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Tuesday
Apr152014

ASTEROID MINING--POTENTIAL BONANZA OR PIPE DREAM?

At the recent Ad Astra SF convention in Toronto, Canada, I watched a panel discussion about asteroid mining, the problems and potential. I’ve posted about the subject before because it’s one of the major tropes of near-Earth space exploration predictions and stories. So is it really such a sure thing? The panel (including some PhDs, SF writers and a robotics expert) agreed that it will come down to profitability: revenue vs. cost. After all, you don’t go to the trouble of landing on speeding chunks of barren rock for the beautiful scenery.

There have been estimates that, although many asteroids will be mainly nickel-iron rocks, some will be very rich in platinum group metals, and a reasonable-sized one of those could contain far more than all of the known reserves of such ore on Earth. At first glance, that sounds promising. Of course, platinum and its relatives are costly because they’re rare—a sudden increase in the supply would be sure to cause prices to drop, cutting profits that might already be marginal. Especially when a Keck Institute of Space Studies report estimated that the cost of returning a 500 ton asteroid to low Earth orbit for processing would be in the area of $2.6 billion US. I’ve seen other projections that it would require more like $100 billion to create the infrastructure to make a mining operation, especially since a lot of new technology will have to be developed. Could such a venture possibly pay for itself, let alone make attractive profits? Companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have already declared that they’re in the game, and the people involved are no dummies.

The costliest part of any space venture will be hoisting things up out of Earth’s gravity well into space, and returning things safely to the ground. So space mining may not become cheaper than mining for the same elements here on Earth until all of this planet’s resources are exhausted. If the intention is to return the mined material back here.

But what if the market for the ore you’re mining is out there? Shipping to and from orbital space stations, asteroid facilities, and even moon colonies would be much less costly because of the lower gravity involved. There are also a lot of other materials worth mining for, if your market is a space colony or interplanetary fleet. Water and oxygen for spacecraft fuel and human consumption would be valuable commodities, too, plus many more ordinary metals and non-metals. That certainly increases the potential for space mining, except it still suggests such an industry will have to wait until we make a big push out into space for other reasons, and thereby create the beyond-Earth markets.

One other thing that could possibly tip the balance in favour of space mining is if our current interest in corporate responsibility continues to increase. In the past, mining companies rarely had to factor environmental cleanup into the cost of their operations, but there seems to be a growing taste for making companies protect and rehabilitate the environment from the ravages of their ore removal and processing. If we ever start charging companies a realistic cost for their pollution and for remedial treatment of land and water, that just might raise costs to the point that bringing back ores from near-Earth asteroids becomes a better alternative.

Bottom line? I don’t think SF writers should scratch those grizzled space miner characters out of their stories just yet.

Tuesday
Apr082014

TO REVIVE OR NOT TO REVIVE

No, this isn’t going to be about medical resuscitation in the ER. This week I came across a non profit project called “Revive and Restore”, carried out by The Long Now Foundation. Its stated mission is to “enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species.” Yup, they promote the idea of reviving extinct species of birds and animals using genetic technology. No, not dinosaurs—no matter what the movies say, there’s never been any viable dino DNA found. But there are good samples of woolly mammoth and passenger pigeon, and lots of others, and living relatives of these species that could conceivably be used as surrogate parents for the cloned offspring. Why do it? According to the Foundation, it’s to increase our planet’s biodiversity and genetic diversity, and to learn more about the processes required for “de-extinction” in order to help preserve endangered species.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen was created to preserve genetic diversity of plant life. These days, the focus of commercial agriculture on specialized and bio-engineered crops significantly increases the risk of newly-mutated blights and diseases that could wipe out entire crops on an international scale (perhaps even on purpose, from bioterrorism). The seed vault should provide at least some safety net to enable a recovery from such a disaster. A similar collection of DNA from animal and fish species would be a very good idea. The American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. National Park Service already work together to add samples of endangered species from American parks to the Museum’s existing DNA bank. We should be storing samples of each known species’ DNA, adding new ones as they’re discovered and identified.

As an SF author (and therefore an amateur futurist), here’s why I think so.

The World Wildlife Fund suggests that humans may be causing species extinction thousands of times more quickly than the natural extinction rate. And that’s just from things like overhunting, overfishing, and destruction of habitat. Now along comes climate change, with a frightening potential to force human migration because of changing climate patterns. The combination of these factors will be devastating to plant and animal species. And because every organism on our planet is linked to others in complex degrees of dependency, every loss of biodiversity is a threat to the planetary ecosystem. We can’t know how much damage is done when a given species becomes extinct, but we can no longer afford to be complacent about it, or the human race could soon find ourselves alone on a dying rock.

Along with the danger from our own race, Earth continues to be vulnerable to the same things that caused mass extinctions in the past: massive volcanic eruptions, cataclysmic asteroid or comet impacts, deadly gamma ray bursts from dying stars, or exposure to fatal levels of cosmic radiation during flips of the Earth’s magnetic field. We might be able to find ways to survive such things in the short term, but long term survival would depend on restoring at least some of our home planet’s ecosystem.

Then there’s the reason closest to my geeky heart. Although the idea of colonizing other planets and star systems has formidable obstacles stacked against it, I’d still like to believe it will happen.

And we’ll want to bring our friends along.

Tuesday
Apr012014

WHY I DON'T BELIEVE IN UFO'S (BUT WOULD LIKE TO)

I’m a radio show host, and for an April Fools gag this year we pretended that a strange object had been spotted in the sky above a nearby town. We played it as skeptics who were gradually convinced, and we fooled some people. But that pretty much describes my real state of mind. I’d kind of like to be convinced that spacecraft from another place or time have come to this Earth, but for now I’m not. Here’s why.

If we propose that authentic Unidentified Flying Objects are spacecraft from some other solar system, the obvious barrier to that is Einstein’s assurance that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Millions of science fiction fans, including countless physicists and engineers, would really love for that to be proven wrong, but so far there’s absolutely no indication that it will be. However, even if we assume that advanced species may have solved the light speed barrier or found some other means of taking shortcuts through the galaxy (like stable wormholes), it’s still a big step to conclude that they have come to Earth. Yes, there have been many thousands of sightings of (so far) unexplained phenomena, but think about that. Is it really possible that our planet could have been visited that many times without the aliens just coming right out and saying, “Here we are” for the whole world to see? Without them making legitimate contact with us as a planetary species? If they have the technology to travel the stars and they’ve been coming here for the better part of a century, maybe much longer, they won’t be stopped by language barriers, they’ll know about our systems of government (the good and the bad), and they’ll know the best ways to reach individual humans in large numbers.

But they haven’t.

Yes, I know about the Prime Directive of non-interference. And look how many times Captain Kirk has thrown that one out the window. Are you going to tell me that not a single alien spaceship captain would have given in to that temptation over decades of time and thousands of visits? Oh, but it’s not just one species that’s come here, you say—there may be forty different kinds. Even less likely, then, that all of these various species would have the complete commitment and single-mindedness to have kept their presence a secret all this time. Why would they? We’re big boys and girls now—we can understand the concepts of alien biology and advanced technology.

The idea that governments have known about these visitors but kept the information from us is even sillier. Governments are leakier than soup strainers. Secrets that political administrations have the most powerful interest in preserving—their own misdeeds—rarely last as long as the governments themselves. Top secret technology is constantly being stolen, the most secure of databases hacked. Yet there are hidden desert bases housing crashed alien spacecraft, and mysterious government agencies to deal with them? I don’t think so.

In many ways it would be nice to be proven wrong. An alien species might have solutions to our very worst problems, like cancer, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. They might have answers to the deep scientific and philosophical questions that have puzzled us for millennia. And best of all, if they can cross galactic distances, then there’s no reason we can’t too.

For now, though, I’ll keep my skeptic’s hat on. But don’t worry, my door will be open if ET ever comes by and needs to borrow a phone

Tuesday
Mar182014

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST

Another historic challenge for the scientific community has fallen by the wayside: the search for the elusive gravitational waves predicted by Einstein and crucial to the Big Bang Theory (the real one—not the TV show) has ended in success.

A team of astrophysicists announced this week that their exotic equipment based at the South Pole has detected variations in the universe’s microwave background radiation that are polarized, made that way by ripples in the fabric of space-time caused by gravitational waves produced in the great expansion that followed the Big Bang. No-one’s ever detected gravitational waves themselves since Einstein described them in his Theory of General Relativity ninety-nine years ago, but this is the strongest evidence yet of their existence. The scientists spent three years crunching the data to eliminate every other possibility for what they found. More than that, the existence of these gravitational waves gives a huge boost to what’s known as the Inflationary Universe Theory: that in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded to something approaching what we see now. So a double whammy for the South Pole observation unit, and two major milestones achieved in one stroke.

This comes not all that long after the discovery of the Higgs Boson in the summer of 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Called the “holy grail” of particle physics, the Higgs Boson (and the omnipresent Higgs Field) are what give objects mass. Their existence was predicted back in 1964 but forty-eight years passed before it could be proven (after which the originators of the idea received a Nobel Prize). Even a few years ago, some wondered if gravitational waves and the Higgs Boson would ever be found. I’m reminded that the proof of extraterrestrial planets is only a few years old, too, though now there have been hundreds discovered, and it’s generally thought that they far outnumber stars in the galaxy.

It makes me wonder: if the great scientific quests of our time are all being achieved, will we suddenly have a whole lot of physicists out of work? There must be something we can put their talents to. Wormholes and black holes are still sexy. How about the multiverse theory (so we can escape climate change to an Earth we haven’t screwed up yet)? Or with so much brainpower on hand, surely time travel isn’t an insurmountable problem? OK—maybe that one is too risky, but at the very least they’ve got to find a way to give us faster-than-light travel or we’ll never get to see any of our own galactic neighbourhood, let alone the rest of the universe.

Or maybe, just maybe, they can go to work on the true unsolvables: why buttered toast always lands face down, and where single socks go when they vanish from the clothes dryer.

Just trying to help

Wednesday
Mar052014

THE GERM THAT WOULDN'T DIE

In Michael Crichton’s terrific debut novel The Andromeda Strain a satellite crashes to Earth and triggers a horrifying disease outbreak. It had captured a deadly pathogen while in outer space—likely in a deliberate attempt to find new biological weapons—and although the outbreak is contained, the pathogen is shockingly virulent while it lasts.

The idea that there could be organisms capable of surviving the hardships of interplanetary space is not new. The concept of “panspermia” describes the spreading of organic life through space from planet to planet via various means of transportation, including comets and meteors. The idea has been around for a very long time, although in the modern era it’s most often connected to a theory by astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe which included the disturbing proposal that interplanetary organisms drift down into Earth’s atmosphere all the time, and may be responsible for periodic outbreaks of disease. Maybe at one time we would have scoffed at the idea that anything living could survive an environment of near vacuum, temperatures near absolute zero, and deadly radiation. We’re far less confident these days.

This week, in a plot point straight out of a B-movie, we learned that an organism frozen in Siberian permafrost for thirty thousand years is still infectious. Some French scientists got their hands on permafrost samples and decided to  find out if they contained any aggressive organisms by using amoebas as bait. Sure enough, when the amoebas started to die, it was discovered that they were infected with a form of giant virus (a rare form very much larger than most). Thirty millennia as a germsickle apparently hadn’t done these bugs any harm. And, in fact, the French researchers had been inspired by a Russian team who’d resurrected a plant frozen in permafrost for a similar amount of time.

Why should we care? First of all, the researchers point out that global warming is causing huge areas of permafrost to thaw, and that process is likely to increase over the coming decades. Also, there’s a lot of new drilling and mining going on in permafrost zones around the world. Who’s to say that there aren’t virulent strains of pathogens from our ancient past waiting to be awakened, to wreak havoc in a species that has no immune defense against them? (My inner horror writer coming out there.) Secondly, if so-called “extremophiles” can survive being frozen for millennia, or endure the heat, pressure, and poisonous chemicals of deep-ocean volcanic vents, it seems naïve to expect that organic life could not survive the rigors of space travel, especially sheltered from radiation within bodies like meteors and comets. And Earth passes through meteor swarms and comet tails all the time.

Other experts will reassure us that we live with billions of micro-organisms around us all the time. They’re right—on the list of things to worry about, this probably ranks really low. But it may make you pause the next time you go to catch a snowflake on your tongue.