Solar system looking more resource-rich by the day

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2009

There’s water on Mars, and there’s water on the Moon. And now there’s water out in the asteroid belt, too – if spectral analysis of the rock known as 24 Themis is to believed, that is [via SlashDot]:

Analyses of the sunlight reflected off the asteroid also show that organic compounds are widespread on the surface, he added, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, CH2 and CH3.

The new finding corroborates earlier observations of the same asteroid by astronomers Andrew S. Rivkin and Joshua Emery who also used the Infrared Telescope Facility. Over several years, Rivkin and Emery had found evidence of frozen water in single spots on 24 Themis but had not studied the asteroid as it made one entire rotation. Together, the two teams’ findings reveal that the asteroid’s entire surface is coated with frozen water, Campins says.


The scientists say these new findings support the theory that asteroids brought both water and organic compounds to the early Earth, helping lay the foundation for life on the planet.

Well, maybe, but it also supports another theory: the asteroid belt is actually the broken remains of Earth’s twin planet which was destroyed by Xenu in a fit of pique OMFG!!!1


The destructive rage of entirely fictional deities aside, it’s becoming clear that the necessities of life – if not life itself – are more abundant out beyond the gravity well than we thought. So maybe we should lend more credence to speculative work like that of planetary scientist Richard Greenfield Greenberg, who theorizes that not only is Europa’s ocean comprised of water, but that it may be more oxygen-rich than those of Earth, meaning there could be all sorts of weird multicellular lifeforms lurking out there waiting to be discovered.

Isn’t it high time we went out and looked?

Friday fly-over: Mars’ Gusev Crater

Paul Raven @ 25-09-2009

Right, it’s Friday – so have some Martian landscape porn. A guy called Doug Ellison put this together to celebrate the Spirit rover’s third birthday… counting in Martian years, natch.

Pretty impressive, given it’s made purely from data collected by the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter and Spirit itselfas Paul McAuley says, it’ll not be long before there are versions that’ll allow you to explore the Red Planet at will, and Google Mars is getting pretty close.

And on the subject of Mars, there’s been more sightings of water ice, though it’s been somewhat overshadowed by the discovery of water on our nearer neighbour the Moon. Isn’t it high time we got to work on reducing price-to-orbit and actually going to these places in person?

Europe in 2030: An Optimist Predicts

Tom Marcinko @ 22-07-2009

small worldSo you want an optmistic vision? How about a vision named after Voltaire’s absurdly optimistic hero?

Publishing “Candide’s Garden” in Spielgel Online, Wolfram Eilenberg, who teaches international studies at Indiana University, advances this bracing hypothesis:

Anyone who now wants to talk about the future of Europe must first grasp the fact that we are — at this moment — experiencing a European utopia that has been cultivated for millennia.

The dogma-free, democratic marketplace of ideas, for which Socrates gave his life in Athens, is today a communicative reality in which hundreds of millions of citizens are actively taking part.

Eilenberger, who it turns out is not Dr. Pangloss after all, warns of big changes ahead, but he believes the European Union is well-positioned to weather them. We are entering an age of instant information accompanied by a scarcity of fuel, food, and water.

Put simply, the world will become bigger again.

… Instead of a globalized world economy that crosses continental barriers with ease, we will see continental autarchic zones being formed that will be shaped by the military defense of the basic resources available in each zone. We will thus see the logic of imperial expansion replaced by an aspiration to autarchic inclusion (already the EU strategy). The internal market of each zone will reassume economic primacy. This process does not have to end in war. It could well take an ordered course and lead to a multipolar equilibrium, the stability of which — like that of the Cold War — is guaranteed by an awareness of what military options are not available.

OK, that is sounding a good deal less optimistic. “Does not have to end in war” could mean “may well end that way.” But Eilenberger believes the EU is well positioned to weather these changes:

In cultural terms, Europe is equipped with a plurality of languages that lends itself to innovation as well as a global lingua franca: English (though by 2030 Spanish will be the European Union’s second main language). It is not burdened by any politically effective fundamentalisms, and Europe’s communications and transportation infrastructure leads the world. The thesis of a relative optimum also holds in demographic terms.

As for the USA – well, it’s up to those of us who live there, and our willingness to adapt.

An entire way of life, including the country’s suburban landscapes, will have to be fundamentally restructured. Today it is estimated that this inevitable process of economic and infrastructural renewal — one that will certainly also present new opportunities — will take at least twenty years to complete and, as is already becoming evident, will follow the process of reorientation to internal markets characteristic of autarchic zones. Furthermore, the already irreversible linguistic and cultural Hispanicization of its southern regions means that the United States will face greater integration challenges than will Europe with its smaller Muslim minorities.

Put in more positive terms, the way the United States develops will depend crucially on its readiness to consciously Hispanicize itself and — together with Brazil — to see itself in the long term as the strongest link within a pan-American community.

Which underlines the need to improve our discourse. Europeans, you should hear what our Confederate Party says about you, not to mention about people who speak Spanish. (Oops, is calling Republicans mean names the best way to improve our discourse? Self-criticism to follow. Could just be the reaction of an American with Euro-envy.)

I have no idea whether Eilenberger is right, but it’s a well-thought-out, wide-screen argument that he lays out. We need more of that in science fiction, too.

[Image: JasonRogersFooDogGiraffeBee]

Epic engineering: It still lives

Tom Marcinko @ 17-07-2009

hooverThis Arizona Republic item put me in mind of William Gibson’s early story “The Gernsback Continuum,” a rumination on the golden age of mega-construction. I saw this engineering marvel on a recent drive to Vegas (bookie, debt, showgirl–long story) and it’s an awe-inspiring sight.

A quarter-mile downstream from Hoover Dam, two fingers of concrete stretch toward each other from sheer cliffs, suspended nearly 900 feet above the Colorado River.

In a month, the fingers will meet, an 80-foot gap will close and the longest concrete arch in the Western Hemisphere will be complete.

The union will mark a major milestone in the nine-year construction of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, scheduled to open in late 2010.

But even incomplete, the overpass, officially known as the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, evokes a sense of wonder. Towering columns perch on naked rock. The arch is held by tendons of steel cable…

The $114 million bridge project has been a challenge. Accidents delayed it by two years and claimed one life, as workers battled intense heat, dangerously high winds and perilous heights…

Work crews had to build foundations for the arches midway up two sheer cliff faces, hundreds of feet above the river.

Temperatures as high as 120 degrees strain workers and heat up wet concrete. Crews use liquid nitrogen to keep the concrete cool so blocks don’t develop fatal cracks.

[Nevada side of the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge under construction at the Hoover Dam. Taken May 3, 2009 by squeaks2569]

Frank Herbert’s Fremen moisture traps made real

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2009

man walking on desert dunesChalk up another point for Frank Herbert; the moisture traps used by his Fremen characters in the Dune series to extract drinkable water from an otherwise bone-dry desert are a technological reality.

Research scientists […] have found a way of converting this air humidity autonomously and decentrally into drinkable water. “The process we have developed is based exclusively on renewable energy sources such as thermal solar collectors and photovoltaic cells, which makes this method completely energy-autonomous. It will therefore function in regions where there is no electrical infrastructure,” says Siegfried Egner, head of department at the IGB. The principle of the process is as follows: hygroscopic brine – saline solution which absorbs moisture – runs down a tower-shaped unit and absorbs water from the air. It is then sucked into a tank a few meters off the ground in which a vacuum prevails. Energy from solar collectors heats up the brine, which is diluted by the water it has absorbed.

Because of the vacuum, the boiling point of the liquid is lower than it would be under normal atmospheric pressure. This effect is known from the mountains: as the atmospheric pressure there is lower than in the valley, water boils at temperatures distinctly below 100 degrees Celsius. The evaporated, non-saline water is condensed and runs down through a completely filled tube in a controlled manner. The gravity of this water column continuously produces the vacuum and so a vacuum pump is not needed. The reconcentrated brine runs down the tower surface again to absorb moisture from the air.

Crafty stuff… and if climate change brings the increased desertification that some suggest it will, there’ll be a lot of people in need of technology just like this. [via SlashDot; image by Gret@Lorenz]

On a similar note, here’s an architectural concept that uses a similar process to extract potable water from air humidity on hot sunny coastlines

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