Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Do I tell you what to put in your tea, Mr. BBC man?

Sub-headline from a column at the Beeb.com:
Barack Obama should rethink America’s goals in space and shoot for something a little more inspirational than a lump of rock, argues our space columnist. 
Let me translate that for you:
Barack Obama should rethink America’s goals in space and shoot for something a little more inspirational than a lump of rock, argues some guy without a spanner's worth of skin in the game.
Hell, you can tell NASA to go do whatever, can't you? I mean, it's not like they're jacking up your bank account to pay for it, after all. You're pretty good at spending my money there, old chap.

Of all the things going in space exploration, asteroids are one of the few that have immediate and obvious payoffs more useful than leaving abandoned cars and golf balls:  It'd be nice to learn how to nudge the things away from potential cosmic fender-benders, and also they might be made of cool materials we need more of down here on Earth. If people are willing to risk electrocution for a few yards of copper wire, imagine what they'd do for a giant flying rock of the stuff.


Brick said...

Should we just leave space mineral hunting to companies like SpaceX? (I'm assuming that the private sector would be able to pull off the technical wizardry if the money works out. Maybe that isn't true.) Or do you think this is important enough that it justifies a government supported agency?

Just curious on your thoughts.

Bubblehead Les. said...

But Space Stuff is only to be used to Save Mother Gaia from the Evil of George Bush's Global Warming Policy, NOT to be used by the Capitalist Mining Corporations who want to Pollute Space! Didn't you get the Memo?

Tam said...


When I am Empress of the Universe, NASA will be either eliminated or reduced to a bare-bones advisory agency to support civilian aerospace.

As long as it exists in its current form, I support it at least trying to be useful.

Woodman said...

I think asteroids are the solution to so many problems we are looking at. Imagine the advantage any country has that can dump millions of tons of any metal on the market at will.

We could pay China back in steel bars, or tungsten, or unobtanium even. Is it possible to find rare earth metals or magnetic material on an asteroid? And even if it turns out rare things are still rare, you've got a gazillion asteroids out there.

This excites me. It sings to every campy bone in my body to think of rockhounds out there in single man spaceships mining out precious, or even common metals where any slag or left overs could be used as building materials for the next people to show up.

I doubt it will turn out that way, but I can imagine that it could.

Firehand said...

Damn right, leave it to private companies. The .gov will be bad enough about 'regulating' it then, can you imagine what giant PITAs they'll be if it's controlled by them?

I need to find one of those stickers, "Earth First! We can mine the asteroids later" just to annoy the right people.

Joanna said...

I need to find one of those stickers, "Earth First! We can mine the asteroids later" just to annoy the right people.

Sounds like you need one of these.

bluesun said...

@ Woodman: "Imagine the advantage any country has that can dump millions of tons of any metal on the market at will."

Did you mean, like, literally?

Steve Skubinna said...

I like the idea of nudging a couple of small rocks onto Mecca and Medina, then we look shocked and innocent and say "Whoa, you guys must have really pissed of Allah!"

Joanna said...

Steve: Have you tried decaf?

velcro8ball said...

On the other side of the ledger, having a inexhaustable source of copper would remove the Darwinian advantage of the current (haha) market system.

sobriant74 said...

The darwinian advantage is survival of the fittest. Not sure how ET copper won't be an advantage of fitness to whomever has it?

sobriant74 said...

The darwinian advantage is survival of the fittest. Not sure how ET copper won't be an advantage of fitness to whomever has it?

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see it started just simply to give mankind a literal "new frontier" to expand into. It addresses the need to see what's over the next hill that seems to be hard wired into our species and also takes all our eggs out of the one basket that is our planet.

Ken said...

All of the above. Wildcatters of Titan, here we come. :-)

Kristophr said...

Brick and Tam:

Companies like Spacex, when asked if they can man-rate their stacks, said sure ... give us about 5 billion dollars and promise to buy stacks from us at a half billion a pop afterward.

Private enterprise is not ready to fund modern Columbus and Magellan expeditions.

Maned space flight will still need to be paid for by the public for quite some time.

The problem is the government is too bloody short-sighted about it. NASA needs a leader that is unassailable, and able to withstand assholes like Nixon or Obama.

Kristophr said...

Manned space flight even. Not sure why I thought we needed to put lions in orbit.

Crotalus said...

Only things out there ARE rocks. Or stars, and they're understandably difficult to approach.

Kristophr said...

Woodman: Or, alternately, use the threat of dropping that iron on them from orbit to enhance our new Foreign Revenue Service's collection efforts.

JohninMd.(help?) said...

Meh. Drop a rock on the BBC. Totally off topic, waaay back in Nov. of '09, you did an Arms Room piece on "Cold War" heaters, Tokerev and CZ-52, both using the 7.62x25 combloc cartridge. Howza 'bout a redux, Makarov vs. CZ-82, and the 9x18mm? Or any other Combloc-built pistolas? Huh? Huh? Please? (youse gots da contacts we mere mortals lack....)

Woodman said...

I hereby submit that dropping millions of tons of iron/copper/gold on the commodities market could have greater directed effect than dropping tons of actual metal on China.

Especially if only American allies actually knew the exact composition of the rock in question before it was delivered.

Anonymous said...

Figuring out how to A) spot incoming asteroids reliably and B) make them not hit us is good, though fairly low in my priority list. But mining asteroids? We've got a loooong way to go before that's remotely feasible.

There are plenty of mineral deposits already happily on Earth that aren't economic at current market prices. They're too low grade, or too deep, or too remote, or located somewhere controlled by treehuggers. They're not economic despite the advantages you have of mining Earthside, such as full gravity, atmosphere, and a ready supply line for fuel, parts, etc, besides not having to worry about how to get the ore you mine back to Earth's surface. Oh, and many mines can refine to some extent on site. They only have to transport the ore a couple miles to the mill, which they can do in 40-250 ton truckloads.

There's a giant gold deposit in SW Alaska, one of the largest in the world. It's still in the feasibility study stage but the problem they have is they can't afford to transport the ore to another site to beneficiate it, but they don't know how to produce the energy they need on site yet (the gold is present in a form that requires a huge amount of energy to extract it). There are discussions of building a natural gas pipeline hundreds of miles, for this sole purpose. If one of the largest gold deposits in the world may not be currently economic because it's too expensive to transport the ore less than a thousand miles on the surface of the planet, how can I imagine mining an asteroid millions of miles away is going to work? Even if they're made of nearly pure nickel and iron and all you have to do is haul them back, it's just not going to be worth it any time soon. Even if you get it back in orbit, how the heck do you get it to the surface in worthwhile amounts? And how do you do it without tanking the market?

Oh, and rare earth elements aren't actually all that rare. They're present in the crust at concentrations three or four orders of magnitude greater than gold, and quite a bit more common than silver as well. I'm hardly an expert in rare earth elements, but if they're that abundant but still difficult to mine the problem could be that they are not concentrated, or that they are very difficult to extract from the minerals they're in. Either way, I don't see why REE in an asteroid would be any different. Asteroids aren't magic.

- A geologist

Woodman said...

I would think three things would make asteroid mining more practical than planet side.

One... pollution is a much smaller problem.

Two... moving millions of tons is easier, as long as you are patient. And, if there is any form of fuel on the asteroid you are eliminating a lot of the cost there as well.

And three, once you start mining an asteroid in NEO you've also created a space station. Which you can charge rent to people for.

Yeah, a lot of this is if this and if that, but that's the point. This is something people should be able to sink their teeth into.

dave said...

Orbital Anvil Delivery Systems

Andy said...

Really, for where we are now, the far target may be an asteroid mine, but the real find will be everything we learn and figure out to get there.

And warp drives.


rickn8or said...

"When I am Empress of the Universe, NASA will be either eliminated or reduced to a bare-bones advisory agency to support civilian aerospace."

B-b-b-but then who would be doing Muslim Outreach??

Heath J said...

rickn8or said...

B-b-b-but then who would be doing Muslim Outreach??

25th MEU, currently. :P

Temnota said...

Perhaps we can mine the asteroids for designer handbags.

Of course, by the time everyone else is awake, Tam will have deleted the spam and this post will make no sense.

jetfxr69 said...


I agree completely with your comments about "man-rated" if we assume NASA-levels of sphincter-tightening for man-rating.

I know I'm not the only one who reads and comments here who would be willing to get on board a bird that's built with substantially more "risk" allowed.

If you go watch the DeltaIV-Heavy launch videos available, you see a HUGE fire plume at ignition. That plume is from hydrogen that leaks continuously from a valve (NOT man-rated at ~$X00 M/each) once the rocket's fueled (last 24 hours on launchpad). Our .gov uses these rockets to put very expensive hardware into orbit.

Additional risk to humans on board if used for manned flights? Some, certainly. Enough to prevent a wildcat team (kinda a risk-accepting bunch anyway, y'know?) from going to space? Probably not.

fast richard said...

If the Wright Flyer had needed to be man rated, it would never have gotten off the ground. The same could probably be said of most early aircraft.

Back when I was a Geology student one of my professors talked about a processing scheme worked out by a grad student. It involved quite a bit of energy, but one small nickel-iron asteroid, similar in size to the one that formed Meteor Crater in Arizona, would yield enough Platinum to greatly reduce the cost of that valuable industrial metal. One side product would be enough gold to tank that market, making gold just another cheap industrial metal and the leftover waste would be low grade stainless steel. The economic and political effects of all that would be interesting to say the least.

Spud said...

The very fact that some lunatic that is angry at his girlfriend or Arabs, or whatever gives pause to any but a controlled enterprise like NASA bringing back asteroids. This being said it is however one of the only ways to get us out of this resource depletion mess, and is entirely within our grasp technically.

Would we the will to stop Texting long enough to actually pay attention.

akornzombie said...

Screw earth bound applications, think about space bound applications.

Imagine building the next space station with materials you don't have to boost from groundside. Mission to Mars? Build in orbit from materials we harvest from from asteroids and the Moon.

Hell, the Moon makes for a lot better source of raw materials than Earth. Less gravity. And if you want to get speccy on how you're going to deliver it to Earth, try a linear accelerator. Also known as a rail gun. run it off of nukes, cause hey, nothin to pollute, and you're golden.

Sorry for the longish rant, just had to add my two woolongs worth.

Anonymous said...

Any idea why Chrome blocks the comments page to the post right after this one (the one about Tam's shopping adventures). It says malware is embedded in the comments from www.papaya-palace.com.

Tam said...

I have no earthly idea.

This is Google's site. I am using the same bone-stock template from Blogger's files hosted on Blogger's server that I have since 2005.

If there's malware here, Google put it there and hid it in such a way that it doesn't show up in the HTML source code, at least in a way that I can find it.

Lergnom said...

Let's do a nuke-boost thing like in 'Footfall' and place entire factories in orbit in one go.

Will said...

Yep, I'm getting the same warning (in Chrome). Comments come up long enough to read the first one, then the page switches to the warning. I'm too chicken to try in Firefox, which is what I was using when I read 11:52's comment/warning.

Anonymous said...

Because the various British space programs are so much more interesting than ours. -- Lyle

Kristophr said...

jetfxer69: It doesn't all have to be man-rated.

That was the purpose behind the Ares program ... Ares 1 is man-rated and carries people up.

Ares 5 is not.

Ares 5 can be 95% foolproof. You just budget for insurance for the 1 in 20 that blow them selves to hell. It's only hardware.

People are not replaceable, and cause bad headlines when they die.

Tam said...


"Ares 5 is not.

Ares 5 can be 95% foolproof.

You sure about that? You sure it's not 99%? Or 94%? Or 99.44%?

How foolproof was the Mayflower? I'll bet it was a whole goddam lot less than 95%...

Kristophr said...

Feynman did a paper on failure rates for the shuttle:


New rockets run around 1 in 25, with settled designs around 1 in 50.

My point was that even 1 in 20 is insurable if no people are aboard.

As for the actual Ares V failure rate, we will never know, since Obama took the program out and shot it as dead as Nixon shot the Saturn V.

Kristophr said...

Yes, we could find volunteers to ride stacks with even a 50% failure rate ... but I don't think you will get any more funding after a few asplode.