Mine the Asteroids!

The gold rush has officially begun: the mining of the asteroids. Science fiction writers have been predicting it for decades.* Now some seriously hard-hitting billionaires and technical people are joining forces to make it happen, through a privately funded initiative called Planetary Resources, Inc. Investors include filmmaker and explorer James Cameron (yes, he who just dove the Mariana Trench), the founders of the X-Prize Foundation, Google executives Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot, Jr., and others. Technical people include—well, for example, the chief engineer is Chris Lewicki, who was Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions.

They’re seriously planning to robotically explore and mine near-Earth asteroids, seeking precious metals, such as platinum-family metals, and water (very precious in space, very expensive to lift into orbit). From the Planetary Resources website:

“Initial space resource development will focus on water-rich asteroids. Water is the essence of life and exists in plentiful supply on asteroids. Access to water and other life-supporting volatiles in space provides hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding and even manufacturing capabilities. Water’s elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used to formulate rocket fuel.”

Here’s a summary of a recent report suggesting that the technology to do this is available or nearly so. 

I think this is one of the most exciting developments in space exploration since the Apollo lunar landings. For more details, visit the Planetary Resources website. For a highly readable but expert analysis, read Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog post: Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it.

I’m not an investment speculator, but if they were selling shares, I’d be in for a share today.

*My own short story, Dog Star, is based on the premise that we’ll be actively mining near-Earth asteroids; also, on the smarts of border collies.

NASA Cuts: What Is Obama Thinking?

Congress is right now considering future budgets for the funding of our space program, and it’s got me extremely worried. The Obama administration has proposed deep cuts, especially for planetary sciences. This is crazy, stupid, and short-sighted, and I call upon Congress to turn this thing around—please! Let’s continue funding our world-class space program, especially for space and planetary sciences, which since the Apollo days have been the capstone of American scientific exploration. The U.S. has already pulled out of one important international planetary mission, based just on the proposed budget. It would be a travesty to cancel other cutting-edge space missions.

It’s practically a given most of the American public thinks we spend a lot more on the space program than we actually do. In fact, NASA’s budget has always been a drop in the bucket compared to the Defense Department’s. Even at the height of the relatively extravagant days of the Apollo Moon landing program, the space program only accounted for a few percent of the federal budget. Since then it’s been sharply cut back. And now they want to cut it back even further. This despite the fact that every dollar spent on space helps to stimulate the economy, maintain our leadership in science and technology, inspire young scientists and engineers—and that’s in addition to advancing our knowledge of the universe, and laying the groundwork for a future spacefaring civilization.

The Obama budget would put the brakes on all of this. And when you put the brakes on a programs like this, you don’t just slow things down, you cause enormous disruption to long-range endeavors and put highly trained people out of work, people whom you might not be able to get back a few years down the road. I’m an Obama supporter, but this may be his administration’s single most misguided action.

To voice your support of space exploration, contact your Congress critter. One way you can do that is by signing on with the message from the Planetary Society, which you can dispatch to your representatives here.

Have an Astronomically Romantic Valentine’s Day!

Settle in with a mug of good coffee or hot chocolate, pop the video up to full-screen, set the sound to romantically soft, and enjoy this with a friend (real or imaginary). From Randy Halverson of dakotalapse.com.

Temporal Distortion from Randy Halverson on Vimeo. (Click and scroll down to read about what you’re seeing, and how it was done. Also, note the composer of the music: Bear McCreary of BSG fame.)

Cool Things in Space

posted in: quirky, science, space, Sunborn 0

We might not have the space shuttle anymore, but there’s a lot to be psyched about in space. Here are a few, in case you haven’t heard about them.

Antimatter Orbiting the Earth?
Sounds crazy, but it could be for real. Scientists working with the Pamela spacecraft (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics, in case you were wondering about the name) report that they have found antiprotons in orbit around the Earth, apparently gathered into bands similar to the Van Allen radiation belts. While not in large enough concentrations to cause passing spacecraft to go boom, the researchers note that they could be a source of fuel for future spacecraft.

Water Flowing on Mars?
Could be. New studies of images from Mars orbit sure look a lot like seasonal flows of water. If it’s the real deal, this could mean liquid water close to the surface, and that could mean a greater likelihood of life on Mars. Now, not a million years ago.

Beer in Space!
Now we’re talking. Yeah, people—including NASA types—are really looking into the possibility of beer in weightlessness. Very serious stuff! They’ve already done parabolic flight testing!

Star Trek Theme Park in Jordan?
Okay, this isn’t real space, but damn. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the main investor in a proposed Star Trek theme park, which has secured $1.5 billion in funding. Plans are to build it in Aqaba, Jordan. King Abdullah, you see, is a Trekfan, and even got himself a cameo appearance, back before he was king, in Star Trek: Voyager. You’ve gotta love it. But I haven’t even made it to Universal Studios yet!

By the way, one reason I haven’t posted in a while is that I’ve been really busy writing. I’ve also finished the proofing of text for the World Edition of Sunborn (crazy problems with Word losing styles, which I’ve finally gotten under control). Look for an announcement soon on that!

Spaceship Two Does the Wobble Dance

posted in: Flying, space, technology 0

Here’s a video of a recent test flight of Spaceship Two, which by this time next year could be offering rides into space to the public. (Got $200,00 I could borrow? I’m good for it. I promise.) The amazing thing about this video isn’t the test flight per se; it’s the mode of reentry. Watch it, and you’ll see the spaceship raising its tail feathers and bobbing like a badminton shuttlecock—intentionally!

I’m going to try to tweak this so that it’ll fit on my page here. But if you want to read it with some explanation, view it here, again courtesy of the Bad Astronomy blog.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launches Dragon Into Space

I almost missed seeing this in the Globe’s electronic edition, but Space.com clued me in. SpaceX successfully launched another Falcon 9 rocket, and this time it had a mockup of their Dragon spacecraft on top. The Dragon, which is slated to eventually transport cargo and possibly crew to the International Space Station, went into orbit for a couple of rounds and safely reentered for a Pacific Ocean splashdown. This made Paypal / SpaceX / Tesla Motors tycoon Elon Musk ecstatic. It made me pretty happy, too. With the space shuttle coming up on retirement, the sooner we have less expensive, privately operated spacecraft hitting the Up and Out, the better.

I also have to smile that the Falcon rocket series is named after the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars, and the Dragon capsule is named for Puff the Magic Dragon. Check out the great pix of the flight at http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-120810a.html.

Our Thieving Sun

posted in: science, space 0

According to NASA Science News, the sun has been stealing comets from other stars. Or rather, it did in its scofflaw youth, when it was part of a disintegrating star-forming nebula. This assertion is based on computer modeling of the Oort Cloud, the enormous cloud of comets that encircles the solar system at a distance of about a light-year. Mind you, the evidence of theft is based on measurements of a cloud that has never directly been observed, though there’s plenty of evidence for its existence. Apparently the cloud (which has never been seen directly) has way more comets than can be accounted for by honest procurement. And so, the evidence for the misappropriation.

Therefore, it’s possible that this weird-looking Comet Hartley 2, photographed last week by NASA’s robotic EPOXI spacecraft (no, it’s not made of glue), is actually not from our own system originally, but rather from an alien sun. Is that cool or what?

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