Monday, October 19, 2015

Back to the Future... and Back to the Moon

Okay so October 21 is "Back to the Future" Day," when movie houses all over will be holding special showings of BTTF-II, to commemorate our crossing that particular frontier -- when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrived at the 'future' of 2015 from the year 1985. Here is a rundown of ways the film was eerily on target… and another… if you set aside hover boards and flying cars and hydrated pizzas. And Mr. Fusion, alas.

Hey, everyone wear a DOUBLE TIE that day!  I haven't heard anyone else pushing that meme, so pass it on starting here!

I've long opined that our next major goal in human spaceflight should not be the Moon, which I deem to be far inferior to asteroids by any near-term measure of accessibility or potential usefulness. (This controversy has been politicized, with the Republican-Murdochian party line insisting on "return to the moon," against advice from almost the entire scientific and space development community - surprised?)  Only let me be clear, this is not entirely either-or! I am fine with private ventures taking their own risks to prove me and the other smartypants wrong!  Hence I actually applaud news that California-based Moon Express is planning to make the first ever private moon landing by 2017.

They hope to find rare earth elements that the team believes are abundant on Luna. (I doubt it, in usable concentrations, compared to what's already pre-separated in some asteroids… but good luck guys!  I'd be delighted to be proved wrong, in this case!)

Speaking of the moon and the future, here's a retro look back at the moon.... Historian Robert Godwin who is an author and editor of dozens of books on spaceflight released his findings about a Presbyterian minister named William Leitch, born in Scotland in 1814. Godwin asserts that Leitch was the first trained scientist to have correctly applied modern scientific principles to space flight in an essay which he wrote in the summer of 1861 called “A Journey Through Space”. It was published in a journal in Edinburgh that year before being included in Leitch's 1862 book “God's Glory in the Heavens" - much earlier than the Russian, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the American, Robert Goddard. (Though Leitch apparently concluded that hitching a ride on a comet would be preferable.)  I have to wonder if it was read by E.E. Hale,  whose wonderful story "The Brick Moon" was published in The Atlantic during the American Civil War. 

== Signs of the Future ==

Robotic flies on the wall: Hovering, insect-sized robo-bees weighing a tenth of a gram? And the camera corollary of Moore's Law continues.

Reconfigurable rooms... built by tiny robots?

With uterus/womb transplants in the works, the "ectogenesis" dilemmas long gestated in science fiction will pour forth into the real world.

The X-Prize methodology has been really taking off. Its advantages are huge and manifold. (1) it stimulates imaginative thinking from a wide variety of outside competitors who feel incentivized to think outside the box. (2) In most such contests, the teams each spend much more than the prize purse, in (realistic) hope of followup patents, partnerships, contracts and publicity for outside customers, even for second or third placers. (3) the prize-givers do not have to spend much till they get results dropped into their laps. (4) This creativity-stimulating methodology is inherently difficult for closed or despotic societies to emulate.

Google is close to completing its Loon helium-balloon technology and plans to scale it globally to provide reliable internet connectivity worldwide. Other efforts include high end satellite systems from my friends at ViaSat, and satellite clusters from Microsoft, all of which will empower people to bypass Internet choke points… like those now used by Russia and Iran and other freedom-clamping regimes. And NASA has successfully completed the first step towards delivering 200Mbps broadband internet from space with the CubeSat Network.

Read more at:  

(Next week I will be attending NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concept group symposium in Seattle, the last stop in an exhausting, monthlong speaking tour. As a member of NIAC's council of external advisers, I'm proud of the wonderful concepts that are seed-funded. The symposium is public by the way, if you register.)

== More cool News ==

Elon Musk envisions a future of electrically-powered supersonic passenger jetships, with vertical take-off, such as the designs for SonicStar by HyperMach Aerospace.

Scientists have chemically transformed human brain "support" cells, called astroglial cells, into functioning neurons, suggesting another tool for nerve and for brain repair. 

Fascinating insight into the brain: Researchers show how brain's wiring leads to cognitive control. Researchers are uncovering fundamental rules that govern which parts of the brain are most able to exert “cognitive control” over thoughts and actions. Confirming that the core area is the prefrontal cortex, they found surprising that "the human brain resembles a flock of birds. The flock comes to a consensus about which way to fly based on how close the birds are to one another and in what formation. Birds that fly at specific places in the flock can drive changes in the flock’s direction, being leaders in a so-called multi-agent system." In fact this is no surprise to folks like me and Marvin Minsky ("The Society of Mind") who have long held that there are many "participants" in the complexity of consciousness.  

Global Poverty Rate Likely to Fall Below 10 Percent For the First Time: According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty is likely to fall for the first time below 10 percent of the world's population in 2015. Extreme poverty has long been defined as living on or below $1.25 a day, but the World Bank's adjustment now sets the poverty line at $1.90 a day.  That's 702 million people or 9.6 percent of the world's population vs 2012's 902 million people or 12.8 percent. In 1990 1990, 1.9 billion people lived under $1.25 a day. 

Does this news enrage you? Pause and ponder how both the right and the left have a vested interest in gloom and destruction of our confidence. Sure fight complacency! Redouble our efforts! But that does not excuse the unforgivable mental illness of reflexively rejecting good news.

87% of Americans Say Candidates Should Have Basic Understanding of Science Informing Public Policy. A new poll reveals Americans across political spectrum support presidential debate on science, of the sort they are trying to develop at  

I would go much farther. All legislators (including state) should have to say who their top five go-to fact-folks are, especially scientists, i.e. in their home districts. In fact all journalists should answer the waifling evasive  "I am not a scientist.." cop-out with "Then senator please tell us who your personal science adviser is! And make HER available for questions!"

== Transparency updates ==

Only in an open society can we charge into the future… that was my message at Bard College and the Hannah Arendt Center's recent conference on Privacy. (Attended - via Skype - by Edward Snowden and by Robert Litt (in person) the government's counsel in the Snowden Case.  I'll post more on this when I get a chance.)  Meanwhile...

Who Watches the Watchers: "Secret-encrypted communications tools, such as Wickr, are being used by parliamentarians, officials, members of special inquiries and others who deal with information that is politically sensitive or official.  Increasingly "use of private messaging systems by a digital 1% – an elite that is well connected and powerful – is eroding expectations about oversight by journalists, official monitors and ordinary people."  This article then cites my worries about how a privileged “Them” will know a lot about us and increasingly “We” know less about them.  The article focuses on Australia, where a super-rightwing administration has been underfunding or pressing to eliminate watchdog groups and Freedom of Information access -- as the Murdochian-Saudi-Bushites did in America and will return to doing, if one of their puppets  gets back into the White House.  Heck, we face grinding damage to our supervising ability under liberals, and they don't even try hard! 

Maker-funding site Patreon was hacked resulting in the dump of gigabytes of code and user data. User passwords were encrypted using bcrypt which suggests they are mostly safe but some users have found their data in the trove. 

Jeez how many times must this happen before folks out there realize it is going to occur over and over and over again… forever. 

We will not solve the problems of this era with a reflex to keep trying to hide. It will not work. It cannot work. It never has.  There is a better, more assertive and powerful and proven-successful way.


sociotard said...

A long-lost chemistry lab designed by Thomas Jefferson has been revealed. Nobody used a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Nick Cage was not involved.

sociotard said...

Maker-funding site Patreon was hacked resulting in the dump of gigabytes of code and user data. User passwords were encrypted using bcrypt which suggests they are mostly safe but some users have found their data in the trove.

Jeez how many times must this happen before folks out there realize it is going to occur over and over and over again… forever.

We will not solve the problems of this era with a reflex to keep trying to hide. It will not work. It cannot work. It never has. There is a better, more assertive and powerful and proven-successful way.

Okay, I read this, and it sounds like you are referring to reciprocal transparency, but I really fail to see how that helps here. record who attempts to access the data? That failed. If we knew who got it, it wouldn't be a hack. Make the data less hidden and transparent in the first place? Then it isn't reciprocal.

Besides, this was a site about financial transactions. breaches here don't just threaten privacy, they threaten authentication. IIRC, it was one of the areas 'the transparent society' acknowledged as needing secrecy. We have to guard your authenticating data, or we won't know it is you making a purchase.

Paul451 said...

Re: Lunar mining.

The calculus for moon vs asteroids has shifted with the (probable) discovery of water ice at the poles. Best interpretation of the hydrogen data from recent probes is 2-3 metres thick layers of ice in the permanently shadowed regions. Ie, not just a bit of hydrated regolith, but actual ice. That makes extraction much easier, even easier than mining a wet c-type asteroid. (On top of that, asteroid mining is time consuming, frustratingly limited by orbital timing, and difficult to automate because of distance. Whereas the moon has constant launch windows, a fixed energy relationship with Earth, and less than 3sec light lag.)

And since comets and wet asteroids (the likely source of the water ice) aren't particularly pure, it's likely that the water ice will be mixed with other common "space volatiles". CO2, CH4, NH3, etc. If so, that makes the moon even more useful, especially with current types of rockets being developed. (Methane/LOx is the New Shiny.)

Re: "Rare Earths"

The name is misleading. Rare earth elements aren't that rare. Certainly not rare enough to pay for lunar mining. They are only expensive because of the difficulty in purifying them, not the difficulty in finding rich ores.

Hence, Moon Express is really missing the point. (That seems to happen a lot with ideas about space resources. People still go on about Helium-3 mining, such as Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, no matter how many times the idea is debunked. The only thing that's worth mining in space are resources that can be used in space, replacing resources launched from Earth. Fuel, air, water. Eventually bulk shielding. One day simple structural elements. It will be a long, long time before anything is worth "importing" to Earth from space, except science.)

Paul451 said...

Re: Hacking of Patreon.
"We will not solve the problems of this era with a reflex to keep trying to hide"

Errr, what was Patreon supposed to do instead?

Re: X-Prize methodology advantages.

IMO, the X-Prize mythology has been counter-productive to progress. Single super-prizes don't seem to stimulate innovation in the way that proponents believe.

They seem to be based on a misreading of the history of such prizes in sailing, auto-racing and aviation. While there were often single one-off prizes, they were part of an eco-system of contests, prizes, commercialisation and "anchor tenants". Ie, continuous on-going incremental prizes and opportunities. Even the famous Orteig Prize (non-stop Atlantic flight), was within reach of a freakin' air-mail plane (modified with large fuel-tanks.) It was only one small step further than aircraft routinely flew, even if it looks like a giant leap on the map.

Modern X-Prizes are like offering a ten-times larger Orteig Prize before the Wright Brothers' flight..

Look at the Ansari X-Prize. Nearly a decade of promises, only one challenge ever flew. And in the decade since the prize was won, even that one challenger (and winner) has never flown to the Kármán line again. Suborbital flight has stagnated.

I've wondered what Ansari could have achieved if that $10m was instead used to fund two decades of $1m prizes in biennial contests for the highest manned reusable flight. It allows incremental improvements. The chance for a 2nd/3rd placer last year becoming a 1st place this year. Lots of experimentation, new ideas, multiple teams feeding off each other. Chance for reputations and rivalries to develop. Commercial sponsorships, Mojave Spaceport tourism, TV rights, etc. Plus the chance of tourism/science flights in the off-season.

Paul451 said...

(I've asked a variant of this before...)

With the recent discovery of a star 1500lys away with hundreds of weird transits, some as large as 22% of the star's output, with no corresponding IR signature (which you would get from dust/rings/etc); and the corresponding media hype over the idea that a Dyson swarm sort-of/kind-of could explain it.

Suppose scientists were able to somehow confirm it is actually a bunch of artificial structures...


that's it.

No communication, no chance of communication. No threat, no saviours. No ancient(astronaut) wisdom handed down from on high. No Federation to join, no Empire to fear. We don't know what they look like, what their civilisation is like. Beyond the mere existence that they can build large artificial structures, no idea even what their technology is, how advanced they are. Hell, not even if they are technology, or some kind of non-sentient space-going lifeforms (space jellyfish.)

So. Life just goes on. Tomorrow is the same as today. Nothing changes except the new vague permanent awareness in the back of your mind that They are There.

How does society change? Does society change?

A few obvious short-term things: Media goes nuts for awhile, obviously. Politicians make grand speeches. Fundies pretend it's all a scientific/atheist hoax (or a sign of the end-times.) The rest of religion just adapts and continues (maybe church attendance is up for two weeks, then down for a year, then returns to its normal baseline.) Hysterical new-ager types go more nuts than usual for awhile. (Even the UFO conspiracy nuts would merely claim the news to the Government softening us up for the real Truth!) But ultimately, everyone just gets used to it. The next shiny thing distracts us and we move on.

But after the initial excitement is over, in the long term, does civilisation get better, get worse. Does that tiny new awareness change us? For example, do we become more interested in human expansion into space, or does everything we do suddenly look pathetic and people lose interest?

Laurent Weppe said...

* "Does that tiny new awareness change us?"

Why would it: at most we will go from "We're pretty sure tech-savvy aliens are out there, but at best it would take us Millennia to reach them" to "We know tech-savvy aliens are out there, but it will take us Millennia to reach them"

sociotard said...

Okay, now this does edge toward reciprocal transparency

Facebook Creates Alert for When the Government Is Hacking Your Profile

Tim H. said...

If we find evidence of a fabulous sci-fi dream made manifest, it does change things, it says "Not impossible.".

Jumper said...

Secure communications are easy. The fact is, the vast majority of people who use the internet have no interest in privacy if it requires them to learn something. I could write a program, instruct people how to use it, make privacy a once-a-month chore, and they wouldn't do it.
Granted, nowadays everyone's phone is set up to make it extremely difficult to do this. I tire of running the same experiments over and over to see the results, so I'm not going to try now to convince anyone. Here's one, however: concoct a very, very random string of text and see if you can text it to someone, and then look at what they received vs what you sent.

LarryHart said...

I'm surprised no one else has mentioned the implicit prediction that the Cubs win the 2015 World Series.

Granted, it's beginning to look a bit more tenuous than it did before last weekend, but just the fact that they're in contention at this point of this particular year is freaky.

Jumper said...

I like your question, Paul451. I think there's some chance a new religion would start. I also think a lot of people would be calculating how fast a probe could reach there, given some hefty budgets, and how to ensure it could send a readable signal back. And about that budget... maybe a civil war.

Anonymous said...


It only takes one sign of extraterrestrial civilization to unwind the existential dread of the Fermi Paradox. As Tim alluded to above with "not impossible", it would give our species a solid basis for Optimism. If some goddamn, heathen Space Squids can build mega-structures, just imagine what our patriotic American can-do-spirit will achieve!


locumranch said...

Poverty does what?

With the World Bank crowing about Global Poverty falling "Below 10% for First Time" (based on an updated international poverty line of USD $1.90 a day, the 2015 equivalent of USD $1.25 in 2005 dollars), it remains unclear as to whether or not this figure represents a net gain or net loss, as AEI data (1) shows global poverty at approximately 6% in 2006 (based on an USD $1 dollar a day threshold in 1987 dollars) which would suggest an net INCREASE of global poverty in 2015 of almost 4%, especially when a 2014 Brookings Institute report (2) claims that at least 5% of US families with children also live on less than USD $2.00 a day, proving (once again) that such politically-motivated financial statistics are largely meaningless.


Indeed, you don't have to be a genius to see that the world (rather than getting 'richer, better & better') is being sold an inflationary bill of goods -- one belied by the handy-dandy 'US Inflation Calculator' available at -- which shows that the USD $1 in 1987 was worth USD $1.72 in 2005 and USD $2.09 in 2015 (that's USD currency inflation of 109% over 30 years), meaning that global poverty is most probably getting much WORSE rather than any better, just as you would need to earn USD $209,458.63 now (in 2015) just to maintain financial parity with a 1987 salary of USD $100,000.

And the USD inflation rate from now to 2030? That's anyone's guess, but odds are that 3 to 5X the current global poverty threshold of USD $1.90 might be able to buy that impoverished family an entire Pepsi.


Alfred Differ said...

@Paul451: Ansari didn’t have to provide the whole $10M. They provided enough money to purchase the insurance policy the X-Prize folks purchased. The underwriter gambled no one would win the prize within the time limit. They lost and paid the prize.

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: You are missing the point. Inflation certainly is an issue. It robs the poorest who cannot hedge their worthless currency. However, the point being made is that a seemingly intractable problem IS being addressed. Look at it from a longer perspective. Some of us here were born in the 1960’s when the people of the world crossed the three billion mark, many in China were starving to death, and poverty was a crushingly HUGE percentage of the world population. Famine was likely it seemed. Eliminating poverty seemed to be the key, but how to go about it was the debate. Some of us were there and remember that we passed the four billion mark in the next decade. Very depressing.

It would seem the world figured out how to deal with a lot of these things. We still have some of the problems like inflation, but even now we’ve got some plausible solutions for them. They aren’t impossible. THAT is the point.

Tony Fisk said...

LarryHart said:
"I'm surprised no one else has mentioned the implicit prediction that the Cubs win the 2015 World Series."

It's been all over my social feeds!

@Paul451 assuming we have discovered an alien artefact from a wannabe Kardashev II civilisation (and the proposal has been put forward as an hypothesis only) A three millenia response time makes effective communication impossible.
However, *if* they detected us when 'I Love Lucy' wafts past them, we *might* expect delivery of some sort of instant communication ansible in 3-4 millenia. Scenario: it contains all they could afford to send us; a small number of single use quantum entangled message packages. We get three wishes...

While 2-way communication is inconceivable, I don't think that means the news would be a non-event. It is still feasible that we could eavesdrop on what was going on over there 1500 years ago. Another scenario, which could explain the random light variations: it is the ruins of a Dyson sphere.

PS: what's with the '451' suffix? I ask because, thirty years after my Masters thesis, Titanium's characteristic K-alpha X-ray emission energy of 4.51 KeV is branded on my brain.

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

"I'm surprised no one else has mentioned the implicit prediction that the Cubs win the 2015 World Series."

It's been all over my social feeds!

I meant here in this post.

PS: what's with the '451' suffix? I ask because, thirty years after my Masters thesis, Titanium's characteristic K-alpha X-ray emission energy of 4.51 KeV is branded on my brain.

I'm not Paul, but my guess would be something to do with "Fahrenheit 451".

Paul451 said...

Re: Facebook alert.

It only alerts you when an unknown player is trying to use your login credentials. It doesn't (and legally can't) tell you when Facebook provides your details (and/or login) to the US govt in response to a valid warrant or NSL request.

Some services have created "dead-man switches", public notices that say "We have not been forced to provide user details" which are taken down when they are so forced. Pedantically they aren't telling anyone that they have been forced to comply, just no longer saying that they haven't. But it's a standard computer nerd version of "lawyering" by writing code-exceptions; which actual lawyers can get around in seconds. Any judge granting a non-disclosure type warrant will extend it to forbid the company from taking down a "we haven't" notice. Indeed, the non-disclosure order may not even need the specific extension, any issuing judge would probably be angry ("jailin' angry") at someone showing such an obvious contempt for a court ordered action.

"I also think a lot of people would be calculating how fast a probe could reach there"

1500 light years? A really, really long time. Which is kind of my point. We are isolated from them. Even a dedicated effort by both parties to communicate by radio would be virtually impossible. About the only form of communication possible would be using the transits as a blink-code; and we can't reply at our level of technology.

[Thanks to everyone for the responses. It's this weird little bug that's been in my head for years, since I saw a classic image of a ring-galaxy with another ring-galaxy in the background, next to a red (therefore old) star cluster. I suddenly had this scenario where we have unequivocal proof of ETI (in that case a K3 civilisation), but strong indications that they are expanding (much) slower than light, and we have no possible way of discovering more information about them. How does it affect us? Just the knowledge of Them, existing, without any details. I'm interested in space, in SF, etc, so I know my judgement is not typical.]

[[Aside: I'm aware that this discovery will inevitably turn out to be something natural (comet storm from Oort cloud disturbed by passing red dwarf is the discoverers' best guess.) Just like ring-galaxies are natural (probably). It just tripped my "what-if" bug again.]]

Paul451 said...

"While 2-way communication is inconceivable, I don't think that means the news would be a non-event. It is still feasible that we could eavesdrop on what was going on over there 1500 years ago."

1500 lightyears is way (way) too far for us to listen in on them, even if they had large dedicated radio arrays pointed directly at us. Likewise "I love Lucy" would be well below background noise by the time it passes them, regardless of their telescope sizes.

If they had a dedicated mega-array beaming at us and we had kilometre-sized receiving array drifting out past 600AU behind the sun (solar gravitational lens), we could probably listen to them. But it's well past our current technological capabilities. (Actually, the experimental (an Australian) "Dual-Stage 4-Grid" ion drive would work, 200km/s from just 50% fuel/cargo ratio, 600AU in 15 years. Our biggest hold up is the issue of finding a dense power supply. Mere fission reactors aren't good enough.)

This is one of the things I wonder about. If someone advocated a gravitational-lens telescope during the initial hysteria and hype over the discovery, it would quickly fade (like the hype) because it's too far beyond technology and funding. But it's not impossibly far beyond. So would the idea be sitting there in the back-of-our-minds, always right next to the continual awareness of the existence of Them? Would it be like an itch, trying to get scratched. (If you've ever seen the monomania of some space cadets over Space Elevators every single time there's a story about a new-stronger material, you'll get what I mean.)

"Another scenario, which could explain the random light variations: it is the ruins of a Dyson sphere."

Genuinely had not considered that. Alien ruins are a fun scenario, but too-far-to-touch alien ruins would be so excruciating.

"PS: what's with the '451' suffix?"

Larry got it.

I was trying to find a Gmail address based around my name. Let's say Paul Surname. (I wanted something work-safe, so my usual "" was out.) Turned out "" was taken, as was "paul.surname", "paul.s", "psurname", etc, as was surname1 through surname83. As were memorable numbers like 100/101/1000/1001... I was getting down to some stupid and unmemorable combinations. By coincidence, around the same time, I had had similar problems with unique wiki login names, etc, where it seemed like every name was taken, including "everynameistaken"; and a couple of smaller blogs I commented on as just "Paul" suddenly had a couple of other Pauls appear, causing confusion.

So I tried adding 451, as in Fahrenheit 451. Bingo, surname451 worked on Gmail, and then I discovered that Paul451 worked on a couple of high-member sites... And since then it's been my standard nom de nym, num. It's been available everywhere I've tried it so far.

"I ask because, thirty years after my Masters thesis, Titanium's characteristic K-alpha X-ray emission energy of 4.51 KeV is branded on my brain."

I still remember 1.926643cm from a SF book I read when I was... 13? It was mentioned perhaps twice in the entire book.

Tony Fisk said...

Paul451, I'm well aware that Lucy faded into quantum noise long ago. It just makes for an amusing description

The communication delay problem raises an interesting thought.

We might be able to detect an advanced alien civilisation by virtue of their age (transmission time) and greater power output. For the same reasons, they would be far less likely to detect us at present. Even if they could detect our feeble, early broadcasts, they would need to know precisely where to look. We, on the other hand, would know where to beam our messages. In short, the younger race might well be the ones to initiate contact (putting aside the frequent discussions about the advisability of doing this).

Tacitus said...


W.P. Kinsella (he of Field of Dreams) wrote a chillingly prophetic short story called "The Last Pennant Before Armegeddon". If I may quote:

"It was on the sixth night God spoke. Tiller was certain that Al Capone was one of the lobbyists that evening. He had always thought of Capone as a White Sox fan."

"God cleared his throat before he spoke; his voice sounded as if it were emanating from an echo chamber. My dreams are like 'B' movies, or bad television, Al Tiller thought. I couldn't let anyone know about them without apologizing for their quality. When God did speak he sounded to Al Tiller a little like a senator."

"'I appreciate your interest,' God said. 'I want to assure you that I hold the Chicago Cubs in highest esteem. I have listened to your entreaties and considered the matter carefully from all angles. I am aware of how long it has been since the Cubs have won a pennant. I think you should know that when the Cubs next win the National League Championship, it will be the last pennant before Armageddon....."

With the Cubs now in an 0-3 hole I think we can breath a bit easier.

I know, you are in the Chicagoland area (but I also picked you for a White Sox fan...or an agnostic). But the universe is now on a saner, safer footing.

Bartman was clearly an agent of the Time Police.

And the Doomsday Clock clearly should be located at Wrigley Field.

Carry on.....the future is assured for a bit longer.


Anonymous said...

What, the subsonics screaming in overhead are not abusive enough to the
ear and mind that you would harp for the additional misery of some
electronic! green! reboot of the marketplace failure that is SST?
Horrible. Recall the findings of that state-sponsored torture, Operation
Bongo II, or the flighty words of a similar bird of feather, the once
head of the FAA:

"The supersonics are coming−as surely as tomorrow. You will be
flying one version or another by 1980 and be trying to remember what
the great debate was all about." − Najeeb Halaby (1970)

Yeah…about that.

Anonymous said...

For asteroid mining we have to take the first step which we haven’t yet, namely we need to know what the regolith is made of and what depth it is before knowing which mining technology we can apply to refine the minerals. That means we have to send a probe to a promising near-earth asteroid, scup up a few hundred pounds from various locations and send them back to Earth to be analyzed. Asteroids look to be covered with a layer of regolith many meters deep and consists of anything from gravel to fine dust-sized particles. If this is true then certainly the mining task would be a lot easier and profitable especially for rare earth minerals. Fortunately we do have several mining technologies that can work well in a high-vacuum low gravity environment that separate the particles based on their electrical properties, magnetic properties, and the fracture and rebound characteristics of the minerals themselves. But before all that we need to know what the regolith is made of. I wonder how soon a probe like that could be sent and what would be the cost.

I would love it if KIC 8462852 was the work of an advanced civilization but I seriously doubt it. It is probably a very rare event caught by chance by the Planet Watchers. After the scientists eliminate one theory after another they will eventually arrive to a reasonable explanation and I am very anxious to see what they come up with. Is it the result of planets colliding or of a planet ripped apart when it reached the Roche Limit? Time will tell.

Jumper said...

Well, I skimmed several articles on the "massive alien artifact" when it came out but the "1500 light years" was the part I missed! So no probes in the near future. However, a solar-system-wide telescope is certainly within our grasp. And useful for lots of other projects, too.

Anonymous said...

1,500 light years means that we are seeing what happened 1,500 years ago. A civilization who can build a thing like this would have evolved in 1,500 years maybe to the point that they can probe our own system. If this is true then maybe we should see some signs of them in our own backyard..............or maybe not. Ceres maybe??

LarryHart said...


With the Cubs now in an 0-3 hole I think we can breath a bit easier.

I know, you are in the Chicagoland area (but I also picked you for a White Sox fan...or an agnostic).

No, I've always been a Cub fan. But in the last few decades, I've become disenchanted with MLB in general and the Cubs in particular. I've only "gotten into" this season in October. My daugther roots for the Atlanta Braves (her aunt lives there) and I don't have a problem with that.

But the universe is now on a saner, safer footing.

Spoken like a conservative. :)

Bartman was clearly an agent of the Time Police.

Heh. Or maybe he's really BATman?

And the Doomsday Clock clearly should be located at Wrigley Field.

Can't argue with that.

Carry on.....the future is assured for a bit longer.

As to the prediction in "Back To The Future II" that the Cubs would win in 2015...
It's amazing that they got the year correct for the Cubs being so close, even if they don't go past tomorrow. Then again, it's a failed prediction that the World Series could have ended by October 21. They failed to extrapolate just how long MLB would drag out the postseason in this era.

SteveO said...

Deuxglass, I am also almost positively sure it will be a natural phenomenon, but not a planet or comet storm. Whatever it is is blocking a HUGE amount of the star. Not even a supermassive Jupiter would be big enough. If it is alien construction, it will have a minor effect overall for most people, I'm afraid. But yes, it would resolve part of the Drake equation angst.

As a metallurgical engineer with experience in mining, I am still waiting for someone to show me any evidence or theory on how minerals would be concentrated on an asteroid. Here on Earth, ores are only economical because of concentration. Making rocks into sand is pretty cost effective, so that is not a big contributor to price. There is little gravity, no water, and no heat to concentrate any element or mineral on an asteroid though. So while an asteroid might have a higher average amount of something than the average piece of Earth, I can't figure how it would have any way to concentrate into a rich ore like you see on Earth. And without that, it makes a lot more sense to just mine it here.

I really really really want to see asteroid mining, but I just haven't yet seen that there would ever be a reason to (until there is a large population in space, anyway).

And yes, there is nothing rare about rare earths, except that most countries are unwilling to take the environmental hit associated with mining and refining them. China is the "rare" exception.

Alfred Differ said...

@SteveO: Concentration likely would have occurred in the distant past when planets were forming. There is evidence of break-ups of larger bodies out there and some of the surface spectra show metal concentrations above what one would expect for bodies that come together through accretion. Differentiation did get started out there and then stopped... and then some were broken open.

We see this evidence in some of the shards that fall to Earth too.

Tony Fisk said...

But the universe is now on a saner, safer footing.

Spoken like a conservative. :)

"Conservatism we can believe in!"

Yes, people who seriously studying KIC 8462852 are simply setting all the possibilities up for systematic elimination. Watson knows what must remain.

SteveO said: ...Here on Earth, ores are only economical because of concentration...

Planetesimals? What is the average concentration of an Fe-Ni asteroid?

In his book 'Here on Earth' Tim Flannery describes some of the fascinating processes by which ores do get concentrated; a key point being that many are biological in nature.

One example given is that heavy metals are required as catalysts for certain metabolic reactions but, over many hundreds of millions of years, a steady rain of dead bacteria to the sea floor has leached them from the sea water and concentrated them on the sea floor (where subduction processes have subsequently shunted them into ore bodies under continents). As a result, life has been forced to become increasingly efficient at extracting and retaining them. This is why heavy metals build up so much in body tissues, and why they are so toxic. An interesting corollary to this theory is that 'rare earths' are *not* found in concentrated bodies. Does this mean they do not feature in metabolic processes? (It seems that toxicity data for rare earths is surprisingly scanty)

This is probably one of several concentration mechanisms but, getting back to space, what are the implications of finding an asteroid with a high heavy metal content or, indeed, a high rare earth content?

Laurent Weppe said...

* "There is little gravity, no water, and no heat to concentrate any element or mineral on an asteroid though"

Hey! Maybe that's how the Moon will find its use as a great mining center: take a thousand interesting asteroids, throw them all toward the same point on the Moon's surface, and then go harvest the crater.

Anonymous said...


Dr. Brin friends’ interest in asteroid mining and his mention of rare earths leads me to believe that they are looking for a way to mine essentially those minerals. I proposed mining the regolith because crushing rock into small particles although cheap and easy on Earth would be much more expensive in space. Regolith is already particalized so we can reduce or eliminate a step. The only real analysis of regolith come from the 800 lbs returned from the Moon and some sample show concentrations of Rare Earths of about 1,200 parts per million which could be rich enough to warrant mining with the proper techniques I mentioned before. However it remains to be determine if these methods can be adapted to a space environment hence the need to capture a small asteroid and experiment on it in order to determine if there actually are deposits and if it is possible to extract them and send them to Earth while making a profit. Rare Earths are probably the best resource to mine from an economic point of view. They are very pricy and mining them on Earth is the most destructive type of mining in existence due to the huge damage it does to the environment.

We know so little about the formation of asteroids and can’t really know what metals are inside and in what form. We can speculate on what we will find but we won’t know until we capture one and study it. We will be surprised at what we find when it comes to the way metals are arranged due to the unique way asteroids were formed and modified since they were formed.

I think an expedition like this should be set up as soon as possible. Maybe we should put on the back-burner the projected Venus operation and put the resources into getting a near-Earth asteroid under our belts first. The payoff in knowledge and in potential would be much more.

Rocky Persaud said...

Metals and rare earths are important for building and powering things off Earth, but for artificial biospheres needed to live there we are going to need the elements of life. CHNOPS: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

Between Mars and Titan, an interplanetary economy could supply all of it to where its needed to sustain Earth life. I can't see much use for the Moon. Nobody actually would want to live there because of the too low gravity. So if you have to build mining operations on Mars and Titan anyway, just build them there. Don't waste billions of dollars with a moon operation; vastly more expensive than building on Mars. A fuel depot in Earth orbit or Earth's Lagrange points can be more easily stocked from Mars than the Moon, since we have to build on Mars anyway if we want to live there, expand the Martian market for hydrogen and oxygen and water and methane to Earth orbit. Robotic spacecraft don't care how long their route is.

Alfred Differ said...

For the record, I wore a double tie yesterday. Got a few smiles from the IT staff. Generated confusion among the bosses. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

As I remember it, anyone hunting for Platinum group metals on Earth looks at Fe mines where the Ni concentration is high. Platinum group metals tend to be co-located, but they aren't extracted unless the market price is high enough.

I suspect rare earths are done in a similar way. Other markers show when concentration has occurred. In these areas, it might be worth assaying.

A.F. Rey said...

Another example of a police shooting caught on camera--in this case, security cameras on a trolley.

Someone is going to be convicted of murder.

SteveO said...

I sound like a Negative Nelly in the upcoming, but I do know (some of) the science...

Be careful - mineral associations that hold true for Earth are due to processes that don't (or may not) pertain in asteroids. For example, gold and silver are co-associated, but usually due to hot spring or maybe placer deposits, which are water and gravity separation.

Places like Ceres might have some forms of concentration, or maybe remnants of a formally differentiated body. But boy howdy, you can't rely on any of the usual concentration mechanisms except gravity, and even that is in short supply for most of them.

That is not to say that there won't be examples, but don't expect to sidle on up to any old asteroid and expect to go mining! Again, even an enrichment *on average* does not an ore make. We are talking many orders of magnitude of enrichment before it makes sense to mine. Even worse, concentration is not always enough. The third most abundant element on Earth is aluminum, but really only one type of aluminum-bearing ore is any good for making the metal: bauxite. And that is a product of highly water weathered rock in a tropical environment sitting on clay. None of that is present on any other body in the solar system, as far as we know.

Remember, we are talking economical production that would make sense to go mine. If it is IN SPACE, hard to find, weakly or not at all concentrated, and needs to be returned to Earth, you had better have a HUUUUGE advantage over mining here to justify all those costs. And I don't think rare earths are it. There are plenty of places here to mine them, if you are willing to destroy an environment or two. In terms of costs (obviously not including external costs) there is no way getting to the Moon, mining, and sending it back is going to be competitive. If we become desperate for a rare earth and don't want to pay China, a mine will open in Australia or Nebraska or on the sea floor near a vent before anyone will go to the Moon for it. And those lunar concentrations are WAAAY too low to mine. Earth ores run about "65% yttrium oxide, ... even-numbered heavy lanthanides at abundances of about 5% each, and odd-numbered lanthanides at abundances of about 1% each." (Wikipedia) You have the benefit of cheap solar power, but to separate them you need lots of water and lots of different complex chemicals, themselves in short supply on the Moon. Rare earths are notoriously difficult to separate from each other. Scroll to the bottom here to see just how complicated.

Now once we have a Moon colony or a space colony, the economics change again.

Alfred, the rare earths are concentrated on Earth due to water action on deeply weathered igneous rocks, very similarly to bauxite.

So go and get samples! But there is significant understanding here on how to mine and refine stuff. There are NO mining or metallurgical engineers on the Planetary Resources team, for example. That should be a very telling piece of information.

Alfred Differ said...

@SteveO: It was a mining engineer who taught me the difference between a mineral and an ore body. He was also skeptical of the folks who wanted to mine metals of any type out there and took the time to explain it. Besides the concentration problem, there is also the lack of experience with the processes that are supposed to be used out there. That means any commercial funding source is going to see an awful lot of technical risk in a project and demand a correspondingly high rate of return on their money. Add all that up and his opinion was there are some interesting mineral possibilities out there.

He was willing to flex when it came to volatiles. Obviously one would not bring them back to Earth's surface. They'd be priced according to their value at their location delivery. Metals weren't likely to be used in orbit for awhile, but volatiles would be.

I've no doubt the same assaying work would have to be done up there as down here. No one should put up project money with a huge number of unknowns involved.

Paul451 said...

Re: Dyson Swarm Vs Comet Storm. (Coming soon to Syfy... on Friday wrestling)

Another Kepler super-transit, this time even larger than the recent KIC 8462852 announcement (that sparked my question). 40% of the star is occluded by a transit. However, this time the researchers were able to pin the transit on a disintegrating Ceres-sized dwarf planet. (Not sure if it was because the new star is closer (570ly) or because the central star is a white-dwarf and therefore easier to watch.)

Which lends credence to the idea that KIC 8462852's multiple transits were caused by a similar phenomenon; with the best guess being Oort Cloud comets disturbed by a red dwarf passing half a light-year away.

Laurent Weppe said...
"Maybe that's how the Moon will find its use as a great mining center: take a thousand interesting asteroids, throw them all toward the same point on the Moon's surface, and then go harvest the crater."

The moon has already beaten you too it by a few billion years.

Lunar regolith contains a decent percentage of elemental metals from nickel-iron asteroids that have impacted over the eons. (And presumably there are larger concentrations under the actual impact points.) There are proposals to extract these regolith metals by passing regolith through a simple magnetic sorter. Then the relatively pure nickel-iron can be sintered by either microwave/magnetic heating or by solar concentrators using "sand moulds" made from the de-metalised regolith.

[You can also use the presence of the metal to sinter the raw regolith by RF heating. Experiments on regolith-simulant using an off-the-shelf communication transmitter have shown that the metal filings act as little antennae, absorbing enough microwave energy to heat-melt the surrounding material into pseudo-stone suitable for construction. For road making, or launch pads, you don't even need to dig up the regolith, just roll the transmitter slowly over the ground.]

Similarly, billions of years of impacts by comets and "wet" asteroids have hydrated the regolith. And it is believed that the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles have directly accumulated ices, possibly to several metres thickness. That's a hell of a resource. Fuel depots (from ice) at the L2 point opens up the whole solar system.

Paul451 said...

"There is little gravity, no water, and no heat to concentrate any element or mineral on an asteroid though"

You do this every time there's a mention of asteroid mining. And every time, someone tells you that asteroids do have their own concentration processes, particularly during the early solar formation period. They have gravitational sorting, movement of volatiles through the body, and periods of heating (to the point of melting metals).

I mean, you get told this every single damn time.

Yes, these processes will be different from those on Earth, of course, but they are not magically absent just because they are in space.

We will need to learn new techniques of mining, and the "export platinum group metals to Earth!" advocates are clearly getting ahead of themselves. But at the current level of space activity we couldn't import PGMs profitably from space even if they were in bricks stacked on the surface of the most convenient NEO. However, at this level of space activity, we don't need to export metals to Earth for asteroid mining to be useful, the simplest materials (water, LOx, methane, bulk shielding) are more valuable in space than gold and platinum on Earth.

And even for several decades, simple structural materials used in space are going to be more valuable than exports back to Earth. As in the example above of using impact asteroid metal extracted from lunar regolith. Formed into crude bars or beams to build antenna towers or equipment mounts, and longer term (second/third generation technology) into more precise structural components, such as chassis for vehicles, digger buckets/blades, pipes and brackets, etc. Saves importing heavy components from Earth.

Indeed, I suspect the first exports to Earth of, say PGMs, will only occur as a side market from the ISRU processing for in-space uses. Essentially a waste, product piggybacking on then-existing processing and transport systems.

Alfred Differ said...

Last I checked, that's close to how PGM's get to market even when they are mined on Earth. They are tertiary considerations for the Fe/Ni miners.

Paul451 said...

Even better, at least one PGM mine (in Canada) is a nickel-iron asteroid impact.

Paul451 said...

"Essentially a waste, product piggybacking on then-existing processing and transport systems."

Unnecessary comma is, unnecessary. (Commas and, I have an odd relationship.)

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul451: I do recall that. It was the subject that drew me back into contemplating the resource extraction problem from asteroids back in the early 90's. I was looking at the messy technique involved in refining PGM's and thinking how much nicer it might be to do that off-world. The relationship between that one mine and it's source gives us a decent data point when considering which other bodies to assay.

Unfortunately, the real problem is the time cost of money. Asteroid projects take a long time to bring anything to market, so any reasonable expectation by investors regarding their rate of return means the business case fails to close at a profit for essentially everything out there that looks like a decent Fe/Ni source. That leaves us back hunting volatiles until PGM's are needed for use out there.

Paul451 said...

Rocky Persaud,
"Don't waste billions of dollars with a moon operation; vastly more expensive than building on Mars. A fuel depot in Earth orbit or Earth's Lagrange points can be more easily stocked from Mars than the Moon"

Not sure where this idea comes from, but the numbers don't work. There are a few asteroids that can be reached for less energy than a lunar landing, but definitely not Mars.

Mars will never contribute back to development in the rest of the solar system. It is a resource sink, not source. A destination only.

The delta-v to get from the surface of Mars into trans-Earth injection is about 7km/s. Then there's the energy cost of capture into high Earth orbit or L2 (at least 1-2km/s if you can't use aerocapture.) By contrast, launch from the lunar surface to ESL1/2 is just 2.5km/s, a third the delta-v (hence 1/9th the fuel/energy) of bringing material from Mars.

But more importantly, the launch window to/from Mars only opens every 780 days (2 and a bit years.) Whereas the launch window from lunar surface to L1/L2 is open permanently due to tide-locking, and even the launch window from Earth to the moon is open three days every fortnight. (Emergency return to Earth can be any time.) Earth-moon transit time is 3-5 days, while Earth-Mars is 3 to 10 months.

Additionally, transmission times to Mars take 8-20 minutes. (Plus return lag.) That makes controlling machines from Earth extremely difficult and expensive. (See any of the rovers, months to travel 1km with a team of dozens of operators.) Whereas the lag to the moon is a consistent 1.3 seconds (each way). Experiments on Earth suggest that a 3 second lag is short enough for a single person to directly control equipment, and even semi-automated operation is made easier if you can keep 90% of your complex computer processing on Earth.

Paul451 said...


So Mars is like a deep, deep hole, with an entrance that only opens once every two years, and takes six months to climb out of, and 8-20 minutes for even a shout to reach the bottom.

The moon is a shallow hole that is available all the time, takes just a few days to reach, and you can remote control machines directly.

[Not sure why, but I suddenly feel dirty.]

Asteroids are in-between. Very shallow, but the nearer they are, the less often their launch windows; the further they are, the more regular the launch windows, but the longer and higher-energy the trip time.

Aside: I used to be an asteroid-first fan. (Still am for the long term. The technology just makes more sense for a space-faring society.) But as the evidence for lunar ice grows more certain, the role of the moon as a source of cis-lunar fuel makes it more and more valuable. It's a shame that there seems to be no push for a polar lunar lander. It would be vastly more valuable (and better use of the rare plutonium RTG) than yet another Mars rover.

More aside: That ice is the only thing, IMO, that makes the moon more valuable than asteroids. Other than that, it's a wasteland. But the combination of lunar ice and asteroid resources should open up the solar system. That's even more true if the lunar poles collected more volatiles than just water-ice. CO2, CH4, NH3, etc, would be fantastic bonuses.

Jumper said...

On that darned Hohmann transfer; it's out of style:

Also, I think we'll need to survey a lot of asteroids before we find some goodies.

Paul451 said...

Hmmm, humans have fists because men evolved to fight over women.

Published in the Journal of Clickbait Studies, researchers at Manly University, Dr Brodude and Prof Dudebro, mounted cadaver arms to a pendulum and used them to punch and slap a force-gage to find that a fist is optimised for force delivery. (Specifically, it's curling your finger-tips into your palm, then wrapping your thumb around the front to close the base of the thumb and butt of the hand under the finger-tips, which protects the fragile bones of the hand.)

Speaking of clickbait...

The "ballistic" orbit (they're all frickin' ballistic) doesn't allow launches "anytime". You're still stuck with the same 2yr synodic period, you just get a longer launch window, a couple of weeks instead of a couple of days.

However, it only works for a very specific mission type. (For example, it's not compatible with aerocapture.) There are other trajectories that work for other mission types. No-one does Hohmann transfers. It's all bielliptics and hi-low Oberth burns for chemical rockets, and chaotic orbits for ion drives.

David Brin said...

Posting very intermittently on the road. But again re the moon….

Among actual scientists and space entrepreneurs, almost no one desires the Moon. None of my scientist friends or those who want space resources. Even if it did have "ores" of valuable material other than water, it is at the bottom of a deep gravity well, which asteroids are not. But it is simply false to say there are rich ores of anything but water. Elemental fractionation and separation either happens through gravitational settling during molten eras or through hydrological processes. NEITHER has happened in the Moon's crust. But we can get asteroids of every type from an ancient protoplanet that shattered, leaving very dense and highly separated metals etc.

My graduate adviser predicted Ice at the lunar poles. There's not much but it may be useful someday. For now, though, landing and taking off from a POLE is a real bitch. Sorry. Oh one final spurious observation. GW Bush wanted to focus on return to the moon and so do his communities. Never gave a single reason why.

Jumper said...
Interesting article with future applications in space. Materials that hold up to vacuum.

Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jumper said...

Maybe this?

Re. the moon, all I want now is a survey of the lava tunnels. As we all know, inside is covered with giant perfect gemstones...

Jumper said...

Here's your drug, loco!