Why Space Travel is $190,000 Cheaper from Sri Lanka
and the earth is a lumpy bumpy mass, not a perfect globe like sphere!
So. I'm in Sri Lanka having coffee with my newest acquaintance (and now good friend) Tsoroshan. We are a little hungover (these were the days when I still drank alcohol) and dealing with it in very different ways. I am tucking into a massive plate of traditional dhal curry, coconut sambal and paratha bread with a fresh mango smoothie as he sips delicately on his black coffee and sparks another cigarette.
"Have you heard about the gravitational anomaly here in Sri Lanka?" he asks me. I instantly laugh, because even in the short amount of time we had known each other, we seemed to exchange so many strange and interesting bites of knowledge between us. This seemed like a great opener for another East meets West learning exchange. I shake my head no and listen as he tells me that Sri Lanka has the lowest concentration of gravity anywhere on earth. Cue a very confused and sceptical look from me.
Wasn't gravity a constant force, like, over the whole planet?
As it turns out, no. It's not.
My mind (now somewhat boggled) had to verify via google, but of course Tsoroshan was correct. During my verification research I discovered that not only was this statement true, but additionally the highest concentration of gravity on Earth is over the UK; my home. So perhaps it wasn't just the palm trees and sunshine that helped me to feel lighter. It seemed I actually was lighter. And taller, most likely!
The novelty of perspective that I had lost a few pounds (0.215% of my weight apparently) and gained a few inches soon wore off and I was left with the most interesting question of all; but why?
Scientists have a couple of theories as to why. One of which was proposed by Attreyee Ghosh and his colleagues from the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore, who believe it is much to do with the irregularity of Earth's shape. From school and tools such as globes we have always been taught that the Earth is a sphere when in fact, it is full of irregularities. Mountain ranges and deep depressions, thick continental tectonic plates and much thinner oceanic ones cover our Earth and they believe it to look more like the globe shown above.
Another scientific theory is that either convection in the planet's liquid core was pulling down on the continental plates or the area had yet to spring back up from glacial ice sheet compression that took place 10,000 years ago. Both scenarios see Earth's surface compressing, pushing some of the gravity-producing mass to either side of the affected area.
So, back to my mango smoothie and Tsoroshan's black coffee. We sat in the shade of a roadside café discussing our own theories as to why gravity was so low here. Physics tells us that less mass equals less gravity. So one theory as to why Sri Lanka has such a low gravitational pull is that there is less mass underneath the earth. My mind instantly thought to the greed of man and questioned whether it could be mineral depletion over the centuries?
I recalled that an elderly neighbour of mine back in the UK told me his job in the British Army was to record and map the gravity of countries he was sent out to (specifically in Africa at that time). Upon asking why, he informed me that the denser the gravity in an area, the more likely it was to have high concentrations of mineral wealth under the earth. British army soldiers were being used to map such territories and paid a small fortune cash in hand (on top of their salary) for doing so. This was back in the 1960's.
The history of the gem trade in Sri Lanka dates back more than two millennia, a fact evidenced by some of the early names given to the territory. 6th Century Mahavamsa records state that Sri Lanka was once known as "Rathna deepa", Sanskrit for The Island of Jewels. It’s estimated that more than two million gem mining pits have been dug over the last 50 years alone. If you look at the scale of this compared to the estimated 300,000 year history of Sri Lanka (meaning 'Prosperous Island' according to local guides) being inhabited, imagine how many gems have been removed?
In AD 1250 Marco Polo wrote about the island of Zeilan (Sri Lanka) - the name used by Arab sailors meaning 'island or 'place of jewels'. He described King Sendernaz who was famed to have owned;
"the best rubies in the world — sapphires, topazes, amethysts, and other gems; the king is said to have the very finest ruby that was ever seen, as long as one's hand, and as big as a man's arm, without spot, shining like a fire, not to be bought for money. Cublai-Khan sent and offered the value of a city for it ; but the king answered he would not give it for the treasure of the world"
It is an island that has been fought over many times across the centuries. The Portuguese, Dutch and British have all exploited Sri Lanka's mineral wealth. Once the British became distracted by the wealth and gems of their larger colony in India, Sri Lankan soon fell to neglect and disinterest. Peaceful independence movements began in the early 1900's and led to the British colony of Ceylon gaining sovereign rule.
One of the many treasure removed was the 12 Carat oval shaped Royal blue sapphire engagement ring of Princess Diana. The stone was inherited by Prince William and presently adorned by Princess Kate Middleton.
Whether the removal of these dazzling gemstones from Sri Lanka's rich earth has had any contribution towards the gravity anomaly is anyone's guess. Since 2011 scientists have been struggling to find a definitive answer.
Interestingly, while we are still working out what to do with this information; indi.ca on medium has calculated one very practical potential benefit; If we drop a weight from 100m in Sri Lanka, it will land 21.5 milliseconds later than if you do the same thing in Florida. Going the other way, the force of gravity acting on a rocket would be 0.215% less, meaning reduced fuel costs (theoretically). SpaceX would save $190,000 launching from Sri Lanka rather than Florida. The gravitational field is 9.7773 m/s² in Colombo compared to 9.7979 m/s² in Cape Canaveral.
I'm not for a second suggesting this to be a good idea... it's just another point of interest!
Gemstones, sunshine, warm oceans, palm trees and gravity anomalies aside; Sri Lanka is a magical place. It is a land steeped in rich culture and a place where local people will share whatever little they have with you and be genuinely excited to learn about you and your country.
I would urge anyone who is considering travelling to come to this precious land and experience the feeling of 'low' gravity living for yourself.
Screenshot from Britannica.com
During my 8 hours of research and writing for this article (that I very much hope you enjoy and can relay at countless dinner parties from here on) I came across this incredible pushy message.
"Facts aren't free"
Hmm. Well here on Vocal thankfully they are!
But, we all have to eat as they say!
So if you did genuinely appreciate my time on this,
A dollar tip would mean the world to me.
It will fund a coffee to help fuel more articles like this one!