Asteroid Mining: Effectiveness and Probability

By Ronnie Ovando

Asteroid mining sounds like a notion many people want, but don’t believe will be implemented ever in the near future. After all, anything space travel related sounds like something that costs too much time, labor, and money. However, many people are ambitious and are reaching for the stars (pun intended). Companies such as Planetary Resources state that they have all the resources for this aspiring notion. The question is, are they right?

From my perspective, my biggest concern would be if the ideal conditions for mining are met. Think about it like buying groceries on a budget. The best situation would be if the store was within  walking distance as to save money on gas, and if that particular store gave the best groceries at the lowest prices. Of course, those circumstances are rare and should not be expected nor should be the determining factor. Instead, situations that mimic the ideal conditions should be the deal-breaker in whether one decides to go to that grocery store, or in this case, use asteroids for mining.

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“Which are the biggest asteroids?” Graph made from data stored here. Note: LD stances for Lunar Distance (the average Earth-Moon distance)

Assuming that the ideal situation for asteroid mining includes factors such as the size of asteroid and being a voyagable distance to the asteroid, I made two graphs to investigate the size and distance of asteroids in order to find the best candidates for mining. The graphs labeled “Size (meters) v. Next Close Approach Distance (LD)” above and below contain data from the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU for short) Minor Planet Center Website. All the asteroids graphed in the first graph are the Union’s top 20 biggest asteroids. Their sizes range from 5000-46,000 meters. However, none of them made it on to the top 20 list of most travelable asteroids, as shown in the lower graph, despite a handful of them sharing similar distances. I can only assume other elements than distance have an influence on what is considered to be “easy to travel to.”

RonnieP2F2

“Which asteroids are the easiest to travel to?” Graph made from data stored here. Note: LD stances for Lunar Distance (the average Earth-Moon distance)

So this begs the question: is asteroid mining even worth it? One company of the name Planetary Resources says yes. Their CEO, Chris Lewicki, said in an interview for Bloomberg that “The solar system is really an abundance of resources that has enough to power humanity to the end of the sun with a population many thousand times our existing planet.”  Their  website has evolved into a great resource for asteroid mining itself. I was able to find an article that was able to provide information on the concerns I had earlier. Turns out they were the same concerns the company had! Lewicki himself said that the asteroids they target are “Near-Earth.” One of the asteroids of the IAU’s most travelable, 2008 HU4, is one the company is currently interested in.

Distance and size are not the only aspects taken into account. Factors such as change in energy (Delta/△ V), spin rate, and type are used in determining which asteroids are qualified. Size tends to give the most trouble, as the article puts it “Most near-Earth asteroids are much smaller, making the ones large enough a bit harder to come by.” However, the resources gained from asteroid mining could potentially overshadow all the cons. Many asteroids have water in some of form, either as ice or in clay. Appropriate enough, since rocket fuel, you guessed it, is made out of water. Asteroids could act like space versions of the gas stations on Earth.

It’s impossible when talking about asteroids to ignore the different elements found on them and not found on Earth. Platinum is one great example. This element is not found in the earth’s crust, but rather near the core. It is thanks to volcanoes and and asteroid-earth impacts that platinum could be in human hands. Planetary Resources argues that because of the rarity of this metal, economic success could occur if it was mined. Similar to when Andrew Carnegie mass produced steel during the 1800’s, prices for platinum will drop dramatically, making it available for companies to use more and move forward with technology.

Different people informed on this topic will inevitably have different opinions. Some will prioritize short term over long term economics. Others simply care more about the resources such as water and rare metals. Others are preoccupied with the fact that the best asteroids are much farther away. There will be people who question this, and there will be people who work at Planetary Resources. Whatever side you’re on, it’s important to note that space will always be waiting, ready for when we start to travel it.

Planet Four: Terrains!

by Kristian Marinez (a 2016 Adler Astro-Journalist)

The goal of the project, Planet Four: Terrains, is to have citizen scientists (average people who probably don’t work in the field of science) review the terrain of the South Pole of the 4th planet in the Solar System, Mars. The terrain is usually formed by the melting of CO2 and ice in the polar ice caps during summer and spring. The images reviewed by the citizen scientists come from Context Camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In other words , the images come from a camera that takes pictures of Mars’ terrain from orbit. With the feedback citizen scientists give back, the team will send out the HiRISE (the highest resolution camera ever sent out into space) to new interesting areas of Mars to analyze and see how the terrain changes over time. But features of the terrain are being studied? In the Martian terrain, we can find “Spiders”/“Baby Spiders” and the “Swiss Cheese Terrain”.

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Examples of Spiders and Baby Spiders – Image Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science System , taken from the Planet Four Terrains Research Page

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Example diagram of how spiders are formed, original figure from Piqueux et al., 2003, taken from the Planet Four Terrains Research Page

Spiders (not real arachnids, just terrain that has an image like spiders) is just a name for shallow, patternized channels (passages) on the surface of Mars. These channels are several meters deep and vary in size concerning width. Spiders form when dry ice (carbon dioxide ice) forms in the South Pole. When the Spring season come around, sunlight penetrates the ground, causing the ice to turn into gas from the bottom up. The gas then gets trapped in a layer of ice. When a crack forms in the terrain, the gas erupts out of the opening and also carries loose materials out. Finally, when Summer comes around, the CO2 evaporates and the material on the ground is no longer visible. This happens again in the Autumn and slowly erodes channels in the ground, which are the spiders. The actual term for Spiders is araneiform. Baby Spiders are just the beginning features of the spiders.

The Swiss Cheese Terrain are curvy pits in the surface of thin layers of CO2 ice. Basically, Swiss Cheese Terrain pops up because of repeated cycles of condensation (gas to liquid) and sublimation (solid to gas without going through the liquid stage) of CO2. Thin layers of CO2 ice deposit in excess amounts on some areas. The ice sublimes (solid changed to vapor when heated) and a new layer appears. Areas with no sunlight accumulate CO2 while areas with sunlight lose CO2. This causes irregularities in the terrain. Eventually, pits appear in the CO2 layer. The pits absorb a large quantity of CO2 and they grow.

After a lot of scientific explanations and what not, the goal of Planet Four: Terrain is pretty simple: it’s to give back feedback on the images of the terrain of the South Pole in Mars to analyze and notice how the terrain changes over time.

To learn more, check out the Planet Four: Terrain Blog :).

Asteroid Zoo

By David Torrejon (a 2016 Adler-AstroJournalist)

As I came upon the Zooniverse website, I discovered Asteroid Zoo. This project aims to explain asteroids, which are small rocky bodies that orbit the Sun. This project provides a basic introduction to asteroids, such as the classification of asteroids, but more importantly, enables the search for new asteroids. In fact, astronomers are detecting more and more asteroids every year.

DavidP1fig1from http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news189.html

As can be seen from the graph, the year appears on the X-axis and the number of new Near-Earth asteroids detected is displayed on the Y-axis. The number of detected Near Earth Objects have skyrocketed every year since 2000. In 2000 there were roughly twenty however, in 2015, there was roughly 190 probably because of the advancement of technology over the years. You may ask yourself, why detect asteroids? What’s so important about discovering irregularly shaped rocks?  But I’m here to explain the importance of asteroids.

Astronomers have found asteroids quite intriguing and important because of all the information the asteroids reveal about the solar system. The deputy principal investigator for NASA’s DAWN mission, Carol Raymond, said “The materials in asteroids represent the building blocks of the planets. ” I agree with Carol because asteroids are the earliest remains of the formation of the Solar System. They are the basic leftovers debris from the Solar System. They could potentially reveal valuable information about the emergence of the Earth or other planets.

Besides revealing important information, asteroids could be corralled and mined to provide an abundant supply of raw materials. Asteroids have been known to have Platinum Group Metals, which are some of the rarest and most valuable elements. These elements are found in the center of the Earth and cannot naturally grow in the Earth’s crust. In other words, these elements will most likely not be found in the Earth. Asteroids should been mined for their resources to address one of the Earth’s main issues, which is resource scarcity. Not only would the mining provide the Earth with resources, but it would help reduce the exploitation of Earth resources. The demand for asteroid material can lead to a resource driven economic expansionism, which can lead to the development of new innovations.

Lastly, determining the location of asteroids is very crucial for our survival. There are approximately 10,000 Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). It is possible that one day, one of these 10,000 asteroids could enter the earth’s orbit and could potentially strike the Earth, killing nearly all of the species on Earth. Recently in Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2013, an asteroid roughly 17 meters in diameter and traveling at 42,000 mph detonated in midair. The explosions released energy equivalent to 500 kilotons of TNT. The explosions injured 1,500 people and damaged property. Some people experienced retinal and skin burns. This is why determining the location of asteroids is very important, to prevent the human race from suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs. Now there is no need to worry. The odds of an asteroids striking the Earth are slim. However, if an asteroid is headed our way, we need to be aware of the asteroids.

To sum it up, asteroids play an essential role in the survival of the human race. By continuing to use telescopes to look out for NEOs, this will help us avoid an asteroid collision with the Earth. Asteroids could potentially reveal more information about the formation of our Solar System. Plus, people could take advantage of the surplus amounts of asteroids to mine for raw and scarce metals.


Bibliography
“The Asteroid Hunters.” Popular Mechanics. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
“5 Reasons to Care About Asteroids.” Space.com. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Detecting Distant Solar Systems




by David Zegeye

 

Lynette-Cook-star-with-dust-862x666

(http://russjamieson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Lynette-Cook-star-with-dust-862×666.jpg)

Citizen science projects are projects that the public can get involved with on various topics ranging from humanities to astronomy. Zooniverse, which is an organization that offers various citizen science projects, has launched a new project called Disk Detective. In Disk Detective, users search for disks of dusty material around stars.

When looking at a star in infrared, which is a different wavelength of light than the light humans are able to see in, scientists may be able to see a disk orbiting around them. Disks are made of gas, dust, and debris that exist as a circular shape in orbit around a star and were formed at the star’s birth. There are two forms of disks that orbit around different stars: debris disks and YSO disks. The stars that debris disks orbit around are 5 million years old or older with the disks being mainly composed of rock and ice. YSO, short for Young Stellar Object, are young stars typically found in clusters and are about less than 5 million years old. Unlike debris disks, YSO disks are instead mostly made of gas similar to what makes up gas giant planets. YSO disks can lead to the emergence of a solar system while debris disks contain remnants of material that helped form its solar system.

Stars can emit light in various wavelengths, however, the disks that orbit them absorb the light and re-emit it in mainly infrared light, which makes the stars stand out because of all the infrared radiation that their disks emit.  Identifying potential stars that have these disks was one of the goals for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope, also known as WISE. However, WISE has collected too much data for scientists to analyze by themselves over the course of its mission. Due to this problem, scientists decided to open this project to the public for them to further help investigate this topic, which is why Disk Detective was created. In Disk Detective, users will be looking at images of objects in multiple types of light in order to determine whether or not the candidate satisfies the requirements to be a disk. The user selects characteristics from a list that matches up with the object that they see and their responses then get compiled together for scientists to analyze and eventually conclude whether or not the candidate fits the description they’re looking for. Scientists are asking the public to identify these stars instead of using computers because computers can’t properly determine what the object they’re looking at is since they lack the ability to make proper judgements of objects by their appearance and characteristics. Human eyes, however, are very precise when it comes to categorizing objects. This is very helpful for Disk Detective because every object that has dust looks like a blob in  images from WISE, so often looking in the optical can help you determine whether or not an object is a star or a galaxy by looking at the objects features such as cross patterns or spiral arms. These screen shots from Disk Detective help explain why the users look at objects in different types of light:

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The object on the left is a candidate star with a disk observed in longer wavelength of infrared. The object on the right is the same candidate star observed in optical light, thus showing more defined characteristics of the star.

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The object on the left is a candidate star with a disk observed in longer wavelength of infrared. The object on the right is the same candidate object but observed in optical light, thus revealing that the object is a galaxy and not a star!

The public can get involved in Disk Detective by going to diskdetective.org and searching for stars with potential solar systems. I’ll continue my adventures in Disk Detective and report back any new findings. Until then, see you!

Meteorite Crashes in World History

by Amanda Sillman

Do you think a meteorite the size of a TV could have as much energy as 13 tons of TNT? Every day a meteorite comes down and strikes the Earth without us even knowing it. A meteoroid is a  small body moving in the solar system that would become a meteor if it entered the earth’s atmosphere. A meteorite is a meteoroid that survives through the Earth’s atmosphere and makes an impact on Earth’s surface. Meteorites can either cause little to no damage or massive damage.

A meteorite the size of a TV can cause as much damage as 13 tons of TNT.   Kinetic energy is energy that a body possesses by virtue of being in motion. The equation for kinetic energy is:

equationKE

It took several different steps to figure out the mass of the meteor using the density and the volume.  With certain calculations my mentor and I have come up with a kinetic energy of 56 gigajoules for a meteorite the size of a TV, the density of rock and a velocity typical of meteorites. Once the meteorite makes an impact into the ground the kinetic energy that is within the meteorite gets converted into different types of energy. The ground expands around the meteorite creating a crater; the air heats up as a result of the explosion; sound waves are created and travel through the air.  It is surprising to hear that a TV the size of a meteorite can create so much damage.

The Sudbury Basin in Ontario, Canada is the second largest impact crater known on Earth. The Sudbury Basin is also known as the Sudbury Structure or the Sudbury Nickel Irruptive. The basin is located on the Canadian Shield in the city of Greater Sudbury, Ontario. The impact was 10-15 kilometers (6.2-9.3 miles long) in diameter. This meteorite occurred 1.849 billion years ago. The explosion resulting from impact was quite big. The debris scattered over 1,600,000 kilometers squared (620,000 square miles) and traveled over 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. The considerable erosion have occurred since the Sudbury event, an estimated 6 kilometer (3.7 miles) in the North Range, it is difficult constrain the actual size of the Sudbury crater, whether in diameter of original transit cavity, or final rim diameter. The rock fragments ejected by the impact were found as far as Minnesota.  In 1891, the Canadian Copper Company started mining copper from the Basin. Soon afterward, they discover that the crater also contained nickel. The nickel was found in the crater that crashed onto the Earth. Today the International Nickel Company operates out of the Basin and mines 10% of the world’s nickel. At that time, there were no humans that were hurt considering there were no humans back then.

 The last meteorite crash that occurred was in South Africa located at the Vredefort Dome. It is bigger than the one in Ontario, Canada which makes it the largest in the world. There are about 130 crater structure impacts still visible in history. This one is the largest clearly seen impact site in the world along with it being the oldest. The impact was 186 miles wide and it was a 6 mile wide meteorite. There were hills in the dome that are 70 kilometers long in diameter. The impact was 2.023 billion years old. The center of the dome was originally thought up by a volcanic explosion but later in the 1990’s it was revealed to be a huge bolide impact. A bolide impact meteoroid is a sand to boulder sized particle of debris in the Solar System. The crater is now in the center of 3 towns. The meteorite strike resembles a dome, which was created when the walls of the crater slumped.

 Northern Desert (Arizona) meteorite was the first impact crater to be recognized on Earth. According to scientists research they have found to believe that it faster than before.The meteorite was 160 feet long. The crater left was a mile wide and 570 feet deep. The name of the crater was meteor crater. It is also known as the Barringer crater due to the family who owns the spot where the crater is located. Scientists believe that the crater was traveling 28,600 miles per hour. The explosion was about 150 more times powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The area surrounding the crater is rich in nickel and iron.



Vredefort Crater in Africa

(Source: http://www.travel-visit-places.com/wp-content/uploads/image/Vredefort%20crater/vredefort.jpg)

 

Venus’ Crushing Atmosphere

by Alicia Alvarez

The Soviet Union has sent more than a dozen spacecraft to Venus called Venera. Many have succeeded and have passed through the Venus atmosphere but after 20 to 120 minutes,  they were crushed. While rovers are exploring the planet Mars, why do we not know much of Venus after so many attempts? Many scientists have dreamed about overcoming Venus’s harsh atmosphere in order to explore the surface of Venus.

Venus is known as Earth’s “sister planet”, but it’s atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide.This causes a greenhouse effect and the temperature on the surface of Venus is 460 degrees Celsius on average (860 degrees fahrenheit). This temperature is the same day and night, in the equator and poles. Because the temperature is so hot, this causes the probe or spacecraft to become too hot and overheat.

Above: Venus atmosphere is thicker than Earth’s, but its made out of different components. This graph shows the molecules in each planet’s atmosphere. While Venus atmosphere majority is carbon dioxide (CO2), Earth’s atmosphere majority is nitrogen (N2), but Venus also has a big amount of nitrogen (N2) in its atmosphere. While Earth is different from Venus, the graph shows that Mars shares the same atmospheric element: CO2.

(Source: http://lasp.colorado.edu/~bagenal/3720/CLASS10/EVMcompo-2.jpg)

The pressure from the atmosphere on the surface of Venus is also high. The pressure of the Venus atmosphere causes the probes to slow down making them less likely to pass through the whole atmosphere onto the surface of  Venus. There have been many spacecrafts and probes that the Soviet Union sent to Venus in the 1960’s  in order to explore the surface that either lost contact, were destroyed while entering the atmosphere, or were lost after their batteries died while going slowly through the atmosphere.

Also, the pressure of the atmosphere is so high that it crushes what goes into its atmosphere. This is how many probes and spacecrafts have failed and lost. While Earth’s atmosphere pressure is l bar at sea level, Venus atmosphere is 92 bars on the surface. In other words, Venus atmosphere is 92 times with more pressure than Earth.


Above: This graph shows the pressure of Venus atmosphere. The deeper you go into the atmosphere (meaning lower altitude), the more pressure you are exposed to.

(Source: http://nova.stanford.edu/projects/mgs/images/p3213.gif ).

 

The Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer (SAGE) mission to Venus is meant to overcome all the obstacles that previous spacecrafts had and explore the surface of Venus. This is a probe that is made in the United States by NASA, but the mission has not been fully funded.  SAGE is a proposed mission that will hopefully help people understand what Venus looks like. This probe is only meant to survive about 3 hours on Venus and land on a volcano. SAGE is shaped as a sphere in order to not be crushed by the atmosphere. From the outside, it will look like a giant ball bearing. On the inside, the core that is made out of titanium and there will be cameras, spectrometers, and other instruments that will help explore Venus. SAGE will not have wheels, like the Mars probes, because Venus surface is filled with volcanoes, and it is really soft with really hard rocks that can break tools that can be used by the probes. Because of Venus high temperature, SAGE will have special insulation made out of lithium nitrate to protect the instruments.


Despite Venus’ harsh atmosphere, most of  the probes and spacecrafts that were sent to Venus have not succeeded. The Soviet Union attempts on finding information about Venus by sending probes has helped improve future missions, like SAGE proposed mission. Maybe one day the mysterious of Venus will be revealed!

Methane on Mars

By Brianna Victor

Bio-signatures are any substance or element such as an atom, molecule, or phenomenon that provides scientific evidence of past or present life. If we were in a classroom we would show that life exists by looking at the board for handwriting, book bags, and possibly lunchboxes from the students. These would all be examples of life in the room if we had to prove there was life. People are changing the Earth’s atmosphere everyday by polluting and by breathing, because when humans are breathing inhaling oxygen, they are exhaling carbon dioxide. Animals and other living things like bacteria produce gases besides oxygen and carbon dioxide. Methane is four hydrogen atoms bound to a carbon atom, which is the main component of natural gases on Earth. One of the most natural causes of methane is cow gases (belching and farts) and and also different types of bacteria let out methane. Methane is not stable in the Earth’s atmosphere, because it is easily destroyed by UV light from the Sun. The fact that methane is easily destroyed makes it a good bio-signature because if you find methane, then it implies that it was recently produced. For an example, if I had candy sitting out in a crowded room and people were actively eating it, I would expect it to be gone rapidly. If every time I went back into the room and there was still a full bowl of candy I could predict someone was refilling it.

The figure below shows where methane is located and where the red spots are is where there is a lot of methane located, but as you notice there is also green spots that mean that there is methane, but not as much. Because, methane on Earth comes from cows and bacteria, this discovery shows that there is a possibility that Mars is still alive. Though, you should not get too excited about alien life because there are multiple things that can produce methane. The press exaggerated when they said it was a sign of  life on Mars. Astrobiologists are not sure what the origin of methane is because geological processes like oxidation of iron also release methane. Methane can also be produced by volcanoes, but volcanoes usually release other gases that were not detected.

This picture shows that where the red is there is a high amount of methane:

Just because there are rough conditions on Mars does not mean that there cannot be life, it would just be very difficult for animal life, but bacterial life could survive in tougher conditions. The reason I am saying bacterial life can survive in tougher conditions is because bacteria live in the strangest places on Earth proving that they can survive in tougher conditions. There could possibly be life on Mars in the future or current life there now, scientist are not still sure because methane can come from anywhere. We will have to wait and see if the methane on Mars came from current life on Mars (like bacteria), chemical processes, or volcanoes.

Questions:

1. Based on the graph above, how much of the planet’s atmosphere shows methane signatures?

2. How do people contribute to changing earth’s atmosphere?

3. Do you think or believe that there could be current life or future life on Mars? Why or Why not?