This article about the mining of the asteroids caught my attention. [link= Popular Mechanics Article ]. Asteroids have been given many sci-fi roles, from stealth alien spacecraft to Gaia directed instruments of revenge aimed at modern society. However, I love the asteroid belt as the gateway to the space frontier. You can see it in your mind: Earth, home base; the sun, our protector; Mars, the staging ground; then the formidable asteroid belt, Hadrian’s Wall of the space frontier. In 1960 it was science fiction, but today it’s an expedition in the planning.
I can feel it like electricity surging under my skin, an adventure tugging at my arm, science and fiction coming come together in a real live hero’s journey. A journey for all mankind even if only a few will make the trip. Those few are likely to be robots, but just the same, those robots will carry the rest of us like a surging tide toward our destiny.
Note that this advance for mankind will not be brought to you under the wing of NASA. NASA has been gutted because space engineering took too much money away from social engineering. More and more, governments are preoccupied with nurturing those who are inept at responsible adult behaviors. Now the US government seems to be headed in same direction, leaving industry to take on the risks of advancing the space frontier.
It’s the norm. Great music, art, and advances in science and math were often funded by wealthy families, like the Medici’s.
When it comes to advancing the frontiers, it’s usually motivated by PROFIT, and profit is the impetus that has moved us from starving flea-bitten cave dwellers to healthy, relatively bug-free, air-conditioned, artificial cave dwellers with cars, educations, steady food supplies, fancy clothes, shoes—you get the picture. The average human lives better today than ever before.
The collapse of NASA has turned our brightest and best educated astrophysicists, aeronautic engineers, and a bunch of other highly trained specialists, onto the streets like ronin, samurais without masters. Some of these ronin have gotten together with the wealthiest venture capitalists to form corporations whose purpose is to explore space and to recover valuable resources, a Hanseatic League of the future.
These proposed space ventures began with commercial rockets and tourism. [link >>>>Moon Express and link >>>> Space X]. Now, space commerce is moving toward the recovery of resources, a much bigger payoff. Two immediate targets are the moon and the asteroid belt. [Links >>> Planetary Resources Website and Long Popular Mechanics Article on the Whole Space Mining Idea]
One wonders how running a mining operation in the asteroid belt could ever be profitable.
Proponents of this mining operation say that a 500 yard wide asteroid contains more platinum than has been mined in the entire history of Earth.
The other key resource to be mined is water.
You say why water; I say what water.
If asteroids have neither gravity nor atmosphere, then it seems even solid water, ice, would have sublimed long ago and drifted off throughout the solar system. I’m going to take their word for it on this one; if they say the water it there, then it’s there.
So now we can get back to the question: Why water?
The answer is they need to burn it as fuel in the mining operation and for rocket fuel and maybe to drink and grow food if humans ever live in colonies amid the asteroids.
The problem with burning water is that it is already 100% burned, or combusted. There is only one way to burn water, and that is to break it into hydrogen and oxygen and then burn the hydrogen with the oxygen, remaking water. In this process you will spend more energy than you will get from the hydrogen fuel. The benefit is that liquid hydrogen can be carried with you and burned where you need it, like gasoline. In space, you’ll have to carry the oxygen along too.
Hydrogen fuel is not naturally occurring on Earth, either. That plays hell with the idea of the non-polluting hydrogen highway because some source, probably nuclear energy, and lots of it, a whole lot of it, is needed to generate the hydrogen.
In space, miles of extremely thin solar-voltaic membranes could be deployed and used to reduce water into its components. I don’t know how these collectors would be made, but I do know they will be 1/6th as effective near the asteroid belt as they would be in the orbit of Earth. This is because the solar flux, insolation, diminishes by square of the distance from the sun and the asteroids are 2.5 times further from the sun than Earth.
In any case, the ronin will figure out how to handle all of these problems; the venture capitalists will fund it, and I wish I could just listen in on the process. When it happens, we will all be in awe, a bit jealous, a bit proud, knowing we can’t go but wanting to, vicariously experiencing it in discussions around the coffee table and waiting for the heroes to return and tell their stories.