from the sun, scientists claim that they are now able to forecast the exact speed at which a CME is traveling and the exact moment at which it will destroy our planet.

CMEs are outbursts from the solar atmosphere that consist of gas and magnetic fields.

Space weather forecasts are being improved by specialists worldwide because they can trigger geomagnetic storms that could cause major disruptions to terrestrial technology both on Earth’s surface and in its orbit.

Researchers from Aberystwyth University, who will present their findings today at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2024) in Hull, believe that advancements like this one could make a significant difference in helping to protect infrastructure that is essential to our daily lives.

After examining particular solar regions known as “active regions,” which have powerful magnetic fields and are the birthplace of CMEs, scientists discovered their discovery. The areas’ changes prior to, during, and following an eruption were observed by the researchers.

The “critical height” of the active regions—the altitude at which the magnetic field becomes unstable and potentially triggers a CME—was a crucial factor they examined.

Lead researcher Harshita Gandhi, a solar physicist at Aberystwyth University, said, “We can determine this critical height by measuring how the strength of the magnetic field decreases with height.”

“This data can then be used along with a geometric model, which is used to track the true speed of CMEs in three dimensions rather than just two, which is essential for precise predictions.”

“Our findings reveal a strong relationship between the critical height at CME onset and the true CME speed.” she continued.

“This insight allows us to predict the CME’s speed and, consequently, its arrival time on Earth, even before the CME has fully erupted.”

These CMEs have the ability to cause a geomagnetic storm that can result in breathtaking aurorae, often known as the Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere, when they strike the Earth.

However, the storms also pose a threat to critical infrastructure that we depend on on a daily basis, such as communication networks, power grids, and satellites. For this reason, scientists from all over the world are putting a lot of effort into enhancing our capacity to forecast the exact time when CMEs will strike Earth.

In order to more accurately predict when the CME will strike our planet, it is necessary to know its speed quickly after it bursts from the solar.

Precise velocity forecasts allow for a more accurate estimation of the arrival time of a CME on Earth, hence offering vital early warnings.

“Understanding and using the critical height in our forecasts improves our ability to warn about incoming CMEs, helping to protect the technology that our modern lives depend on,” Gandhi stated.

“Our research not only enhances our understanding of the sun’s explosive behavior but also significantly improves our ability to forecast space weather events.”

“This means better preparation and protection for the technological systems we rely on every day.”

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NASA Terminates the VIPER Lunar Rover

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Citing development delays and expense overruns, NASA has canceled a robotic lunar rover project that was intended to explore for ice at the moon’s south pole.

On July 17, NASA declared that the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rove (VIPER) mission would no longer be developed. In order to gain a better understanding of the amount and type of water ice present on the moon, the rover—which was scheduled to be launched atop a commercial lander named Griffin from Astrobotic Technology—would have investigated terrain that included areas that were constantly shadowed.

Agency representatives stated at a briefing to announce the cancellation that VIPER expenses had increased by over 30%, prompting an agency review of the termination. In 2021, NASA confirmed VIPER, spending $433.5 million in the process. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration, stated that the most recent estimate was $609.6 million, with a launch anticipated in September 2025.

NASA associate administrator for science Nicky Fox stated, “In this case, the projected remaining expenses for VIPER would have resulted in either having to cancel or disrupt many other missions in our Commercial Lunar Payload Services line.” “Therefore, we have made the decision to forgo this particular mission.”

According to Kearns, VIPER experienced a number of supply chain problems that caused deliveries of important, unidentified components that date back to the pandemic to be delayed. He claimed that “the delays occurred over and over for several key components,” adding that it was more difficult for the mission to plan around a series of little delays than a single, significant one.

This made the rover’s construction more difficult. According to him, it is around the size of a compact automobile and is constructed from the inside out. “Many of the components that were delayed were actually in the inner section of VIPER, so as the components were delayed, it started forcing the VIPER team to delay the assembly and delay the integration and initial testing.”

Despite being finished, the rover is only now beginning its environmental tests. The updated budget and timeline, according to Kearns, were predicated on VIPER passing the environmental testing with flying colors. “I will tell you that in general, spacecraft development system-level environmental testing does uncover problems that do need to be corrected, which would take more time and money.”

NASA will save at least $84 million if VIPER is canceled now. If the launch of VIPER were to be delayed past November 2025, he said, it would mean having to wait nine to twelve months for the proper lighting conditions to return to the landing spot in the polar zone.

Kearns and Fox state that other missions, such orbiters and landers, will accomplish a significant amount of the science that VIPER would have undertaken.However, until NASA’s Lunar Terrain Vehicle—a rover for crewed Artemis missions that can also be teleoperated—is deployed later this decade, the mobility that VIPER would have offered might not be available.

In order to use its instruments and other parts, NASA intends to deconstruct VIPER. But first, NASA will take into account offers from domestic businesses and foreign allies to independently fly VIPER at no expense to the federal government. NASA must receive proposals by August 1.

Griffin’s mission should be revised

Aside from its own development issues, VIPER also had to contend with delays from Griffin, the lander built by Astrobotic that was supposed to send the rover to the moon as part of a $322 million CLPS task order. Griffin is currently anticipated to be prepared for the trip, according to NASA, no earlier than September 2025.

NASA will keep the Griffin task order even with the cancellation of VIPER. Rather than using a rover, the mission will instead serve as a technological demonstrator, testing Griffin’s capacity to land heavy payloads by using a mass simulator.

According to Kearns, NASA thought about transporting science payloads instead, but the lander was made to carry a rover, therefore it lacked the accommodations and capabilities needed for payloads, including electricity and communications.

Regarding possible adjustments to accommodate payloads, he stated, “We believe that if we were to ask Astrobotic to make changes like that, it would further delay their schedule.”“It would lead to more cost for the government. It would lead to a delay of the demonstration of a successful south pole 
landing by the large Griffin lander, which we are very interested in seeing.”

It will also be open to Astrobotic to launch their own commercial payloads. In an interview, Astrobotic CEO John Thornton stated that the business is thinking of testing its LunaGrid power generation service on Griffin. “We do want to fly quickly, but we also want to make a mission that is more impactful than just the lander itself.”

He stated that even without VIPER, Griffin will still land in the moon’s south polar area, albeit possibly not at the location NASA chose for VIPER. It will rely on any additional payloads it agrees to carry with the lander; in order to lower mission risk, it may choose to land at a safer location.

Although they could not provide further details, Kearns and Thornton both stated that the agency only recently notified the corporation of the decision. According to an industry insider, NASA notified Astrobotic of the decision only one day prior to its official announcement.

He made reference to the January launch of Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, Peregrine, which was unable to attempt a lunar landing due to a fuel leak. “This has been certainly a year of tumult and challenge for Astrobotic as a company,” he added. “certainly another punch to the gut here, but we’ll roll with it.” the VIPER cancellation said.

Kearns noted the work NASA sponsored for the business to conduct further propulsion system tests and stated that NASA thought Griffin would be able to land safely on the moon with or without VIPER on board. “We do have confidence in them to go out and attempt this landing, or we wouldn’t be continuing to work with them.”

“I’m an eternal optimist. You kind of have to be in the space industry,” Thornton added. “I’m excited about what we can turn this into.”NASA terminates the lunar rover VIPER

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