Cosmic Spas & Outer Space Mineral Mines

Are NASA and other international space agencies interested in creating colonies on the Moon and various other exotic, cosmic locales? Most certainly. However, not for the nefarious purposes of whisking away the highly educated and financial elite in order to preserve the human race from extinction. What they really want to do is exploit the natural resources of these places.

Humans are a hungry species and their appetites include all sorts of stuff from fruits and vegetables to minerals and ores. Many minerals and ores are not only rare, with few deposits in sundry places around the world, but are also finite in their supply. Once diminished, humans will have to find another source. That’s where asteroids and the Moon come into play.

Asteroids are like one of those grab bags you get as a party favor. You never know what’s inside. Although primarily chunks of ice, tar and dust, they also contain scare minerals and metals. For astronaut mining crews, outer space is full of opportunity, kind of like a mechanic entering an auto junkyard the size of Earth. Best estimates to date believe there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids, some nearly five billion years old, of assorted sizes and shapes from the size of a coffee table to hundreds of miles in diameter (Earth, in comparison, is about 8,000 miles in diameter). With such abundance, if humans can overcome the technological and economical obstacles, we may have a seemingly limitless supply of raw materials available.

The gringa wonders what will happen when that occurs? Will space become filled with flag waving asteroids? Considering even a small asteroid could be valued at many millions of dollars in potential minerals, will countries be zipping about space, hither and yon, planting flags on as many asteroids as possible in a territory game of, “Mine! I found it first!”? The gringa is hoping it will be much more civilized than that.

For mining purposes, asteroid’s are classified according to three groups based on light reflection (spectral) analysis. Since mankind cannot yet land on an asteroid and physically take a geological sample or do so with a robotic satellite, scientists evaluate how light reflects off the surface of an asteroid to determine its primary mineral component.

C-type asteroids are dark and carbon based. They are comprised of clay based minerals that have lots of water trapped within the clay. The gringa thinks these could, perhaps become cosmic spas if we could find a way to generate some kind of thermal reaction within the asteroid. Think of it, “Come visit asteroid XP-247 for its relaxing steam baths and mineralized clay body and facial wraps. Just don’t forget your oxygen mask.”

But what about the carbon and other stuff in the clay? Is that any good for anything? Yep. It makes a garden grow lush, thick and plentiful. C-type asteroids rich in carbon, phosphorous and other elements in the fertilizer spectrum could be very valuable as future garden spots. The gringa can now see the cosmic version of the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” where visitors can also get a soak in the hot springs and a beautifying and detoxifying mineral rich clay body wrap.

I mean, really, we have plenty of clay and carbon and water here on Earth but surely there will be an eager entrepreneur who will see the same potential. Or do we really have plenty of clay, minerals and water on Earth?

The water reserves could very well come in handy. The gringa can see it now – a gravity beam lassos a water rich C-type asteroid and hauls it near Earth’s atmosphere. It then uses transporter technology that has finally been perfected to zap it through the atmosphere, avoiding a friction filled entry that would evaporate up all that precious water. Then, as it approaches fatefully close to a desert region, just before impact a precision laser beam goes, “ZIP, ZAP, ZOOM!” and a lovely shower of water rains down upon the desert with all the pulverized clay and carbon providing rich fertilizer. The desert is soon a fertile oasis. Hey, it could happen. Stranger things already have.

But NASA thinks the real value of water rich asteroids is in using the resource in outer space. By finding a way to mine the water in flight, crews could save billions of dollars by not having to pack this life-support necessity. Interestingly enough, the very thing that humans need to survive, consisting of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen, are the very elements of rocket fuel. (Wow, humans are 60% rocket fuel, or, water, depending on your perspective!). So, astronauts dock their spaceship at a galactic version of Exxon to fill up the tank and top off the water reserves. And while the service station is checking the engine’s oil level and cabin’s air pressure, the crew is freshening up at the nearby spa. Interesting.

So, C-type asteroids can either be Desert-to-Eden conversion sources, hot spring spas, water wells, or rocket fuel depots. Or all three at the same time.Take your pick.

S-type asteroids shine a little brighter than dark, carbon based C-types. That’s because they are rich in reflective metals like cobalt, iron and nickel. If a mining crew is really lucky they could find one with deposits of rhodium, platinum or gold. Scientists estimate that an asteroid about the size of an average bedroom could be packed with well over one million pounds of metals, a tiny fraction being the exceedingly valuable rare ones. Even if mining crews could extract just one hundred pounds of platinum, at about $1000 an ounce, a $100,000 load of platinum would just be the gravy on top of the wealth accumulated from the remaining predominant minerals.

But it may be the M-class asteroids that wars end up being fought over. The wars for oil that we have raging now could very well become wars for M-class asteroids in the future. These asteroids are expected to contain at least ten times the mineral content of S-types.

To make space mining a reality, the mission has to be profitable. With current missions costing in the hundreds of millions, some even billions, an asteroid would have to be massively rich in raw materials. The other option is to develop technologies that are more economical.

Before any of that even matters, current asteroid knowledge needs to be vastly broadened and fine-tuned. We need cosmic cartographers to accurately map the hundreds of thousands of asteroids in outer space. The world needs space geologists that have the technology and knowledge to analyze what minerals each asteroid actually contains. Young students now, who have an interest in a cosmic career, could really have a geology or cartography degree pay off by landing them their dream job.

NASA’s first effort to test their scientific mettle for determining present mineral resources within an asteroid lie with their OSIRIS-REx mission. The goal of “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer” is to return with a geological sample from asteroid Bennu. It is set to launch in September and arrive at the asteroid almost two years later. If all goes according to plan, Earthlings can expect an authentic piece of Bennu to arrive on planet Earth around 2020. (Of course, the gringa is reminded of her favorite piece of motherly advice given regularly to her children in efforts to cultivate a more relaxed approach to life, “The plan is that nothing goes according to plan.”)

In addition to geological studies of Bennu’s raw materials, asteroid re-direction technologies will also be studied. The spacecraft is scheduled to perform an interesting experiment. It is going to give Bennu a gentle, solar nudge. Scientists want to know if sunlight can be used to affect the path of travel of asteroids. I guess the reasoning is that asteroids are too valuable to simply blast into oblivion if Earth happens to be in the way. They would rather nudge them aside then attempt to exploit the wealth they contain.

The most important goals of the mission, however, are to further the development of space mining technologies. They plan to scrape together a two ounce and 4.4 pound geological sample. The spacecraft will then use its state-of-the-art instruments to map the surface of Bennu and analyze its composition. These are the on-board technologies and their purposes:

  • OVIRS (OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer) – analyzes visible and near-infrared light to detect minerals, compounds and chemicals within the asteroid.
  • OTES (OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer) – analyzes infrared light to detect surface minerals of Bennu, determine surface temperature and map the location of water-rich clay mineral deposits.
  • REx (Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer) – analyzes X-ray aura of Bennu’s surface in sunlight to calculate amounts and locations of elements like: iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur.

To find out if sunlight can be used as an asteroid diversion technique OVIRS and OTES will combine their abilities to study what is known as the “Yarkovsky effect”. When an asteroid absorbs sunlight much of the heat radiates outward and provides a propelling effect. Observations will be made to see if a “man-made” solar heat saturation could result in changing an asteroid’s trajectory.

Most of what will be recorded by the different spectrometers will only reflect what is on Bennu’s surface and within a shallow depth (about half a millimeter). They are not capable of reaching deep within the asteroid’s core. To get a deeper look the spacecraft has a tool that blows nitrogen gas onto the surface that will force minerals up from a depth of about two inches. Even so, it’s pretty obvious that much about Bennu will remain unknown even if the mission is successful in achieving all of its goals.

But, a successful mission will at least tell the world one thing: can mining asteroid’s work? The gringa believes if great wealth is at stake there will be movers and shakers in this world who will make it work one way or another while pocketing a healthy profit in the process.

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Incan Stars

The caveman has Incan blood, a Peruvian transplant to the United States. It is then only natural that the gringa is curious about Peruvian contributions to space related science and technology. After all, considering some of the interesting theories surrounding Nazca, the Incans may have been involved in space travel long before the rest of the world was enjoying  gas lighting.

Peru has an active science industry that has developed and successfully launched nano-satellites. They were developed by the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru, Universidad Alas Peruanas and Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria. Aside from the academic community, the Peruvian government, in collaboration with the government of France, will be launching a satellite this year of its own production. Individual professional groups are also participating in desert experiments related to the future exploration of Mars.

The majority of space related technology is developed by Peru’s universities with the cooperation of the Peruvian Space Agency, The National Commission for Aerospace Research and Development (CONIDA).  Launches of satellites have been successful in cooperation with NASA as well as ROCOSMOS. CONIDA recently invested over $200 million dollars in a French produced satellite, “Astrosat-300”, more commonly called Airbus. This is the most advanced satellite in Latin America. Peruvian students who were trained in France manage the operations and image capturing.

Peru desires to increase awareness of space among its population. It enthusiastically supports programs that involve active participation of Peruvian youth. It hopes its nation’s international involvement in developing space capabilities will grow. CONIDA’s official decree states it’s intent is to “[P]romote and develop peaceful, research and work aimed at the country’s progress in space”.

One way CONIDA works toward its mission is to develop graduate programs for Peru’s universities as well as create “School Workshop on Space Activities” programs that are designed to motivate interest among Peru’s youth in their final two years of high school. These courses introduce subjects such as data collection from satellites, satellite observation of earth, digital processing of satellite images and how to use supporting software. Specialized courses about geology, agriculture, forestry and mineral exploration are also offered.

CONIDA’s Technical Department of Space Technology Development is actively engaged in the research and development of rockets and probes. They are on the fast track to develop payload delivery systems and become a vital actor in the vigorous international space travel community. “Punta Lobos”, a CONIDA science base south of Lima, houses much of what this department develops. It has been visited by delegates of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) regarding future collaborative projects.

Peru has many interesting and critical areas where satellites are beneficial for the country. They have a landslide monitoring system, flood hazard monitors, tectonic movement assessment, measurements of volcanic flows, as well as seasonal precipitation monitoring of rainfall.

Peru considers space observation for its nation as critical for national security as well as to address many geological issues for the benefit of all of Peru’s people. I anticipate that they will serve the memory of their ancestors well. I believe that my caveman will proudly see the day when the land of his birth boasts about their own astronauts aboard the ISS, arriving there in their own spacecraft. The gringa just wonders if it will be of gold and shaped like a sleeping llama?


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The Breath of the Earth

The cover photo for this post depicts a NASA supercomputer generated model that simulates what carbon dioxide looks like in Earth’s atmosphere if climate change creates a situation where the land and ocean are no longer capable of absorbing fifty percent of the CO2 emissions that are currently produced. Things are going to start getting hot really fast.

The aim of the UN climate summit in Paris is to set future limits on human-produced carbon emissions. The research of NASA will play a critical role in briefing all nations who attend. The gringa is willing to put her trust in NASA. In my opinion it is an agency that is a-political and non-nationalistic. It has one goal: scientific truth. It does not care about a scientist’s nationality, religion or political persuasion. NASA only cares about discovering the truth and using it for the benefit of all mankind.

Whereas there are many political motivations to embrace or reject the science of climate change, the gringa will put her trust in NASA. Whereas there are many financial gain motivations that cause people to embrace or reject suggested technologies to help curb climate change, the gringa will put her trust in what NASA advises. So, what is it that they have to say?

First, NASA will present how the Earth is reacting to the rise of gases in the atmosphere that trap heat. These are the gases causing climate change. NASA’s OCO-2 mission (Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2) is a satellite designed for the purpose of measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Presently, as mankind burns fossil fuels around the world, the land and oceans absorb about half of the carbon dioxide emissions such action generates. But remember, the earth itself produces its own natural levels of CO2. Mankind is heaping its own contribution atop that. A full year of data collected by OCO-2 has been analyzed by NASA experts. The key question is whether or not the oceans, forests and ecosystems can sustain the current fifty percent absorption level of CO2.

Mankind is contributing to an atmospheric level of carbon dioxide that has reached a concentration point (400 parts per million) that is higher than it has ever been in over 400,000 years. This level continues to rise about 2 parts per million per year. In the years since the industrial revolution, the earth has experienced a 250% increase of carbon based emissions. It only took mankind about two hundred years to do that.

So, if nothing changes, it is a certainty that carbon emissions will increase. As the ecosystems continue their work as the lungs of the earth, will they be able to sustain their current efficiency? As warming of the earth continues, these ecosystems are affected and changed. Will these changes result in lowering the efficiency of the earth to breathe or increase its efficiency, causing the earth to gasp, or will it simply evolve to compensate and its ability to filter out these toxins from the atmosphere remain the same? Those are the only logical conclusions of our current environmental predicament. It has to be one of those three.

The deputy project scientist of the OCO-2 mission, Annmarie Eldering of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has stated that “… carbon dioxide is the largest human-produced driver of our changing climate…” That is actually good news. If dangerous levels of carbon emissions are not a natural condition but, rather, an artificially created condition by mankind, mankind can then make changes and lower these dangerous carbon emission levels. If we will only do it.

Life as we know it definitely has to change. Change is always uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. The largest contributors of carbon emissions are populations that are enjoying the benefits of the technologies that are creating the problems. Can spoiled, grown up children really be expected to give up some of their toys or, at the least, limit the amount of time they play with them?

Mankind not only has to consider its physical contribution of pollutants that end up directly in the atmosphere, but also the things that we do that harms the lungs of the earth. Can mankind really afford to upset the balance of the world’s oceans and ancient forests? If we don’t change our ways it’s essentially no different than a human continuing to smoke two packs a day even though their doctor has told them they have lung cancer.

As conditions created by mankind causes atmospheric temperatures to rise, the oceans warm. Phytoplankton is the first link in the ocean’s ecosystem chain. And now that link is showing evidence of change in reaction to warmer oceanic temperatures. Mike Behrenfeld, the principal investigator for NASA’s mission of studying the largest natural phytoplankton bloom, said: “Phytoplankton are not only influenced by climate, but they also influence climate.” Everything on earth is interconnected, co-dependent, if the phytoplankton goes, we all go.

So, as the climate warms and changes the ecosystem, what about carbon emissions? Will the changes result in a rise or fall in atmospheric levels? Will the delicate balance remain the same? According to NASA’s decade long investigation “Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment” scientists have determined that as warmer temperatures result in Arctic permafrost thaw and increase forest fires, atmospheric carbon levels will increase. The chain reaction will be that the natural features of earth that act as the lungs that breathe for our world, will slowly deteriorate and be destroyed. The breath of the earth will slowly disappear as lung capacity diminishes.

In fact, NASA researchers have established a definitive link between forest wildfires in the Amazon with powerful hurricanes in the North Atlantic. One natural disaster feeds another. Warm ocean water is the fuel needed for devastating hurricanes. Warmer ocean temperatures are created when the lungs of the world, ancient forests, are decimated. So, deforestation raises carbon levels which warms the ocean which feeds a massive hurricane which reduces atmospheric moisture which creates dry conditions which contributes to decimating forest fires which leads to…. Are you following the gringa’s logic here?

University of California Earth System Scientist James Randerson concluded, “Keeping fire out of the Amazon basin is critical from a carbon cycle perspective.” And yet the forests burn. The most irresponsible deforesters are big business, often the mining industry or petroleum companies. The indigenous people understand their inter-dependence on the forest. They tend to respect what feeds and houses them. Big business, however, is only there temporarily to exploit the natural resources. Hence, the irresponsibility.

So, the predicted increase of a two parts per million annual increase of carbon dioxide could end up being much, much more. The earth could see a chain reaction event, a snowball effect, a runaway train rise of greenhouse gases that gets way beyond mankind’s ability to affect any manner of control or reversal of effects. That is the tipping point, the point of no return. That does not mean Armageddon and the destruction of all mankind. It does mean life as we know it will be over.

A runaway train event of global climate change would mean areas that once were agricultural breadbaskets could become deserts. Areas that are richly inhabited coastal areas could become reefs. Areas that were ancient forested Amazonian jungle could become barren and unable to sustain the indigenous populations that lived off the land.

A runaway train event of global climate change will mean mass migrations of humanity to areas that are capable of providing crops and freshwater. Cartography will become big business as coastlines change and borders move. In fact, borders could very well become a thing of the past as a global population undergoes a migrational shift such as has never been seen before.

NASA’s plans for the future:

  • A 2016 atmospheric carbon emission study over the skies of the United States
  • Coral Airborne Laboratory mission in 2016 to study the world’s coral reefs and changing pH levels of the oceans as they absorb increasing levels of carbon emissions
  • Pre-Aerosol, Clouds and Ocean Ecosystem satellite deployment to measure phytoplankton from orbit
  • Integration into the International Space Station of the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation and ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment which will observe plants and forests

NASA’s contribution to solving our world’s environmental issues is critical. However, just as you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, NASA can educate the world on the facts and that’s it. Mankind must make the determination to act upon those facts. And the gringa thinks that sooner is better than later.

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