Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.


Nazis Under Antarctica

Ten years ago, satellite observations by NASA detected a gravitational anomaly in the Wilkes Land section of Antarctica.  The gravitational changes caused scientists to discover a massive impact crater and, at its center, a huge object buried under the Antarctica ice.  The object is more than 151 miles long and a half mile thick.

So . . . it’s an asteroid, right?  We know that, from time to time, Earth has been struck by asteroids, leaving impact craters scattered across the globe.  Some scientists believe that large asteroid strikes, and the impact they have had on the planet’s climate, are responsible for some of the mass extinctions seen in the fossil record.  An enormous asteroid striking Antarctica could be responsible for the great Permian-Triassic extinction event, when something happened that wiped out almost all of the plant and animal life on Earth, on both land and in the sea, about 250 million years ago.

Not so fast!  Ancient meteor strikes aren’t really all that interesting, are they?  I mean, that just makes this intriguing anomaly a super big rock buried in ice.  And in fact, when the massive object under the icy wastes of Wilkes Land was first discovered, nobody paid much attention to it.  But when a UFO hunting outfit recently posted a YouTube video about the Antarctica anomaly, suddenly the conspiratorially minded among us started to get interested.

So now the internet with abuzz with the possibility that the massive object could be an ancient UFO, or maybe an alien landing base.  Or the lost city of Atlantis!  Or the entrance to the creepy underworld lair called “Hollow Earth.”  Or — my favorite — a massive base secretly built by the Nazis where they planned to develop and use “flying saucers.”  Lucky for us that those inventive Nazis spent the time, money, and effort to build an enormous snow-encased base for flying saucers, when they could have used those resources, and those flying saucers, to avoid losing the war instead!

I think the possibility that we’ve located a gigantic asteroid that almost killed off every life form on Earth seems pretty interesting, but for some people nothing is as fascinating as speculating about Nazis and UFOs.

Mining The Asteroid Belt

Any sci-fi buff has read stories about hardy souls who fly between the asteroids and mine the hurtling chunks of rock for minerals.  Usually the heroic asteroid miner-pilot is a gruff, swashbuckling character with a taste for adventure and a heart of gold.

Now the concept of mining the asteroid belt seems to have moved a step closer to reality — except that the mining will be done by robots, not adventurers.

A consortium of wealthy entrepreneurs has announced a plan to use telescopes to identify likely candidates for mining, with a specific focus on gold and platinum.  The plans would then move to establishing observation platforms and a fuel depot in orbit, and finally to the mining of asteroids and shipment of minerals back to Earth.

Obviously, we are still far away from commercial exploration of space.  Nevertheless, those of us who dream of more robust space exploration must pin our hopes on profit-seeking entities, because our cash-strapped governments are unlikely to do much.  If profits can be made, entrepreneurs who are willing to accept risks will figure out a way to realize those profits.

The fact that companies are finally starting to look carefully at space tourism, asteroid mining, and other obvious commercial activities in space is a good sign.  Serious efforts will mean a focus on improving the technology, mission planning, delivery systems, and other processes that will make commercial use of space resources increasingly viable.

That means our grandchildren might not be swashbuckling asteroid mining pilots — but they could get a chance to spend some time among the stars.

Close Encounters In The Asteroid Belt

Although the space shuttle program is ending — more on that in a later post — U.S. space exploration efforts continue unabated through use of unmanned probes.  Tomorrow one such probe, called Dawn, will begin to orbit Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Once it settles into orbit, Dawn’s mission will be to photograph the asteroid, deploy instruments that can detect the minerals and elements found on the asteroid, and gather data that will allow scientists to assess the geological forces that shaped the asteroid.  After orbiting Vesta for a year, Dawn will move on to Ceres, an even larger asteroid.

For science fiction fans like me, the mineral composition of the asteroid will be of the most interest.  Lots of good science fiction deals with asteroid miners and mining colonies, and potential exploitation of minerals is one of the reasons why space exploration may end up being of great interest to private concerns, too.  If we learn that Vesta possesses a treasure trove of minerals, and Dawn proves that navigating among the asteroids can be safely accomplished, we may move one step closer to significant commercial interest in space — and in this era of tight governmental budgets, moving forward in space exploration and technology probably will require significant investment by private entities.