Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Out of This World Real Estate
Unbeknownst to the majority of Americans a NASA spacecraft named Dawn is even now slowly approaching the dwarf planet Ceres preparing to enter orbit around that mysterious body floating in the void between Mars and Jupiter. This would normally only be important to planetary scientists and civilian space geeks like me since most bodies in the asteroid belt are about as exciting as the average Idaho potato, curiously something they strongly resemble.
Not Ceres, it is the largest body in the asteroid belt, roughly the size of Texas, with a significant portion of its mass consisting of water ice. There are also strong hints that it may harbor a subsurface ocean like the Jovian moon, Europa is thought to possess. For several decades in the ninetieth century, it was actually classified as a planet before some grumpy scientists got together and busted it down to glorified space junk.
Up until a couple of days ago the boys and girls at NASA seemed to be preparing for the usual science nerdfest as the Dawn spacecraft closed in on Ceres, then something fairly weird happened. Two bright spots appeared on the surface centered inside an impact crater. Now, “bright spots” are a relative term since in actuality Ceres is as black as a lump of coal but still the appearance of these two highly reflective areas has sent everyone involved with the project into a tizzy.
More than likely what Dawn spotted is the eruption of some sort of ice volcano, absolutely scientifically cool since that would mean that there is a subsurface ocean of liquid water. That alone would make the astrobiology crowd extremely happy since the general consensus is that where there is liquid water, some form of life could exist. Given Ceres location in the solar system it would be far easier to send another probe to it than try and land on Europa and then somehow penetrate several miles of ice to reach its ocean. The bad news for any possible lifeforms native to Ceres is that circumstances will eventually make it a valuable piece of real estate.
No, I didn't suddenly have a nasty, unplanned acid flashback that caused my brain to phase out from reality. See the asteroid belt has millions of rocks of various sizes floating around waiting for someone to come claim them. Why would anyone want one of these leftover pieces from the formation of the solar system? Because a good number of them are made up of iron, nickel, and other rare and extremely precious metals. John S Lewis,author of Mining the Sky, has done the numbers and says that an asteroid one-kilometer in diameter would have a mass of about two billion tons and consist in part of about 30 million tons of nickel,1.5 million tons of metal cobalt, and 7500 tons of platinum. The platinum alone would be worth about 105 billion dollars. All told the mineral wealth in the asteroid belt could amount up to 100 billion dollars for each person on Earth.
Yes, going into space to claim and then begin processing asteroids for their metals has been problematic for several reasons but just two have been the real show stoppers. The first being that while precious metals are becoming rarer on Earth we haven't quite exhausted every source here. Although, the demand for these metals is growing exponentially with no end in sight. The second reason has to do with a dependable source of water and that is where Ceres comes into play. The water on Ceres could be separated to provide hydrogen and oxygen for fuel for spacecraft for both exploration and the return trip home to Earth. The water on Ceres would also be used in life support systems for any possible base built on the surface and for manned spacecraft.
None of this will happen overnight, currently purposed asteroid mining plans have everything done by robot probes but these are all small scale ventures. It is not hard to foresee a scenario where production is quickly ramped up with humans having to be on-site to oversee operations.
Some have mixed feeling about humans spreading out into the solar system. They have compared us to locust or viruses and you can't really argue with their point. Since the advent of civilization we have just about ruined the planet with our numbers, wars, and pollution. Others like me see the possibility of asteroid mining and other space-borne industrial operations as away to lessen human impact on a gravely injured planet. Whatever the case, unless we blow ourselves up sheer pressure from resource depletion will eventually push someone into space to take advantage of what is just floating around in the void.