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The Coming Industry of Asteroid Mining

An asteroid hit, some have argued, could have been the cause of the sinking of Atlantis. Such strikes have certainly left their marks upon our planet. Late in April, though, a new venture, bankrolled by the billionaire founders of Google, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, in collaboration with other wealthy partners, announced plans to turn the tables. Long viewed as one of Earth’s greatest threats, giant chunks of space debris, ironically, may some day become valuable resources that could help save Earth, and provide humanity with the virtual stepping stones to space.

The new company, called Planetary Resources, Inc., is the latest example of private enterprise stepping up to fill the gap left by the seeming retreat of NASA and the U.S. government from the expensive challenges of space exploration (See “Private Space” A.R. #93).

Asteroids, it is thought, could prove to be virtual gold mines. Certainly plenty of platinum is to be found (all platinum on Earth comes from space rocks), to say nothing of water, which could be turned into hydrogen fuel and oxygen for future interplanetary missions. Many asteroids are as much as 20% water.

The idea of robotically mining asteroids is not new, but in this era when entrepreneurs like Virgin Galactic are already carrying passengers into near space, replacing shuttle supply services for the International Space Station (SpaceX), and planning space hotels and moon missions (Bigalow), the idea seems much more viable than it once did.

James Cameron, director of the blockbuster movie Avatar, which featured a fictional interplanetary mining project, is an advisor for the project. Always at technology’s cutting edge, Cameron recently took a one-man submersible to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana trench.

At a widely publicized press conference in Seattle, the leaders of the venture, space visionary Peter Diamondis, and his partner, space entrepreneur Eric Anderson, unveiled their plans. Far from competing with NASA, though, the company hopes to be supportive of the space agency, and even, perhaps, to supply the fuel for future NASA missions. It will take years to develop the entire necessary infrastructure, but existing technology is already fully capable of the kind of operations envisioned. The first step will be the launch, within the next two years, of a small telescope satellite that will seek to identify suitable asteroids in the neighborhood. There could be around 1500, it is thought. Large-scale mining efforts are probably decades away, but the investors believe it is conceivable that such efforts could ultimately produce trillions of dollars worth of resources for Earth.

One scheme under consideration involves nudging a football-field-sized asteroid into orbit around Earth where it would be easier to exploit. Among the questions yet to be resolved, though, are those of title. Who, after all, will get to claim ownership of such a prize? Will it be the company, or a country, or the planet? Developments to follow.


Dark Matter Doubts

Dark matter is the mysterious material dreamed up by mainstream physics to account for some embarrassing gaps in its mathematical models of the universe—such as why the outer reaches of galaxies rotate more rapidly that they should, based on the gravitation of visible matter alone. The all-pervasive invisible material, though, turns out to be even more elusive than expected.

A new survey of our home galaxy the Milky Way, said to be the most accurate so far, has failed to turn up any dark matter in our part of the galaxy. A team of astronomers in Chile, after, charting the movements of hundreds of stars say the theory simply does not fit the observable facts, which means we may never be able to find the postulated material.

Dark matter, it has been theorized, is composed of heretofore undiscovered subatomic particles which, while having mass, yet do not react to light. Such material, it is thought, forms most of the stuff in the universe. Most astronomers and physicists have long accepted the notion, as fact.

New measurements are planned, but at the moment, it looks like mainstream physics could be in for a serious crisis, much like that predicted by maverick scientists, like Nassim Haramein and Halton Arp, who have long questioned many such relativity-based standard assumptions.

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