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Will asteroid mining be an outer-space gold rush?
Break out your prospecting gear and space suit.
- There are enough resources in asteroids that some are valued in the quadrillions.
- Mining these asteroids will soon be technically feasible, resulting in what some consider to be a space-age gold rush.
- It's unclear what impact this sudden influx of wealth from outer space will have on our lives, but its certain to be profound.
In September, a Japanese spacecraft called Hayabusa 2 deployed and landed two rovers on a small asteroid named Ryugu, which is named after an underwater palace in a Japanese folk tale. In the story, a fisherman rescues a turtle, who, in return, allows the fisherman to ride on his back to the underwater palace. There, he retrieves a small, jeweled box as a reward, which he brings back to his village.
Like the fisherman in the folk story, Hayabusa 2 will retrieve something from this asteroid: samples of the asteroid itself, which is hoped to contain metals like nickel, cobalt, and iron, as well as a variety of other elements. If the survey confirms that the asteroid is composed of what astronomers predict, then the true treasure of Ryugu might be a bit more than a jeweled box. Its mineral wealth might be $82.76 billion.
There is a lot of money floating around in space. Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously declared that the first trillionaire would be an asteroid miner (although Jeff Bezos is gunning for that position at the moment). Just to give a sense of the potential value out there, the value of Earth's annual extracted metals and minerals is about $660 billion. Ryugu represents a large chunk of that, right? Well, there are far more valuable asteroids out there, too. In the asteroid belt, there is an asteroid named 16 Psyche that is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. Let me write that number out: $10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That's more than the value of everything produced on Earth in a year. Hell, according to one calculation, that's 2,000 times more valuable than the Earth itself.
Like I said, there's a lot of money floating around in space.
Currently, we don't have the technology to access 16 Psyche and other insanely valuable asteroids like it. That's why we're sending small spacecraft to relatively small asteroids like Ryugu to get hard evidence about whether its worth the effort. It seems like the private sector has already made up its mind, however.
The image, taken by one of the Hayabusa 2 probes, shows the surface of Ryugu in the bottom right and reflected sunlight in the top right.
Image credit: JAXA
A new frontier
Asteroid mining has been likened to a space-age gold rush, only there's a few crucial differences. First, gold is just one of the many valuable minerals we can expect to find. While gold is an important and valuable resource, what we really need are the many other minerals we can find in space. Most of the valuable minerals in the space dust that formed the Earth have been sucked into its core, locked away forever (unless we want to destroy the planet). What we mine today comes from the finite deposits of comets and meteorites that struck the planet's surface over its history. Those materials will eventually run out, and, even if we get another "delivery" from outer space, it might render the whole economic endeavor moot. We need precious metals to build smartphones, but we also need living human beings to buy smartphones.
Second, regular people aren't going to be able to pan for precious metals on the surface of an asteroid. There is a handful of corporations dedicated to asteroid mining operations, notably Planetary Resources. To date, the company has launched a couple of satellites that will survey likely candidates for mining from Earth's orbit. Ultimately, however, their vision of asteroid mining will consist of sending out space probes, and developing fully automated mining and processing facilities on or near their target asteroid. They also plan to construct a fuel depot in space, where water extracted from asteroids can be split into hydrogen and liquid oxygen for jet fuel.
An artist's rendering of the ARKYD-6 satellite, launched by Planetary Resources. The satellite is specifically tuned to search for water on near-Earth asteroids.
Image credit: Planetary Resources
How will this affect Earth?
As stated earlier, today most of the mineral wealth on Earth comes from a finite supply delivered by comets and meteorites. Part of what makes these minerals valuable is the very fact that they are finite. What's going to happen when a $10,000 quadrillion asteroid is mined for its resources?
Well, the short answer is we don't really know. Once this science-fiction story becomes fact, it's going to fundamentally transform our economies in ways we can't really predict.
There is some concern that the vast amount of mineral wealth available in space will cause commodity prices to drop precipitously, tanking the economy. This likely won't be an issue. Only a handful of companies will have a foothold in space, and because of their oligopoly, they won't flood the market with, say, platinum. That would drive the value of platinum down so low that they couldn't make any money. As an example of how this will likely play out, we can look at the diamond market. Diamonds are actually quite abundant on Earth, but the De Beers organization has such a monopoly on the market that they only release just enough diamonds to satisfy demand. Since the "supply" was artificially made to always meet demand, De Beers could ensure their continued profits. (Note that the De Beers monopoly has since been broken up).
So, the economy won't collapse. But this also means that inequality on Earth will become more extreme. Right now, a handful of billionaires are betting on asteroid mining, and, if it pays off, they're the ones who will reap the benefit. The rags-to-riches conditions of the gold rush aren't going to be replicated out in space: there will be no Space Dream to match the California Dream.
On the other hand, mining operations will likely take place in space and correspondingly grow and develop in space. As more mineral resources are found in space and less on Earth, mining operations here won't be as appealing, which is a profoundly good thing. Mining is incredibly damaging to the environment, and in developing countries, mines are often worked by child labor. On a theoretical asteroid mining operation, most of the work would likely be automated, and any pollutants would be shot off into outer space.
The most optimistic perspective on asteroid mining is that it will propel us towards a post-scarcity society, one where the incredible abundance of water and minerals and asteroids will enable virtually limitless development. Gathering water from asteroids, in particular, would represent a tremendous boon. Unfortunately, selling water to thirsty humans isn't likely what's going to happen; instead, it'll be used to make rocket fuel for further asteroid mining ventures.
As with any dramatic economic change, the real impact is difficult to see right now. Some argue that due to the expense of getting into space, setting up mining facilities, and hauling material back to Earth, asteroid mining will never be profitable. But if it is, it will change human civilization forever.
- Asteroid mining will happen sooner than you think ›
- Get Ready for the Asteroid Gold Rush - Big Think ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
A study by UK archaeologists finds that longbows caused horrific injuries similar to modern gunshot wounds.
- UK archaeologists discover medieval longbows caused injuries similar to modern gunshot wounds.
- The damage was caused by the arrows spinning clockwise.
- No longbows from medieval times survived until our times.
Battle of Agincourt.
The angle of entry into a cranium found during the excavation at a medieval Dominican friary in Exeter, England.
Credit: Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter
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Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.
- The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
- Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
- It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Comparison of fracture cases by diet group
Credit: Tong et al.<p>The results showed that vegans were especially vulnerable to hip fractures, suffering 2.3 times more cases than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and pescatarians were also more likely to suffer hip fractures, though to a lesser extent.</p><p>One explanation may be that non-meat eaters consume less calcium and protein. Calcium helps the body build strong bones, particularly before age 30, after which the body begins to lose bone mineral density (though consuming enough calcium through diet or supplement can <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/" target="_blank">help offset losses</a>). Lower bone mineral density means higher risk of fracture.</p><p>Protein seems to help the body absorb calcium, <a href="https://www.bonejoint.net/blog/did-you-know-that-certain-foods-block-calcium-absorption/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20nutritionists%20have%20warned%20that,may%20increase%20intestinal%20calcium%20absorption." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">when consumed in normal levels</a>. The recent study, along with past research, shows that people who don't eat meat tend to have lower levels of both protein and calcium. When the researchers accounted for non-meat eaters who supplemented their diets with calcium and protein, fracture risk decreased, but still remained significant.</p>
Credit: Pixabay<p>Another explanation is body mass index (BMI). Non-meat eaters tend to have a lower BMI, which is associated with higher fracture risk, particularly hip fractures. In the new study, vegans with a low BMI were especially likely to suffer hip fractures. That might be because having more body mass provides a cushioning effect when people fall.</p><p>Still, the study has some limitations. For one, White European women were overrepresented in the sample. The researchers also didn't collect precise data on the type of calcium or protein supplementation, diet quality or causes of fractures.</p><p>Another complicating factor: Producers of vegan products, such as plant-based milk, are increasingly fortifying foods with nutrients like calcium and protein, so modern vegans are potentially at lower risk of deficiency.</p><p>The researchers wrote that their findings "suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research."</p>