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Dramatic Nebulas

One square degree image of the Tarantula Nebula and its surroundings. The spidery nebula is seen in the upper-centre of the image. Slightly to the lower-right, a web of filaments harbours the famous supernova SN 1987A. Many other reddish nebulae are visible in the image, as well as a cluster of young stars on the left, known as NGC 2100. Technical information: the image is based on observations carried out by Joao Alves (Calar Alto, Spain), Benoit Vandame and Yuri Beletsky (ESO) with the Wide Field Imager (WFI) at the 2.2-m telescope on La Silla. These data consist of a 2x2 WFI mosaic in the B- and V-bands, and in the H-alpha and [OIII] narrow bands. The data were first processed with the ESO/MVM pipeline by the Advanced Data Products (ADP) group at ESO.

 Caption: ESO
  ESO/R. Fosbury (ST-ECF)

Congressional Hearing Slams Feasibility Of Asteroid Mining:

Two congressmen recently introduced the ASTEROIDS Act, which would grant property rights to companies seeking to mine the asteroid belt. Yesterday, the House Space Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill, where expert testimony bluntly told Congress the private sector is not up to the task of mining in space.

The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act — also known as H.R. 5063 — was introduced this past July by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The two congressmen, both members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, declared in a joint statement that the bill would not only create more jobs but also safeguard America’s economic security:

"We may be many years away from successfully mining an asteroid, but the research to turn this from science fiction into reality is being done today," said Rep. Derek Kilmer.

"Businesses in Washington state and elsewhere are investing in this opportunity, but in order to grow and create more jobs they need greater certainty. That’s why I’m excited to introduce this bill with Representative Posey so we can help the United States access new supplies of critical rare metals while serving as a launch pad for a growing industry."

Currently, rare minerals used to manufacture a wide range of products are found in a small number of countries. This has left the United States dependent on foreign nations for these resources. The limited supply and high demand for these materials, alongside major advances in space technology and a deeper understanding of asteroids, has led a number of private sector investors to begin developing plans to identify and secure high-value minerals found on asteroids and transport them for use here on Earth.

The legislation has the support of several organizations and companies that comprise the “NewSpace community,” which is dedicated to promoting innovative commercial ventures as the primary means to expand our presence beyond the Earth. That includes two U.S. companies that are actively developing plans for asteroid mining: Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources.

The initiative has also been tentatively endorsed by the Planetary Society as a way to build an off-world infrastructure for space exploration, by making use of resources extracted and manufactured in space — what is known as “in situ resource utilization” (ISRU). At yesterday’s hearing, James F. Bell, the president of The Planetary Society and a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, testified that:

The issue of resources on asteroids is particularly compelling, not only from the scientific perspective noted above, but also as we begin to imagine a future where humanity is moving outward beyond our home world, exploring and settling new frontiers in our solar system. Just like many of the settlers who moved to the American West in the 19th century, settlers moving outward from Earth in the 21st century and beyond will want to try to figure out how to “live off the land” as much as possible. Based on what we know now, there’s good reason to believe that asteroids could provide many of the raw natural resources that humans will need to live and work beyond Earth. Some are water-bearing (and thus, oxygen-bearing), others have significant concentrations of metals and silicates useful as building materials. Based on meteorite studies, some are even likely to contain significant amounts of precious metals. All of these attributes make asteroids potentially economically attractive targets for future resource extraction.

While the extraction of space-based resources from asteroids is certainly still many years away, The Planetary Society believes that it would be wise to start making the required investments in technology, infrastructure, and transportation systems required to study asteroids in the level of detail needed to make truly informed future decisions about their individual resource potential. As such, we support investments, through both commercial and governmental programs, in the kinds of technologies needed for the exploration and utilization of asteroids as contemplated in H.R. 5063.

The Long Road Ahead

The most detailed testimony at the hearing was also the most skeptical. Mark Sykes, the Director of the Planetary Science Institute and a co-investigator on the NASA Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, bluntly stated that, “The development of an NEO ISRU infrastructure is beyond the scope of private enterprise.”

Congressional Hearing Slams Feasibility Of Commercial Asteroid Mining

Sykes believes that such an endeavor might one day be feasible, but not without first overcoming several hurdles that will likely require funding on a scale that could only be provided by the government. In fact, he reminds us, we’re not even sure about the precise composition of asteroids, which is crucial to planning mining operations:

We have some idea of their composition from remote spectroscopic observations and by picking up meteorites on the surface of the Earth and analyzing them. However, while spectra provide important clues to composition, they do not necessarily provide detailed information on bulk minerals comprising an asteroid. ….Likewise, meteorites represent only a small fraction of the mass of the asteroid entering the Earth’s atmosphere and do not necessarily present a complete picture of its composition.

Commercial asteroid resource extraction requires an understanding of the composition and mechanical properties of the material to be processed, and an understanding of how to do this under low-gravity conditions….In fact, it is unknown the extent to which any asteroid is compositionally homogeneous ….Extraction processes will have to be developed that accommodate a range of compositions …. At some point there would have to be the demonstration of an autonomous resource recovery facility on a near-Earth asteroid. There is then the need to assess the resource that has been extracted, determine the need for subsequent processing into usable material (e.g., water may need to be purified and then converted to hydrogen and oxygen, liquefied, and stored).

All this basic science and engineering is something beyond the scope of reasonable investment by a commercial entity, because there would be no expectation of return in investment on a reasonable timescales. I expect it would take a couple of decades to get to the point when one could answer the question of whether, with some level infrastructure in place, the marginal cost of processing and returning water from an asteroid would be cheaper than bringing it up from the surface of the Earth. Given the potential long-term benefit of a positive outcome in opening up the solar system to expanded human activity, this is a logical area of governmental investment. Once the basic science is known and basic technologies supporting this effort are developed, this would be the logical time for the private sector to come in and see if it could do things more cost-effectively.

Ad Astra, Contra Legem?

Congressional Hearing Slams Feasibility Of Commercial Asteroid Mining

And then there’s the tiny detail about whether granting asteroid mining rights to U.S. companies is legal under international law.

Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, a prominent legal expert who was formerly the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law, testified that current treaties do appear to allow for the appropriation of natural resources from other planets and asteroids. However, what remains unclear is the ownership status of the resources when they are collected.

Michael Listner, an attorney who counsels governmental and private organizations on matters relating to space law and policy, raised similar concerns when I interviewed him for a previous article. Those in the commercial sector, who believe private ownership of resources extracted from space is legal, point to a British legal decision, which permitted the private sale of lunar soil that had been obtained by the Soviet Union. Listner, however, said:

My opinion is that the effect of the Soviet lunar sample precedent will be negligible when it is compared to the potentially trillions of dollars in mineral resources that could be extracted. The sale of the Soviet lunar sample was so minuscule that the international community hardly batted an eyelash….

The ASTEROID Act does score points for being crafted with international law in mind. It calls upon the U.S. government to:

Promote the right of United States commercial entities to explore and utilize resources from asteroids in outer space, in accordance with the existing international obligations of the United States, free from harmful interference, and to transfer or sell such resources; and develop the frameworks necessary to meet the international obligations of the United States.

But the “free from harmful interference” statement is problematic. The legislation further defines it as:

As between any entities over which the United States can exercise jurisdiction, any assertion of superior right to execute specific commercial asteroid resource utilization activities in outer space shall prevail if it is found to be first in time, derived upon a reasonable basis, and in accordance with all existing international obligations of the United States.

Sykes points out why this could quickly turn ugly:

Under the current language, I could today take published observations of near-Earth objects by the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope, identify those with low albedo (enhancing their probability of being water sources), and lay claim to the 100 objects having the most favorable orbits for low-energy missions with good dynamical opportunities for returns of material to Earth orbit. Resource recovery may be decades in the future, but under the terms of this bill I can make an “assertion of superior right” by being “first in time, derived upon a reasonable basis” to have made that assertion and assuming it is “in accordance with all existing international obligations of the United States.” I can effectively increase the future costs of those who might be compelled to pay me for access to “my” asteroids or go to a less dynamically favorable resource target.

And the Wild West’s gold rush begins anew.

NASA prepares Orion capsule for debut deep-space test flight

A NASA spacecraft designed to one day fly astronauts to Mars rolled out of its processing hangar at the U.S. space agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday to be prepared for a debut test flight in December.

"This is a pretty historic moment for us," Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion production operations manager, told reporters as workers prepared to move the capsule to a fueling depot. "This marks the end of the assembly process for the spacecraft."

An unmanned version of the gumdrop-shaped Orion capsule, which has been under construction for three years, is due to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket on Dec. 4 from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

United Launch Alliance is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co .

In December Orion will be flown to an altitude of about 3,600 miles (5,800 km) from Earth, 14 times farther away than the International Space Station.

The capsule will then careen back toward the planet, slamming into the atmosphere at 20,000 mph (32,000 kph). At that speed, Orion’s thermal protection system should heat up to about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius), proving the shield can protect astronauts returning from the moon and other deep-space destinations.

Orion is part of NASA’s follow-up program to the now-retired space shuttles that will allow astronauts to travel beyond the International Space Station, which flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.

A test flight with crew aboard is set for 2021. NASA intends to use the rocket and Orion to fly astronauts to an asteroid that has been robotically relocated into a high orbit around the moon. Eventually, the U.S. space agency wants to fly a four-member crew to Mars.

NASA has been out of the human space launch business since the shuttle program ended in 2011.

The agency currently buys rides for space station crew members aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. A heated three-way competition to build a U.S.-based commercial space taxi is also under way. The contenders are privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp and Boeing.

Work on the Orion deep-space capsule, built by Lockheed Martin, began more than a decade ago under NASA’s defunct Constellation moon program. NASA has already spent about $9 billion developing Orion.

Warmer Air Caused Ice Shelf Collapse Off Antarctica:

Warmer air triggered the collapse of a huge ice shelf off Antarctica in 2002, according to a report on Thursday that may help scientists predict future break-ups around the frozen continent.

Antarctica is a key to sea level rise, which threatens coastal areas around the world.. It has enough ice to raise seas by 57 meters (190 feet) if it ever all melted, meaning that even a tiny thaw at the fringes is a concern.

Until now, the exact cause of the collapse of the Larsen-B ice shelf, a floating mass of ice bigger than Luxembourg at the end of glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula, had been unknown. Some experts suggested it was thinned by sea water from below.

Writing in the journal Science, a team of scientists blamed rising air temperatures, saying that melt water and rain in the brief Antarctic summer had flowed into deep cracks.

Water expands when it turns to ice, and the re-freezing meltwater in the Larsen-B shelf - perhaps 200 meters thick - led to a build-up of huge pressures that shattered the ice in 2002.

A rival theory had been that warmer sea water had destabilized ice where the shelf was grounded on the seabed. Studying the seabed, however, the scientists found evidence that water had flowed freely under the ice for the past 12,000 years.

"This implies that the 2002 Larsen-B Ice Shelf collapse likely was a response to surface warming," they wrote. Since 2002, several other shelves have broken up around the Antarctic Peninsula, which is below South America.


The Larsen-B captured the public imagination and even featured in a Hollywood disaster movie about climate change, “The Day After Tomorrow”, showing a huge crevasse appearing through a scientific base on the ice.

"Hollywood underplayed that one," said Eugene Domack, an author of the study at the University of South Florida. "It fractured into thousands of icebergs, not just one huge crevasse."

Loss of floating ice shelves does not directly affect sea levels but can accelerate the slide of glaciers from land into the sea, raising levels. Thursday’s study was by scientists in Italy, the United States, Portugal, Germany, Canada and Britain.

Domack told Reuters the findings could help scientists spot other ice at risk of breaking up. Pools of summer meltwater on the surface of ice shelves - visible from space - could be an early warning sign, he said.

The northern part of the Larsen-C ice shelf, further south and four times the size of the Larsen-B shelf, has been showing signs of instability, he said.

Scientists have linked warmer air over the Antarctic Peninsula to climate change and to a thinning of the ozone hole that shields life from cancer-causing solar rays, driven by man-made chemicals.

A U.N. report on Wednesday said that the ozone layer is showing its first signs of recovery after years of depletion, in a rare piece of good news about the environment.


NASA Scientists Study The Sun By Listening To It:

What’s the fastest way to understand space? According to NASA, it’s listening to the music of the spheres displayed as actual music. A program that converts astronomical data into sound is letting researchers blaze through years of data with ease. At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Michigan doctoral candidate Robert Alexander listens to audio files made from satellite data. The Wind spacecraft sits between Earth and the Sun, and records changes in the Sun’s magnetic field. Here’s how that becomes sound:

When a person sings into a microphone, it detects changes in pressure and converts the pressure signals to changes in magnetic intensity in the form of an electrical signal. The electrical signals are stored on the reel tape. Magnetometers on the Wind satellite measure changes in magnetic field directly creating a similar kind of electrical signal. Alexander writes a computer program to translate this data to an audio file.

This mostly translates to white noise, but when there’s something anomalous, Alexander can hear it happen and make note of where in the file it happened. And Alexander isn’t the only one using data this way. In fact, he’s training other physicists who study the sun how to be active listeners. A similar project, onomatopoetically dubbed “PEEP,” wants to use sound as a monitoring tool, turning network activity into a gentle chorus of bird sounds, interrupted by frog croaks at the first sign of trouble.

Listen to a reverse shockwave headed toward the Sun below, and read more at NASA:


SpaceX Successfully Launched The AsiaSat 6 Satellite:

Telecommunications company AsiaSat now has a new satellite in orbit, it’s second in less than two months. Its new satellite, AsiaSat 6, was successfully delivered into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched at 1:00am EDT from Cape Canaveral, FL. Contact with the satellite was confirmed about an hour after liftoff.

This launch was originally intended to occur on August 27. However, due to a failure of an experimental SpaceX rocket during a test flight, the launch was delayed. The experimental rocket apparently malfunctioned because of a sensor error. The company stated that the same error wasn’t likely to occur in its regular Falcon 9 rocket, but wanted to “triple-check” its systems to be certain.

AsiaSat 6 is based on the Space Systems/Loral 1300 platform. The communications satellite is equpped with 28 C-band transponders. These will be delivering video and broadband signals to AsiaSat’s customers throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The anticipated life of the satellite will be about 15 years.

SpaceX has one more launch this month. On September 19, its Dragon capsule will be launched from a Falcon 9 on its way to the International Space Station.

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