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Japanese Robots Land on Ryugu

If asteroids are to be the go-to resource for resupplying a needy planet Earth, the Japanese may have just ‘hopped’ to the lead of the race to corner the market. In September, the Japanese Exploration Agency (JAXA) landed the first two of several probes intended for the asteroid Ryugu. Two tiny robots, just 7 inches wide by 2.8 inches tall, made it to the surface and took many pictures as they ‘hopped’ about. The ‘hopping’ is achieved by internal rotating motors, producing a kind of jumping-bean effect. Part of JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 mission, the two robots were to be followed by two more rovers descending from the mother craft orbiting above. The main objective: to bring a sample of asteroid stuff back to Earth for thorough laboratory analysis.

Already the race to mine asteroids for resources that are very rare and expensive on Earth is heating up. In addition to state actors, several private companies have begun to build the necessary industry. Among them: Deep Space Industries; Planetary Resources; Moon Express; Kleos Space; and others. Redmond, Washington, company, Planetary Resources—advised by movie producer James Cameron (Avatar) and Google founder Larry Page—plans, by 2020, to create a virtual gas station in space by using water from asteroids. The plan is to split water into the liquid oxygen and hydrogen needed for rocket fuel, which could then be sent to orbit Earth and to refuel commercial satellites or spacecraft.

It may take awhile, but it is already possible to envision a coming space ‘gold’ rush, with consequences for the late twenty-first century much greater than those of the nineteenth century’s California gold rush.


Stephen Hawking Worried about a Coming Super Race

Stephen Hawking is gone, but his worries linger on. In a new book, Brief Answers to Big Questions—posthumously based on the articles and essays of the late British physicist—Hawking predicts the rise of a race of ‘superhumans’ who will ultimately, he fears, destroy the rest of us. As Hawking saw it, wealthy people will choose to edit their, and their children’s, DNA in an effort to improve on human characteristics, leading ultimately to a powerful and unaccountable race of super-offsprings.

But while the great scientist may have believed humans capable of improving on the basic body model that has been provided us, others see such a scenario as but the latest replay of the ancient Greek tragedy of Prometheus, where, in his rebellious quest for immortality, a titan ends up chained forever on a rock with an eagle feeding daily on his liver.

While Hawking’s fears over the intentions of a privileged elite are understandable, it is also worth remembering what happened to the Titanic. Here on Earth, at least so far, gravity is not defied for long, and hubris seldom achieves its ends.


CAPTION: Stephen Hawking experiences a few seconds of zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 in 2009.


Long Lost Letter Proves Galileo Changed His Mind

A long lost letter from Galileo Galilei, which proves the great astronomer did indeed try to soft pedal his discoveries to the Roman Inquisition, has been found.

Famous for using an early telescope to discern the true location and movement of the planets, Galileo, in 1615, got in trouble with the church, which sentenced him to house arrest for the last years of his life.

A letter written to a friend years earlier, it seems, had provided the damning evidence, that Galileo had indeed endorsed the heliocentric Copernican solar system and had argued that Biblical statements about arrangements of the Universe should not be taken literally. Worried that the letter would get him into trouble, Galileo struck out certain portions and sent it to another church official, claiming that his original letter has been altered. The letter was lost, however, and scholars ever since have fiercely debated whether or not the story was true.

Now, according to the journal Nature, a scholar at the University of Bergamo has found the original letter in the Royal Society library. And, indeed, in the letter, parts are crossed out and new words inserted. Galileo’s escape attempt may have failed, but the truth of his story and that of the solar system has been preserved.