Pushing Asteroid Mining on the Wow! Signal Podcast

26 06 2013

Just a quick note today on a fun, recent interview I gave with Paul Carr on the Wow! Signal Podcast, where I had the opportunity to discuss the very conceptual genesis of my personal scientific journey as a geologist and space scientist: the lure, importance, and incredible promise of asteroid mining and capitalizing on extraterrestrial resources!

photo

My original 2004 NASA KC135 proposal for an asteroid mineral separation “mining” system. …Still looking for an opportunity to fly this thing…

(Paul is a space systems engineer, skeptical investigator, and a prolific writer who keeps not only the aforementioned podcast but also his own blog and several websites, most of which communicate a fascination with space and life in the cosmos…  Thanks for reaching out, Paul!)

So, for any readers interested in hearing me attempt to talk extemporaneously while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the potential in space resources, now’s your chance. =)

Additionally, I should note that I had the good fortune to share the podcast airspace with engaging planetary system scientist (and dabbler in numerical astrobiology) Dr. Duncan Forgan, as well as Isaac Stott of Stott Space Inc., future asteroid miner and ardent proponent of space resources development.

The only thing that could have made the podcast more of a kick was if the interviews had been temporally-simultaneous and supplied with science-fueling spirits of some kind…  All in good time, I suppose…





Cycloidal Ridges on Europa: A Xenoarchaeological Analogue

7 05 2012

Jovian moon Europa. (Credit: NASA NSSDC)

When seriously considering the possibility of xenoarchaeology as a practicable science, I’ve proposed (as have others) the endeavor to be deeply interdisciplinary.

Solid archaeological methodologies will need to be complemented with and modified by a strong foundation in planetary science.

I also often suggest that the practice of xenoarchaeology will find its most frequent utility in “debunking” rushed, biased, or outright pseudoscientific claims.  In many cases, it seems sensible to presume this may appear strictly as planetary science applied in a feature-analysis context.

So, with this in mind, I’d like to look at the mysterious case of “cycloids,” or specifically, “cycloidal ridges” on Jupiter’s second moon, Europa:

Cycloidal double ridges viewed in the northern hemisphere of Europa (60°N, 80°W): Striking evidence that nature can produce apparently-artifical features on other worlds. (Modified from Hoppa et al., 1999)

Jovian Cycloids

Found across both hemispheres of the barren, fractured ice world, these double-ridges are vast – nearly half a mile tall and half-again as wide – and shockingly symmetric, with apparently perfect vertices connecting each sweeping arc.  They exhibit a puzzling nature to parallel nearby ridges, as though “drawn” on the surface of the world in series, yet they then suddenly conflict with ridges curving the opposite direction.

The features were, at the time, truly bizarre, with no understood natural process to account for them.

While due to their immense size and their relatively-obscure nature, no one (to my knowledge) actually suggested them to be the result of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI).

However, due to the cycloids’ striking geometry, I feel them to be a perfect example of an analogue scenario where a scientific xenoarchaeological hypothesis might be entertained.

Still don’t see them?  Look at the features highlighted here in red.

Icy Geoglyphs?

So, let’s say for the sake of argument that a popular case had been made that these were “Europan geoglyphs” – symbols or markers left behind by an ancient extraterrestrial civilization.

While it is often difficult to explain to non-scientists the ultimate importance of seeking to disprove a working hypothesis, in this context the utility of taking such a stance becomes clear.  With any potential xenoarchaeological site or artifact, the first order of business will be to characterize the planetary environment in order to rule out natural causes.  Only then would an archaeological-style investigation proceed, evaluating site context, invoking potential inference-by-analogy, etc.

In the case of Europan Cycloids, given a thorough and persistent site evaluation, a principal xenoarchaeologist, (being interdisciplinary and a capable planetary scientist by necessity,) would have identified that these features could have been caused by tidal forces from Jupiter.  Therefore, the ETI hypothesis is unnecessary, and with no other supporting evidence to suggest the presence of extraterrestrial life, should be refuted.  (To verify the more prosaic explanation from a more archaeological perspective, one might then investigate possible astronomical alignments with respect to the cycloids, [see: archaeoastronomy,] yet these would all point – literally and figuratively – to Jupiter itself, leading to the aforementioned cause.)

Case closed.

Avoiding the Tendency to Cherry-Pick

Why take this approach?  Why be so eager to rule out the “fun” option?  Simple:

In order to challenge the innate predisposition toward bias common to us all, one must work against the preferred hypothesis, not toward it.  (See also: cherry-picking fallacy.)

Now, had the features been discovered on a moon experiencing much less tidal stress, the story might be different…  (One might investigate in-situ geochemistry or seek more up-close imagery to search for detailed evidence of possible machining.)

-But one simply cannot go there first because the implications are possibly thrilling.  It is, in fact, because the ETI hypothesis is fantastic that one must work to rule it out.

This is the fundamental consideration that separates science from pseudoscience, which cannot be overemphasized when proposing something new, (i.e., xenoarchaeology.)





Plans afoot for snaring a space rock

2 10 2011

Trajectory of 2008EA9 before and after orbit maneuver. (Credit: Hexi et al., 2011)

Researchers at the Tsinghua University in Beijing recently published a plan just daring enough to work/make people nervous.

After an extensive review of the orbits of thousands of candidate near-Earth objects, the research team headed by Associate Professor Baoyin Hexi identified a small asteroid that with a nudge at the opportune moment would settle into a temporary Earth orbit.

The 410-meter-per-second-boost required to snare 30-foot-wide asteroid 2008EA9 is but a fraction of the propulsion cost required, for instance, for our spacecraft to get to low Earth orbit, (8,000 meters-per-second).

Attempting such a technical feat would be a boon for space logistics and exploration research by providing a simple, local target for investigation by astronauts.  Further, the experience would exponentially improve our asteroid diversion know-how and spur the development of space resource/mining techniques.

Despite the terror-stoking hype that any asteroid-grab project is bound to inspire, the risks in this case are relatively low: few realize that asteroids of similar size (5-10 meters in diameter) hit the Earth’s atmosphere annually.  While still packing the punch of an mid-twentieth century atom-bomb, these objects are small enough to vaporize in the upper atmosphere, and typically no one is the wiser for it.

I say let’s go for it.  Any eccentric, research-minded philanthropists want to drop a fortune on lassoing a giant lump of primordial solar system?





Exploring Test Cell C with ArcGIS Online

22 03 2011

ESRI logo. (Credit: ESRI)

The future is now.  GIS forerunner company ESRI has recently published much of their geospatial analysis capability online… for free.  Implementing the philosophy that knowledge is power and that all peoples and nations should be empowered to make smart and responsible decisions, ESRI is seeking to change the world by making powerful GIS tools available to anyone with web access.

-And they’ve included not only the tools, but the data as well.  Called “base layers,” this data is literally something you can add to a map with a click – like roads, topography, vegetation, weather… you name it.

For only the mildest example of what they’re doing, check out a map of the Nuclear Rocket Development Station’s Test Cell C.

Explore, play around with it, create your own map web apps… get creative.  With this kind of power at your fingertips, from checking out whether or not your house is on a floodplain to investigating political demographics in your area, there is literally no limit to what you can do with this.

Amazing.





A Radioactive Astronaut-Hopeful (Space update)

20 11 2010

Me probing an old military well in the Nevada wilderness for geologic data.

By education and trade, I’m a geologist, having worked now in the professional world for more than six years getting my boots dirty performing hydrogeology, water resources, drilling, geomorphology research, and environmental contaminant transport and remediation work in some of the most remote territory this country has to offer.  However, in my push toward becoming an astronaut, one may wonder why I suddenly think it’s a good idea to be working as a radiological engineer and pursuing graduate work in Radiation Health Physics (in addition to my Space Studies work at UND).

Why not study something more direct, like Planetary Geology (Astrogeology)?

The answer, while seemingly obscure, is simple:  What does geology, outer space, the Moon’s surface, Mars’s surface, and advanced spacecraft power and propulsion systems all have in common?  Radioactivity.

Boltwoodite and Torbernite, uranium-bearing mineral samples. (Credit: Ben McGee)

On Earth, (and other heavy rocky bodies,) radioactivity is a natural occurrence.  Plants (and even human beings) all beam out radioactive gamma rays from a natural isotope of Potassium.  (This is prevalent enough that you can calibrate your instruments to it in the wild.)  Even more to the point, radioactive Uranium and Thorium are more common in the Earth’s crust than Gold or Silver.  These elements are crucial to determining the ages of rocks.

Now, go farther.  As we move outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field, (i.e., orbit, Moon, Mars, and everything beyond and in-betwixt,) cosmic and solar radiation are essentially the greatest hazards an astronaut may face.  Radiation shielding and measurement are of primary importance.

Illustration of a manned NTR exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. (Credit: Douglas/Time Magazine, 1963)

Farther still, once a spacecraft travels beyond about Mars, the intensity of sunlight is such that solar panels are inadequate to supply necessary power.  Nuclear reactors, (Radioisotope-Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs,) are necessary.

Plus, in order to get out that far (to Mars or beyond) in a reasonable amount of time, our chemical rockets won’t provide enough kick.  Instead, Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTRs) are about the most efficient way to go, something I’m in the midst of researching in earnest.

Hence, in addition to having experience as a field geologist (for future visits to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.,) being trained to swing a radiation detector around, understanding the exact hazards radiation poses and how it works, and knowing your way around a nuclear reactor are all uniquely suited to space exploration.

Admittedly, it’s an unconventional path, but it’s my path: Riding gamma rays to the stars.





A love of teaching

24 10 2010

Entry sign outside of CSN's Cheyenne Campus.

-Just a post on a personal note this morning.  I’ve been filling in as a part-time geology lab instructor at the College of Southern Nevada for the past two years.  Now, with a few semesters behind me, I find myself pleasantly surprised by what I (admittedly) was interested in as more of a resume-booster than as a potential career.

While I love the stimulation of technical work and the satisfaction of fieldwork, (hence my day job,) I have to admit that I’m finding that teaching provides something unique: a sense of deep fulfillment.

You never get to see an expression of understanding wash over an inoperative computer program’s face when you explain something to it in a new way.  You don’t receive a sense of genuine appreciation from data when you fully invest yourself in taking scientific measurements.  In contrast, the interaction between students and an instructor (at least in my experience so far) is very, very rewarding.

Lab practical midterm setup before the students arrived.

Quite frankly, despite the fact that I currently work 10-hour days out of town, and it’s an hour drive (dash) before the three-hour lab after work, I always feel better after teaching a class than I did before I arrived.  Sure, it’s made for a 16-hour workday, but I actually feel more energized and calmer.  More at peace.

That has to mean something.

Teaching, at least at the college level, is much different than anything else I do.  I genuinely love the material, and with very few exceptions (maybe I’ve just been lucky so far) all of my students respond to that enthusiasm and engage in the class.  And there’s the lingering sense that you’re making a difference in a very visceral way.

Sure, things you do at work change the way things work, affect the course of companies and employees, and maybe it even reaches farther than that.  But with teaching, the effect is immediate.  You know you’re affecting lives.  You can see it.  In class, something you say has at least the possibility of sparking a lifelong interest or changing (via degree/major/etc.,)  the course of a person’s life.  -Inspiring the next generation.

Plus, me being me, I always try and weave in a little planetary/space science to keep the students interested.  (Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to bring some practical space exploration experience back to the classroom…)

Well, I think that’s it.  While I’m not ready to leave my fieldwork and industry work behind just yet, I love teaching.

-I think it’s a feeling that will only grow with time.





Titan eclipses Mars

22 08 2010

Cassini spacecraft view of Saturn's 3200-mile-wide moon, Titan, with the smaller, 698-mile-wide moon Dione actually 600,000 miles behind it. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Titan has eclipsed Mars.  Not literally, mind you, but conceptually.  With active surficial geology the likes of which are known only to Earth, and considering the recent discovery of possible biochemical signatures of alien life, to me Titan has become the most interesting exploration destination in the solar system.

Take the above image, for starters.  Whereas most other rocky worlds in our solar system offer an unbridled view of craters, mountains, and ancient plains, Titan’s dynamic, hazy atmosphere betrays little.  Truly, the giant moon, which is larger than the planet Mercury itself, is a world shrouded in mystery.

-And, the more we learn about Titan, the more we have reason to believe it is the most Earth-like world this side of a few trillion miles.

(As an aside: My hat is off to the CICLOPS Cassini spacecraft imaging team for giving us real-life pictures like this.  Thanks to them, images from our science today trump the science fiction special effects of a decade ago.)

Unlike Mars, Titan offers us lakes, rivers, clouds, and rain – A full, living hydrologic cycle that is active not billions of years ago, but today.  (Yes, “hydrologic cycle” is perhaps a slight misnomer, because on Titan the active fluid is methane/ethane, not H2O, but the process appears to be the same.)  -And, perhaps most excitingly, scientists have recently discovered evidence that may indicate methane-based alien biochemistry at work.

Specifically, a flux of hydrogen molecules toward Titan’s surface, (rather than away as would be expected,) may indicate the consumption of the gas on Titan (as aerobic life on Earth consumes oxygen); A distinct lack of the hydrocarbon acetylene, one of the most potent chemical energy sources on Titan, may betray that hydrogen-breathing, methane-based life is consuming acetylene as food.

And at least hypothetically, all of the potential chemistry checks out.

If all of this together doesn’t spell impetus for further investigation, I can’t imagine what does.  To boot, because it is so cold out at Saturn’s distance from the Sun and despite Titan’s weaker gravity, the condensed atmospheric pressure on Titan is practically identical to what we experience on Earth, making human exploration all the more feasible.

Have spacesuit, will travel.  Titan or bust.





Chasing Mars through Eldorado Valley

28 06 2010

A gust front moving across Eldorado Valley (and the sensor truck.) Credit: Me

This past Friday I was fortunate enough to reunite with my friend Dr. Steve Metzger of the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) to participate in another field season of dust-devil-chasing with a platoon of Mars researchers.  The crew this year included Dr. Asmin Pathare of PSI,  Dr. Lori Fenton of the SETI Institute, Tim Michaels of the Southwest Research Institute, graduate students from the University of Michigan, and a bevy of others from institutions both local and abroad.

As always, it was blisteringly hot and completely awesome.

The objective?  Characterize meteorological conditions and geomorphological events here, (particularly dust devils,) so that we might better understand them on Mars.

Setting up the "Michigan" meteorological station, one of several in the test area. Credit: Me.

Despite how insignificant dust seems, the way that dust is moved in a planetary atmosphere affects most everything, from cloud formation, global warming, and weather patterns to the raw density of the air.  And, aside from the more intellectually-lofty goals of understanding the history of Mars and understanding climate here on Earth, NASA really cares about the density of the Martian atmosphere simply because we need to know that to calculate how to land things there.

The location, Eldorado Valley, is a vesicularbasalt-ridden desert playa between Las Vegas and Boulder City, Nevada that just happens to be a spitting analog for several aspects of the Martian surface.

Fortuitously, it also just happens to be in my neighborhood.

In the arsenal of instrumentation today were several different equipment packages and setups, from massive meteorological towers to smaller future Mars-lander instrument stations, and from sensor-laden “storm chaser” trucks and remote operated mini-trucks to observation waypoints complete with various types of recording equipment.  Believe you me, the science was out in force.

Inside the chase truck, with the sensor boom arm in view. Credit: Me.

I partnered up with Steve in the chase truck, running as data-logging copilot for a portion of the day as we barreled across the playa, jumping on leads from the spotters and chasing down dust devils in a mad attempt to swing in front of them, thereby getting a clean slice of data through the vortex interiors with the sensors on the outside of the truck.

Despite it being windy enough to threaten blowing dust devils apart, we managed to nail quite a few by the end of the day, soaking up gobs of data on pressure, temperature, and the sediment content of the air.

I even had the chance to fire off one of the military-grade smoke grenades I brought along (to see if they actually work) in preparation for a future trip I’ve been planning.  While I didn’t get this one into a dust devil, the plan is to try and lob a grenade right in front of an approaching devil and record video of the inflow patterns across the leading edge of the vortex.  In my book it never hurts to test mathematical models with some real-world experiments.

In any event, it was a thrill and quite a privilege to jump into this, my third time out with Dr. Metzger in five years.  The team will be out in the field all of this next week, and with any luck I might end up back out with them next Friday.

Is it Mars?  Not quite.  But it is definitely close enough to whet the appetite.





CSI: Extinction Event…

1 03 2010

Gravity / electromagnetic profile of the buried Chicxulub impact crater. Yucatan, Mexico.

Penn State geoscientists have just made the first true bio-geospatial analysis of extinction patterns caused by the Yucatan impact 65 million years ago.  What does this mean, exactly?  -They managed to make the first determinations about where, how badly, and for how long specific places on Earth were devastated by the impact. 

Let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.

Sure, we’ve known for quite some time now that the ~5-mile wide rock responsible for the Chicxulub crater caused or contributed to a mass extinction (end of the dinosaurs, etc.,) from which it took life eons to recover, but now we have a real picture:

  • For instance, the asteroid was found to have entered the atmosphere from the southeast and traveled northwest to its point of impact in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Researchers also found that in addition to the surface devastation from pervasive fires and high temperature debris, nanoplankton (a major ocean food source) disappeared for 40,000 years afterward.
  • Near darkness persisted in the region for nearly six months as a result of the impact, and toxic metals distributed by the meteor prevented ocean life from recovering  for a full 270,000 years.

Ouch.  The sooner we venture off-world and develop strategies for both manipulating near-Earth asteroids as well as for developing extraterrestrial human settlements, the better.

Jupiter has been hit twice in the last 20 years by comets large enough to destroy Earth’s biosphere entirely.  We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

1994 comet impact (fragment G), Jupiter.

2009 comet impact scar, Jupiter.





Contingency Plans

26 02 2010

A short note, today, on something that struck me while out in the east-central Nevada project area for work:  Remote fieldwork = contingency planning.  That’s really all there is to it.  Take my latest trip this week, for example.  In our project area, we’re really off the grid.  What we call a road can at times barely qualify as a four-wheel drive trail, and most wouldn’t attempt some of our routes with a helicopter, much less a truck:

Northern Spring Valley, NV.

Chaining up to head up a mountain.

Because we’re so far from people or supplies, even more than on other projects, priority one is getting the data, plain and simple.  It’s such a high priority not only because data is valuable from a scientific perspective, but largely because it’s very expensive to obtain when you consider the cost of our time (four of us, two per vehicle), vehicle wear-and-tear, hotel rooms for the week, etc.  All of that expense is for nothing if we don’t get to our sites for the opportunity to make our measurements, download data from the instruments we have installed, and perform much-needed maintenance.

Making measurements fom a mountainside.

So, we push the envelope – that’s what we’re paid for.  It’s rough enough to reach our measurement sites on a good day with dry roads, and in winter time it takes even more finesse.  Weighing against pushing too hard, however, is the fact that the only thing more expensive than not getting the data is if you break a truck trying.  Then you’ve not only incurred the expense of lost time, (which equals lost data,) and vehicle and/or equipment repair, but now you’re paying for whoever has to come to bail you out.  If it’s the other team, then they’re not getting data, either.

We sank our 10,000lb truck up to the axles, spent an extra hour digging out, but made it.

Bearing all of this in mind, the punchline is that when we’re out there, we need to go for it.  But, we also need to have thought out our contingencies ahead of time.  If you get in trouble, help is hours away – assuming you can get word out that you need it.  You need to make sure you have what you need to tackle the unexpected.  Sometimes this amounts to little more than an extra shovel or ice-pick, (which are surprisingly versatile), and some ol’-fashioned grit and determination.  Experience to know what to expect helps, but imagination is also really handy when you get a curve ball from Mother Nature.

That’s all.  Knowing how to dance around the line between being gung-ho and being foolhardy really means knowing your capabilities and knowing how to sense when you’ve gotten yourself in farther than you can get yourself out.

That’s something I’m glad to have experienced firsthand and something I feel (and hope NASA will as well) is absolutely necessary for anyone contemplating leaving boot tracks off-world.

The prize: An instrument station. -Punchline: Know thyself, thy truck, & thy shovel.








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