Don’t pull up stakes for the asteroid-mining gold rush

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Is Space Becoming a Gold Mine?

A new law grants private companies ownership over the materials they extract from asteroids or the Moon. But don’t call it a gold rush just yet

For The Daily Beast:

Asteroids are remnants of the Solar System’s youth. When the planets were forming more than 4.5 billion years ago, gas and dust molecules clung together to form larger objects, which in turn collided and stuck together to make yet bigger things. At the end of the process, we were left with the big planets, moons, and a huge number of smaller bodies which contain the raw chemicals we see on Earth.

Some asteroids could contain significant amounts of rare metals such as platinum, rare-earth elements, and other materials. Even water is a valuable resource in space, since it is useful as fuel (broken into hydrogen and oxygen components) and necessary for astronauts, but very heavy and therefore expensive to carry into space.

Now, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law granting private companies ownership over materials they extract from asteroids or the Moon. The bill also extends the period of time private corporations can develop spacecraft without direct government oversight, to help speed the process of getting more rockets into space.

But don’t pull up stakes for the asteroid-mining gold rush just yet. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Ice volcanoes (and other mysteries) on Pluto!

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Does Pluto Have Ice Volcanoes?

That’s what some scientists believe. And it might have a heart, too

For The Daily Beast:

At the 47th Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Washington, DC, researchers with the New Horizons mission presented the latest findings from the July flyby of Pluto.

The main theme: We know so much more than we once did, but we are a long way from understanding exactly what makes Pluto tick.

The first surprise? Something that shouldn’t be there at all.

Maybe, researchers posited, Pluto has volcanoes of ice.

It’s one possible explanation for what was possibly the biggest surprise from July: the discovery that Pluto is still an active world. Earth has a thick atmosphere with lots of weather, a hot interior, and oceans. Pluto has none of those things.

But processes under the surface seem to keep things just warm enough inside to pump material up, in the form of volcanoes—not of magma, but of nitrogen, methane, and other volatile materials.

We see ice volcanoes on other worlds, but those are moons orbiting giant planets, where their interiors are churned up by the strong gravity and other processes. What is keeping Pluto warm enough to erupt is something we don’t yet understand. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

A tribute to a great African-American planetary scientist

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Meet Claudia Alexander, NASA Badass Who Never Got Her Due

In a field dominated by white men, Claudia Alexander was a pioneer

For The Daily Beast:

Comet 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko is a tiny world of ice and rock, just 5 kilometers long. The comet is shaped vaguely like a rubber duck, with steep cliffs and other prominent features that stand much taller in relation to the size of the world. One of remarkable features is a twin set of sharp “horns” on the head of the rubber duck, known now as C. Alexander Gate.

Claudia Alexander served as project scientist for the Rosetta mission, which is orbiting Comet 67P. Until her death in July, she helped lead the United States side of the project, coordinating the various scientific and engineering aspects of the mission. Last week, her colleagues named the C. Alexander Gate in her honor and memory, with her European Space Agency counterpart Matt Taylor making the announcement.

Alexander is the first, and so far only, African-American woman to achieve such a prestigious position on a space mission, and she did it twice: once for the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter and again for the Rosetta probe to Comet 67P. In fact, she was also the youngest ever appointed when she was picked at age 40 to be the final project scientist for the Galileo mission in 2000. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast….]

What’s the deal with Google’s quantum computer?

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Google and NASA Team Up on Quantum Computer

The next generation of computers is a few years off, but it’s pretty damn cool

For The Daily Beast:

It’s like no computer you’ve ever seen, nor are you likely to ever own. It promises speed and the ability to tackle problems ordinary computers can’t handle.

The machine is the D-Wave 2X, and the only working model outside the company is in the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab. A joint project between Google, NASA, and the Universities Space Research Association, the lab will test-drive the 2X on some sticky problems in high-powered computing.

The 2X is a type of quantum computer, which means it uses devices that exploit quantum physics to replace transistors and other components of ordinary computers. The quantum nature of the inner workings in theory should make the computer solve problems much faster than anything else available, making it useful for a wide range of applications. While there are no fully quantum computers out yet, the 2X is the closest yet—assuming it works as advertised. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Traces of salty water on Mars … and more mysteries!

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[Credit: Randall Munroe]

Water Found on Mars Could Be First Signs of Martian Life

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found traces of water that comes and goes on Mars—aka flowing water

For The Daily Beast:

We seem to discover water on Mars about once a year. Well, that’s not quite true: we’ve known Mars has water for quite a while. However, there are a lot of mysteries still to solve about how that water behaves and where it’s located. In particular, we’d like to know if water sometimes flows on the surface of the planet, which would tell us a lot about the cycles both above and below ground. And of course water is essential for life as we know it—finding flowing water, even transient flows, would make Mars seem a little more Earth-like.

The problem is that any liquid water evaporates quickly in the bone-dry Martian desert, and other processes can leave traces that mimic dried-up flows. When so little water is involved in the first place, it leaves us looking for the Martian equivalent of water spots on a long-dry drinking glass. And those spots are chemical traces—salt and other minerals once dissolved in the water—which must be identified by robotic spacecraft from orbit.

Today, scientists using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have identified some of those traces: a little bit of water comes and goes on Mars’ surface. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Pluto: what’s in a name?

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Pluto and Other Truly Epic Space Photos

For The Daily Beast:

To quote another great space adventurer: “Almost there!”

The New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, will finally reach Pluto next Tuesday, providing the first close-up view of the tiny, icy world since we discovered it in 1930. We’re already seeing features never glimpsed before. It’s a truly historic occasion, right up there with the Dawn mission to the giant asteroid Ceres, known since 1801 but never seen clearly before this year.

But what is Pluto? [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Yes, I dive again into the “is or isn’t Pluto a planet”, and declare a pox upon both parties. Well, at least I call the IAU definition “crap” and make fun of the Pluto monomaniacs who insist that of course Pluto is a planet. Either way, though: I love Pluto, and I am very much looking forward to Tuesday.

P.S. Though we now have some excellent photos of Pluto and are getting more literally daily, the featured picture for my article is the bottom of a frying pan. Go figure.

We aren’t the dinosaurs: we’re the asteroid

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The Sixth Extinction: We’re Not The Dinosaurs, We’re The Asteroid

Yes, humans are probably to blame for the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, which is wiping out species at a rate 53 times greater than normal.

For The Daily Beast:

Extinction is an inevitable consequence of evolution. Environments change, new species arrive and crowd out the old, any number of factors make a formerly successful species unsuccessful. No less an authority than Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “Natural Selection almost inevitably causes much Extinction of the less improved forms of life and induces what I have called Divergence of Character.”

Even without the 19th-century capitalization for emphasis, extinction is a big deal. Earth has experienced at least five major mass extinction events, of which the end of the dinosaurs wasn’t even the largest. (The end of the dinos that hadn’t evolved into birds, of course.) Now the planet is experiencing the sixth mass extinction, and growing evidence points to the culprit. It’s not asteroids or volcanoes or methane this time.

It’s us. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast….]