Quotulatiousness

February 18, 2013

Chelyabinsk meteor provides impetus for enhanced detection network

Filed under: Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:11

Along with all the jokes about the meteor that streaked over Siberia last week, there has been some useful re-orientation of thought about the demonstrated need for better detection tools:

For decades, scientists have been on the lookout for killer objects from outer space that could devastate the planet. But warnings that they lacked the tools to detect the most serious threats were largely ignored, even as skeptics mocked the worriers as Chicken Littles.

No more. The meteor that rattled Siberia on Friday, injuring hundreds of people and traumatizing thousands, has suddenly brought new life to efforts to deploy adequate detection tools, in particular a space telescope that would scan the solar system for dangers.

A group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who helped build thriving companies like eBay, Google and Facebook has already put millions of dollars into the effort and saw Friday’s shock wave as a turning point in raising hundreds of millions more.

“Wouldn’t it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren’t looking?” said Edward Lu, a former NASA astronaut and Google executive who leads the detection effort. “This is a wake-up call from space. We’ve got to pay attention to what’s out there.”

Astronomers know of no asteroids or comets that pose a major threat to the planet. But NASA estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the big dangers have been discovered.

November 24, 2012

Tim Worstall: Cosmic fun-spoiler

Filed under: Economics, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:42

Writing in The Register, Tim Worstall brings his evil economist gaze to the SF fan’s irrational belief that asteroid mining is the way of the future:

Isn’t it exciting that Planetary Resources is going to jet off and mine the asteroids? This is every teenage sci-fi geek’s dream, that everything we imbibed from Verne through Heinlein to Pournelle is going to come true!

But there’s always someone, isn’t there, someone like me, ready to spoil the party. The bit that I cannot get my head around is the economics of it: specifically, the economics of the mining itself.

In terms of the basic processing of what they want to do I can’t see a problem at all, just as all those authors those years ago could see how it could be done.

Asteroids come in several flavours, and the two we’re interested in here are the ice ones and the nickel iron ones. The icy rocks, with a few solar panels and that very bright 24/7 sunshine up there, can provide water. That’s the first thing we need in abundance if we’re going to get any number of people up off the planet for any appreciable amount of time. And we’d really rather not be sending the stuff up out of the Earth’s gravity well for them.

It’s also true that those nickel iron asteroids are likely to be rich in platinum-group metals (PGMs). They too can be refined with a bit of electricity, and they’re sufficiently valuable (say, for platinum, $60m a tonne, just as a number to use among friends) that we might be able to finance everything we’re trying to do by doing so.

All terribly exciting, all very space cadet, enough to bring tears to the eyes of anyone who ever learnt how to use a slide rule and, as the man said, once you’re in orbit you’re not halfway to the Moon, you’re halfway to anywhere.

Except I’m not sure that the numbers quite stack up here. I’m sure that the engineering is possible, I’m certain that it’s all worth doing and most certainly believe that we want to get up there and start playing around with other parts of the cosmos over and above Gaia. But, but…

April 25, 2012

Identifying the potential profits from asteroid mining

Filed under: Economics, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:06

In his Forbes column, Tim Worstall spins a tale that is worthy of Dr. Evil or other movie bad guy multi-billionaires:

We’ve now had the announcement of the business plans of Planetary Resources. Enough to excite everyone who read Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle as a teenager. But the big problem is how might they actually turn a proft? To which the answer is manipulation of the futures markets.

[. . .]

So, imagine that they have reached one of the nickel iron asteroids, it is high in the platinum group metals, they can mine it and they can deliver those pgms to Earth. The moment everyone knows that there is some hundreds of tonnes of these metals on the way down the price will collapse. The answer? Sell the metals in advance, through the futures markets. Get today’s price for delivery in the future.

In fact, sell many more futures than the amount of metal which is to be delivered: go short. As an example, say platinum is $2,000 an ounce (not far off the real price, $62 million a tonne). Planetary Resources is going to deliver 100 tonnes. But instead of selling $6 billion’s worth of platinum for delivery in three months, sell 10 times as much: $60 billion’s worth*. When that 100 tonnes splashes down, in fact when the market knows that the 100 tonnes is likely to splash down, then the market price will fall. Substantially but for illustration we’ll say to $200 an ounce.

The company then delivers that 100 tonnes for which it is paid the $6 billion agreed on those futures deliveries. It still owes the market another 900 tonnes but it can now cover its short at $200 an ounce having sold the futures at $2,000 an ounce. Use the $6 billion that’s going to be incoming to do so and what do we have at the end?

The company has $60 billion incoming from having sold futures. It has delivered 100 tonnes at $6 billion and covered the short for that $6 billion. Net profit $54 billion minus the cost of the space program. Which is pretty good really.

But it gets better … and more Bond-villainous.

January 30, 2012

Researching how to stop asteroids from “just dropping in”

Filed under: Europe, Science, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:08

Brid-Aine Parnell in The Register on some of the technologies being explored to reduce or eliminate the chance of unpleasantly close encounters with celestial objects:

A new international consortium has been set up to figure out what Earthlings could do if an asteroid came hurtling towards the planet on a path of imminent destruction.

The project will look at three methods of averting disaster: the Hollywood-sanctioned solutions of sending up a crack team of deep drillers with a nuclear bomb to sort it out, or frantically hurling of all our nukes at it; dragging it to safety with a Star Trek-inspired tractor beam; or hitting it with something we have more control over, like a spaceship.

Sporting the cool moniker NEOShield, the project will explore the possibilities for kinetic impactors, gravity tractors and blast deflection as ways to save our planet from oblivion.

[. . .]

“In the light of results arising from our research into the feasibility of the various mitigation approaches and the mission design work, we aim to formulate for the first time a global response campaign roadmap that may be implemented when an actual significant impact threat arises,” NEOShield boldly stated.

December 8, 2009

How to get rid of pesky dinosaurs

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:37

According to recent theorizing, you don’t incinerate ‘em, you broil ‘em:

The asteroid impact that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago didn’t incinerate life on our planet’s surface — it just broiled it, a new study suggests. The work resolves nagging questions about a theory that the impact triggered deadly wildfires around the world, but it also raises new questions about just what led to the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period.

The impact of a 10-kilometre asteroid is blamed for the extinction of the dinosaurs and most other species on the planet. Early computer models showed that more than half of the debris blasted into space by the impact would fall into the atmosphere within eight hours.

The models predicted the rain of shock-heated debris would radiate heat as intensely as an oven set to “broil” (260 °C) for at least 20 minutes, and perhaps a couple of hours. Intense heating for that long would heat wood to its ignition temperature, causing global wildfires.

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