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Humanity's next giant leap: our heritage in space is our future too
By Alice Gorman, Flinders University
The United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is meeting in Vienna this week, and representatives of 74 countries will discuss, among other things, how to ensure space is maintained for peaceful purposes, and the long-term sustainability of space activities.
It’s a good time to reflect on how we, as the public, have contributed to the current shape of space, and the ways we can find to make space meaningful. To help us do this, let’s imagine it’s some time in the future when space travel is affordable.
In our spaceliner, we’ll visit a few of the most culturally significant space places in the solar system. These places are our heritage beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.Crowd-sourcing satellite science
Schematic of spacejunk in the Low Earth orbit. NASA
Our first stop is Low Earth orbit, from about 200 to 2,000km above the surface of the Earth. This is where the International Space Station orbits, and most of our Earth observation satellites. It’s also crawling with orbital debris or “space junk”. A collision with a piece of space junk can make a spacecraft fail or even explode.
But it’s not all industrial waste up there. Orbiting among the debris and the functioning satellites are historic spacecraft representing the origins of the space age. One of these pieces of space junk tells an important story of regular people engaging with space exploration.
Vanguard 1, a grapefruit-sized aluminium sphere with four antennas, is now the oldest human object in space. It was launched by the USA in 1958. It wasn’t the first object in space – that honour goes to Sputnik 1 – or even the first US satellite, which was Explorer 1 – but unlike those two, it is still in orbit, and may be for another 600 years.
Vanguard 1, pre-launch. NASA
Vanguard 1 was aimed at promoting the idea of space as a democratic and peaceful place, so involving other nations and what we’d now call “citizen scientists” was an important part of it. The USA asked countries like Australia to host tracking stations for the satellite. They also organised volunteer “Moonwatch” groups cross the world to follow the satellite with binoculars and telescopes, and gather data about its position.
There were several of these groups in Australia too. While Vanguard 1 has great historic significance, it’s also a testament to how amateurs got involved in space exploration from the very beginning.Mixed moon messages
But in 1969, how we view the moon changed forever. On one fateful day, humans set foot on another celestial body for the first time.
When the US Apollo 11 mission landed near the Sea of Tranquility, the pictures transmitted through the Australian Honeysuckle Creek tracking station. The first steps were watched by 600 million people across the world, frequently on televisions purchased just for this purpose. Now, we can watch them on YouTube.
The Apollo 11 landing site, Tranquility Base, is both an archaeological site, with the traces and remains of a unique human activity, and a symbolic site representing how we like to think of space: in the spirit of human curiosity and technological ingenuity.
Thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2009, we’ve been able to get images from the satellite flying over Tranquility Base, and we can see the same view in our imaginary spaceliner. (The famous flag, alas, is no longer standing.)
An image of the Apollo 11 landing site captured from just 24km above the surface by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. You can see the remnants of their first steps as dark regions around the Lunar Module (LM). The Passive Seismic Experiment Package (PSEP) provided the first lunar seismic data, and the Laser Ranging RetroReflector (LRRR) allows precise measurements to be collected to this day. You can even spot the discarded cover of the LRRR. NASA
The Apollo 11 landing was presented and interpreted as an action taken on behalf of all humankind, but the planting of the flag is a classic symbol of colonisation. Under the terms of the 1967 United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty:
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
Yet clearly some would like to do just that.
Archaeological sites like Tranquility Base could be used in the future to demonstrate a prior or greater claim to the use of space resources – the “use it or lose it” principle. So these artefacts and material traces may have significance political implications in the future.As far as we can ‘see’
Jupiter’s red spot, photographed by Voyager. NASA
But it’s time for us to move on. There have been flybys, probes and orbiters to most planets in the solar system, as well as a few asteroids and comets. We’re not doing too badly in the inner and middle solar system.
But as for the outer reaches, beyond Jupiter, we have barely made an impact. Only four spacecraft have ventured out this far: Pioneer 10 and 11, with whom we have lost contact, and Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Both are currently heading outside the solar system into interstellar space, if they have not already crossed the boundary.
What these tiny spacecraft mean is the entire solar system is a human place. Our senses, through these robotic avatars, have reached into places we can’t go ourselves. We have used the physical bodies of the spacecraft to imbue space with human meaning – and human culture.
On the Voyager spacecraft, we sent representations of human culture in case, against all the odds, someone of another species one day finds them. The spacecraft each carry a “Golden Record” with recordings of music and different languages. Included in the music are two Aboriginal songs, recorded by an anthropologist in the desert. Australia might only have a few objects in Earth orbit, and no space agency, but the culture of Australian Indigenous people is going to the stars.
At the moment, most nations using space resources follow the principles set down by the Outer Space Treaty, which, among other things, recognises
the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.
But this could change. Space is full of resources to be exploited, such as prime orbital territories, minerals, and water, needed for the future colonisation of the solar system and to support space-based industries.
The Moon Treaty, created in 1979, stipulates the moon and other bodies in the solar system should be used for the benefit of all people and all nations.
The Moon, unmined – for now. NASA
The Treaty promotes international sharing of resources and scientific samples. It also bans the use of the Moon for military bases or weapons testing. But, unfortunately, few of the major spacefaring nations have ratified the treaty, for a very simple reason: some do want to lay claim to the resources of space, and deny their use to others.
We all use space assets in Earth orbit for weather predictions, telephone and television, and global positioning systems.
We are stakeholders in space not just because it provides resources, but also because space development has shaped everyday life in the 20th and 21st century and these satellites and places are our history and heritage.
This heritage is the illustration that space does not just belong to spacefaring nations and commercial organisations. If it is important to us, it is also our right to have a say in what happens to it. And if we are not engaged in this process, then governments, the military and commercial enterprises will make those decisions for us.
Space heritage is what links us to our past in space, and to our future in the stars. And that future should be yours and mine to decide.
This article is based on a TEDxSydney presentation from May 4, 2013.
Alice Gorman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Plagioclase Dust: Musings on EVE's Industrial Side, Space Mining and Alt-Tabbing
It’s 5:00 PM and I’ve been off work for four hours. I’ve spent most of that time playing EVE Online and mining ore. With a mining barge it takes me roughly one hour to make around 5 million ISK (Ingame credits) and another 5 to transport it. The barge has three strip miners 775m3 worth of ore per 180 minute cycle. My ore bay unfortunately isn’t that large coming in at 7,000m3 which means I am jetcanning. It’s a risky endeavor as you jettison what ore you have into space which puts it into a large container that has way more capacity. After I’m done I’ll swoop back in with another ship and haul it back to the refinery for processing.
Once the ore is processed into different materials it’s off to whatever customer buys it, this case it was a guy by the name of Grish Law, who is one out of hundreds of thousands of players, and who happens to be the primary purchaser of ores and industrial materials in this backwater high / low security region of space where I operate. Mr. Law happens to be a part of a small industrial corporation that has holdings in my region and is a part of a larger alliance that is engulfed in warfare out in the nullsec, 0.0, or the wild west version of space.
While I sit here waiting to go to the gym again and thinking about the deeper things out in the void I am funding an ongoing player versus player conflict. The materials that I process and refine from the ores I mine, these giant asteroids and chunks of rock, are used to kill other players or save their lives. Sometimes it’s difficult to see it. Where does all of this go? Some giant NPC driven storage room for whatever reason? Nope. It goes to another player who is using it.
I won’t lie I’d love to be a pirate. I want that sexy Raven class battleship fitted to the brim with fuck you. I want to roam the low security space and nullsec hunting down prey. Is it out of malice? No but more of a sense of why not? Call me a romantic but that kind of thing appeals to be. But alas even after a drunken night of leaving my extremely supportive and small corporation, wandering around the bad part of space and picking fights with players who have 7+ years of experience behind them while flying some tiny ass frigate I still like mining. Granted buying 300,000 cruise missiles that I can’t use, 127 slaves and 3 exotic dancers wasn’t a great financial decision but I was hammered. Along the way I contacted several pirate corporations, mercenary outfits and general bad guys. They all had high requirements that I wasn’t anywhere close to meeting and I even tried to join a major alliance and become one of thousands. Another drone for the meat grinder.
Fortunately one of the pirates pointed me in the right direction. His career was full of noob kills, miner ganks and PVP fights. According to him rushing into it wasn’t the right decision and that I should listen to the realist within me. Granted it’s a spaceship video game but still I don’t make rash decisions normally. I could throw away my small fortune, assets and relative progress, burn my bridges, contacts and support, and become an outlaw. By doing so I would lose all of the currency I had earned, burn through countless ships and find myself screwed. Another rat patrolling an empty corridor of space looking for a ransom.
The romantic inside of my was screaming do it. Make a rash and uncalculated decision for once. Ignore risk. The industrialist within me was screaming don’t be an idiot. The moonshine is talking right now but try not to fuck up too bad. You have mining barges, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and industrial ships. A corporation compensates you for all operational losses and provides logistical support. They are also generally really cool people that you’ve spent the past month with. You’ve made bagel jokes, talked about rising prices of rigs in Rens, nullsec politics and how we will retake the wormhole (Our large swathe of property and assets we lost last year in a internal dispute that lead to sabotage.)
Alas I find myself back in the belt after wanting to strike it alone as a privateer. I’m now planning a strip mining operation where a friend of mine and I will clear out an entire belt over the course of a day. I won’t rule out piracy but I have so much to learn. What many within EVE fail to realize is that without me, the guy so many people hate on because he isn’t blowing shit up and pissing other people off, they wouldn’t have ships. No ammunition or supplies would arrive to the front lines and the epic battles waged by Goonswarm and thousands of others wouldn’t happen. That is one of the beautiful things about EVE as a whole, there are so many options and things to do.
On the side of mining and doing missions (Were still preparing as a whole for PVP) I trade arms. I am in the business of selling and manufacturing weapons, ammunition, drones, sensors and ships. With the capital I earn from mining I invest in the market while also manufacturing my own items. I feel like I need to take an economics class to help with trading in EVE. It’s incredibly advanced and dynamic. But regardless at the end of the day I am, in one way or another, responsible for the grander scheme of things in EVE.
Space travel and alien worlds: Part 1
This is part 1 of what will be (at least) a two-part series on the future of space travel and exploration. Part 2 will go up on Thursday. For the time being at least I will be posting on Tuesdays and Thursdays, although I may run out of ideas for posts.
It has been decades since humans have gone more than a measly 400 miles from Earth. Now, with the space shuttles retired and no new launches planned by NASA until 2015 at the earliest, the future of space travel looks dubious at best.
There are a lot of independent companies that are trying to get into space, and a few that have already done so. Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, to name two; and there’s that coalition of slightly-eccentric billionaires planning to mine platinum from asteroids within the next 20 years. The successes of private individuals are heartening in the face of NASA’s recent record, which is dominated by spectacular, deadly accidents and huge expenditures for minuscule scientific gains.
But let’s be brutally honest: right now, space is expensive. Historically, expansion into new frontiers was driven by desire for commercial gain, and as things stand there is little to be gained by expanding into space. Before space becomes profitable, we need a cheaper way of getting there, and I have a few ideas about how that is going to happen.
Want to colonise space? It's time to start off-Earth mining
By Andrew Dempster, University of New South Wales
The prospect of people settling away from Earth has been a topic for dreamers and visionaries for some time. But if it’s ever to happen for real, there needs to be more than starry-eyed optimism. There needs to be a business model, and ways of supporting the colonists.
The business model exists, and it’s one we’ve tried before. When Europe colonised the Americas (from 1492 onwards), it was the potential for mining which drew the colonists. Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico and Francisco Pizarro’s of the Inca empire were partially about land they were annexing for Spain, but more important was the gold and other riches that could be extracted from that land. A similar opportunity exists in space, without the bloodshed of those conquests.
In 2012, the US-based company Planetary Resources was set up as a new venture to mine asteroids for water, rare minerals and other high-value materials. The gold we use on Earth is believed to have come from asteroids and was not on the earth when it was molten, and objects the size of planets have been discovered which are mainly diamond.
On the moon, it is possible to mine water, but possibly the most useful resource is Helium-3, very rare on Earth but comparatively abundant on the moon. It can be used in fusion reactors.
The first uses for these mining applications would in fact not be to return them to Earth for exploitation, but to aid in other space activities, such as “refuelling” satellites or missions going further afield, such as to Mars. The colonists will need oxygen and water – not as dazzling as gold and diamonds, but more valuable. Oxygen and water can be extracted by mining and chemically processing the dust.
Of course, there are many barriers to setting up a mining operation in space. Machinery must be designed to work with different types of soils, in zero or low gravity. Automation of that equipment must be such that it needs little intervention from Earth. That automated equipment must be able to position itself without GPS. And it all must work first time, after exhaustive simulation on Earth.
Further, there are the legal issues – who owns those resources? Are existing treaties robust enough? How do you secure your mine? And there are the economics: how well has the geology been studied? Are you mining in the right place? Can a return be guaranteed?
These and many other related issues will be discussed at the Off-Earth Mining Forum, hosted by the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (of which I’m the director) at the University of New South Wales on February 20 and 21.
This is the first forum of its type in Australia, and possibly the world. The forum will allow the blue (black?) sky researchers to test their ideas with hard-headed miners. The extreme needs of space may well produce useful outcomes for terrestrial mining, particularly in the area of automation. There is also a logic to its being held in Australia.
It allows an industry where Australia is a world leader – mining – to assist in developing an area where Australia is weak – upstream space systems development. At a time when the Federal Government is preparing to release a national space policy, bold new initiatives like this can bring partnerships and business opportunities.
The Australia in the Asian Century white paper set the goal of lifting Australia’s productivity into the global top ten by 2025. A recent report from the UK has shown that mining and space are numbers one and three in terms of productivity by sector.
Mining is already well-developed in Australia, but improving its productivity has been a subject for recent debate. Australia developing upstream space capability will also be a strong driver to delivering the higher productivity the government seeks.
There are various estimates of when the first off-Earth mine will be established. Some say within a decade.
Whenever it is, it is highly likely it will be the next significant step in our colonisation of space.
Andrew Dempster works for the University of New South wales, which is hosting the event mentioned in the article. He receives funding from the Australian Space Research Program.