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Want Faster Data and a Cleaner Planet? Start Mining Asteroids
Mining asteroids might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but there are companies and a few governments already working hard to make it real.
Mining asteroids might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but there are companies and a few governments already working hard to make it real. This should not be surprising: compared with the breathtaking bridges that engineers build on Earth, asteroid-mining is a simple, small-scale operation requiring only modest technological advances. If anything is lacking, it is the imagination to see how plausible it has become. I am afraid only that it might not arrive soon enough to address the urgent resource challenges that the world is facing right now.
As an academic researcher, I work with several asteroid-mining companies to address that urgency. I depend on their funding, so there are trade secrets I cannot share. However, I can reveal the core reasons why I am optimistic about the business case for asteroid-mining, and what it will mean for our future.
Many people are skeptical of asteroid-mining because they imagine that the goal is to bring platinum back for sale in Earth’s metals market. Reporters repeatedly cite an irresistible statistic that the platinum in an asteroid can be worth trillions of US dollars, but anyone with an understanding of economics realises that bringing home a huge stash of precious metal would crash the market, reducing the valuation of the asteroid.
On the other hand, if the plan is to dole out platinum in small quantities to keep the valuation high (as it is done in the diamond industry), then how could asteroid companies compete with terrestrial mining companies that benefit from a mature, low-cost terrestrial supply chain and transportation network?
This is exactly why platinum is not the objective of asteroid-mining. Instead, the first product from asteroids will be something much less obviously precious: water.
To rocket scientists, water is the raw material for propellant. Launching water from Earth into space consumes a lot of propellant, which makes the whole concept self-defeating. Fortunately, water is abundant in space, where it is much easier to move around. Water can be readily extracted from clay minerals in a common class of small bodies known as carbonaceous asteroids. Once separated from the minerals, the water can then be split by electricity (a process called electrolysis) into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket propellant – the key ingredients of rocket fuel.
Using rocket propellant produced in space will reduce the cost of doing everything else in space, initiating a virtuous cycle for the off-Earth supply chain and transportation network. Before that can happen, though, we must find the customers who can get the whole process started.
Who will buy rocket fuel made from asteroid water? One concept is to sell it to telecommunications companies for boosting satellites into orbit. A decade ago, most satellites were launched with a small upper-stage rocket attached. The rocket initially lofts the satellite into geostationary transfer orbit, a highly elliptical orbit having perigee (the low point) just a few hundred kilometres above the Earth’s surface, and apogee (the high point) about 36,000 kilometres higher. The spacecraft coasts to apogee, where the rocket fires and circularises the orbit so that the satellite can begin selling data to customers. The cost of the disposable upper-stage rocket is very high, however.
Today, most satellite owners place a lightweight electric thruster on the spacecraft instead. Such thrusters are cheaper and more efficient, but very weak. It takes six to 12 months for satellites to reach final orbit. Time is money, so this delay still costs the satellite-owners hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues.
Asteroid-mining will provide a third option. A mining company will sell water to an in-space transportation company, which will use it to refuel a space tug parked in Earth orbit. The tug will dock with the newly launched satellite in geostationary transfer orbit, and boost it to the final orbit quickly, within a day.
According to our calculations, the total cost for this service, including capital recovery, finance charges, insurance and profit for all parties, will be less than the lost revenues of the current method, so that means there is a business case. The only concern is whether there are enough early customers to get the service established.
Here is where the national space agencies like NASA can help. If they develop an in-space refuelling depot to lower their costs for exploring the Moon or Mars, and if they give out commercial contracts for some of this space water, they will lower the capital investment and risk for the new mining companies. In this way, government agencies can ensure the earlier success of private space industry. This is a legitimate role for government because taxpayers will greatly benefit.
An asteroid-mining infrastructure could help to solve a major impending resource problem. Within a decade or two, the current system of satellites and fiber optics will not be able to keep up with the demand for wireless and internet data. I know of no solution apart from building antennas in space that are too large to launch on rockets, because nothing else scales up quickly enough to meet the data needs that will grow exponentially through to the end of the century. Metal from asteroids will not be sold on Earth, where it would be too expensive. It will remain in space, transmitting precious data down into the digital market.
Similar arguments can be made that generating solar energy in space will, by sometime this century, be cheaper than generating energy on Earth through any known method. The energy might then be beamed to the ground via microwaves. Moving most of the energy sector into space will unburden the planet of the environmental impacts of energy generation, along with the entire supply chain that supports it. Even wind and solar disrupt large areas of land.
Off-planet energy generation could eliminate one-quarter of the human industrial footprint by 2100, by some estimates. This does not even take into account the exponentially growing energy footprint of computer manufacturing and operation, which is terrifying from an environmental perspective.
Note that none of these ideas involves bringing asteroid materials back for sale on Earth. The real value of space-based mining will be to create a space-based industry that benefits all of us. The primary import from space will be massless photons carrying data and energy.
The important point our government leaders should understand is that investing in space-mining is a safe bet on our future, one of the safest they can make. NASA and the other space agencies will get more science and exploration, plus greater geopolitical presence, for less cost than their current way of doing business. Saving the Earth and improving our quality of life might simply be side effects we get for free.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.