Sky With Diamonds – Asteroid Mining

The croudsourcing website Kickstarter has had its share of audacious projects in the past, but one that wraps up at the end of this month is truly out of this world. Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based aerospace company, has already achieved its initial goal of $1,000,000 for the ARKYD space telescope. Named for a corporation in the Star Wars universe, the satellite will provide public access to state-of-the-art imaging capabilities, allowing anyone from grade school science fair competitors to grad school doctoral candidates to take pictures of objects in space. While itself revolutionary, ARKYD is only a side project for the company; its main goal is the profitable exploitation of asteroids.

Asteroid mining concept, courtesy of Wired.

The idea is an ambitious one, but Planetary Resources has gained the support (and funding) of respected businessmen and scientists, including Google co-founder Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt,  investor Ross Perot, Jr., and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The company undoubtedly requires vast amounts of start-up capital: possible asteroids must first be identified with the ARKYD telescope, then examined by flyby missions and surveyed by prospecting satellites. Once viable targets are found, however, the company will have a business model based on the law of gravity itself. Any real colonization or exploration of space requires large amounts of bulky, heavy raw materials, especially water, which can serve as everything from human life support to spacecraft fuel. Yet launching the necessary quantities of these materials from Earth’s surface is ludicrously expensive, ranging from $4,500 to $11,000 per pound. The materials harvested in space would have already overcome the most expensive part of space exploration, getting into orbit, and could be sold at prices well below the cost of launch.

Existing research on asteroids has shown them to be full of useful and valuable materials, and different types of asteroids contain different riches. C-type asteroids, the most common, are largely composed of carbon and are most promising for the extraction of water. S-type asteroids, or “stony” asteroids, are made mostly of iron and magnesium compounds, which could provide the raw materials for manufacturing in space. Perhaps the most glamorous, however, are the M-type, or metallic, asteroids. These rocks are the rarest asteroid type, but what they lack in quantity they make up in quality: just one platinum-rich M-type asteroid is thought to contain approximately 7,500 tons of the precious metal, a value of over $150 billion.

Given these kind of figures (literally) floating around, there has been surprisingly little exploration of the legal ramifications of asteroid mining. The most relevant piece of legislation is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a U.N. resolution that protects “the moon and other celestial bodies” from “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This law has received only one challenge over the course of its existence, a claim by Gregory Nemitz, CEO of the private space exploration company Orbital Development, to the asteroid Eros in response to NASA’s exploration of the object. The lawsuit was dismissed without an official decision, leaving the legality of claims to asteroids unsettled. Nemitz’s opinion on the matter, however, is worth quoting: “Today it is probably best to just carry forward with the engineering projects aiming to extract and use space resources and not worry too much about property rights. Property rights are officially recognized primarily to protect property from theft and vandalism. Space is vast and there aren’t any neighbors vying to steal your property, so don’t worry too much about it.”

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Gold in the Sands – Keystone XL

Last February, the largest environmental rally in U.S. history took place in Washington. Nearly 40,000 people marched on the White House in an effort to bring President Barack Obama’s attention to the possible dangers of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a system to be constructed over 2,000 miles for the transport of crude oil from Canada to Texas. Despite their efforts, the president’s most recent statements claim that the pipeline will be approved if it is not shown to “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” which is the official position of the U.S. State Department. Some protesters, disheartened by the ineffectiveness of their standard methods, have resorted to more extreme measures: yesterday, eight activists chained themselves to equipment at a construction site for an already approved portion of the project.

Current and proposed path of Keystone XL, courtesy of the Washington Post.

The main issue environmentalists have with the pipeline (and the main benefit claimed by its proponents) is its potential to encourage the exploitation of Canadian bituminous sands, commonly known as “oil sands” or “tar sands.” Unlike the crude oil of conventional petroleum deposits, the wealth of the tar sands is in the form of bitumen, a heavy substance completely mixed with sand, clay and water, forming a viscous mixture that has been compared to “cold molasses.” The extraction of oil from the tar sands is accomplished either through mining or processes such as steam-assisted gravity drainage, in which steam is used to heat the sands to the point at which they begin to flow and the resulting mixture is pumped out of the ground. Bitumen must be further treated to be sold and used as fuel, a capital-intensive endeavor, and the economic feasibility of tar sand exploitation depends heavily on oil prices. When business is thriving, however, tar sand extraction uses massive quantities of fresh water and natural gas, contaminating aquifers and consuming large amounts of energy.

The environmental impacts of the sands themselves are also a topic of intense debate. A number of scientists have hypothesized that the nature of diluted bitumen makes it more prone to leakage from pipelines, but the most recent report from the independent National Academy of Sciences claims that “[d]iluted bitumen has no greater likelihood of accidental pipeline release than other crude oils.” In comparison with conventional sources of oil, extraction from the tar sands produces approximately 14 percent more greenhouse gases; although these emissions currently account for only 0.15 percent of the global total, the reserves in the sands represent 240 billion metric tons of carbon against the “trillion ton” limit proposed by Myles Allen of Oxford University.

However, the economic benefits of building the pipeline could be considerable: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce predicts that Keystone XL could add 250,000 jobs and $20 billion to the economy over the course of its construction. Stopping the project may even be the worse of two environmental evils, as China represents a significant alternative market for the tar sands, and the emissions standards of that nation are less stringent than those of the United States. There is no easy answer regarding the construction of Keystone XL, but it seems as if the extraction of the tar sands is destined to happen. Building the pipeline could ensure that the exploitation of these resources is handled in the least damaging way possible.

What You Eat – GMO Labeling

California voters found themselves in the middle of a media firestorm last November over a ballot measure with the innocuous name of Proposition 37. Beneath the legalese, the measure would have required all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold as food in the state of California to be labeled with the fact that they had been modified. Those in favor of the proposition included smaller organic companies like the cereal maker Nature’s Path and the dairy producer Organic Valley, while those opposed were primarily larger corporate interests such as the seed company Monsanto and the Kellogg Company (the parent corporation of the “natural” branded Kashi and MorningStar product lines). Total spending on efforts to support or defeat the measure topped $50 million, with “No” lobbyists making up over 90 percent of that amount. This spending spree seemed to have been effective, as voters rejected the proposition by an approximately three percent margin. The debate over GMO labeling, however, continues across the rest of the United States, with Connecticut and Maine recently passing their own labeling requirements.

A European food label listing GMOs, courtesy of Farm Wars.

The term “GMO” has taken on a life of its own, and the politicized nature of the debate has in many ways obscured the science behind the issue. GMO is a blanket term used to refer to any organism whose DNA has been manipulated by means outside of natural processes. The label is most commonly applied to transgenic organisms, in which genetic material from other species is introduced into the target organism. The most famous transgenic crop may be Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soybean (the organism at the center of a recent Supreme Court decision). In normal soybeans, the herbicide Roundup prevents a vital biochemical pathway from functioning, killing the plant. Roundup Ready soybeans, on the other hand, have been modified with a bacterial version of the gene targeted by Roundup, making them immune to the herbicide’s effects. Farmers are then able to spray Roundup over their fields, killing weeds while leaving their crop intact.

The “Yes on 37” camp is primarily concerned with the safety of GMOs and believes that labeling these foods will allow consumers to make an informed decision at the supermarket. The research on this point, however, is almost universally supportive of the safety of these crops; as reported by the National Research Council, after “14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of two billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.” Indeed, the regulation of GMOs is much stricter than that of novel conventional crops, which are more likely to have unanticipated impacts as they are introduced around the world. The “No on 37” effort raises a number of other concerns with labeling schemes, including increased grocery costs due to regulatory compliance and the possibility of “shakedown lawsuits” for unintentional errors in labeling. While there are legitimate ecological concerns regarding GMO crops, these are perhaps better addressed at higher regulatory levels. GMO labeling is more likely to raise anti-scientific sentiment at a time where every alternative for feeding the world is worthy of exploration.

YouTube Roundup – Music Videos of Science!

I’m spending the weekend at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., where thinking productively about science is more or less impossible. Although there’s plenty to be said about the science of acoustics or the engineering of guitars, headbanging makes it very hard to write. Instead, I’ve collected an array of ten YouTube videos that show scientists can rock out too!

Symphony of Science – “We Are All Connected”
Auto-Tune finally gets used for something worthwhile as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy explain the essential unity of all things.

Tom Leher – “The Elements Song”
If your high school chemistry teacher never showed you this little ditty, something went wrong. All the building blocks of the universe are sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”

Zheng Lab – “Bad Project”
Every scientist can sympathize with difficulties in the lab, and this team from the Baylor College of Medicine channel the spirit of Lady Gaga to turn disaster into delight.

They Might Be Giants – “Science is Real”
For all those times when someone fails to acknowledge a scientific fact, it’s better to turn to this cheery song by the U.S.-based indie band than to get angry.

A Capella Science – “Rolling in the Higgs”
All the excitement about the Large Hadron Collider is reflected in this impressive feat of overdubbing, where one man explains the discovery of the Higgs boson to the tune of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”

GZA – “Dark Matter”
This member of the venerable Wu Tang Clan (also at Bonnaroo) plans to release a number of science-inspired albums, giving a new meaning to the common lyric “droppin’ knowledge.”

Epic Rap Battles of History – “Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison”
As heated as the “War of Currents” of the 1880s may have been, it’s got nothing on this freestyle throwdown between two of history’s greatest inventors.

“Weird Al” Yankovic – “Pancreas”
One of the most under-appreciated organs in the body gets a soulful paean from the king of odd subject matter (also at Bonnaroo), accompanied by a music video with all the creepiest elements of 1950s educational film.

BioRad – “GTCA”
The biotechnology company shows an unexpected side with this masterful parody of “YMCA,” a short and sweet tribute to DNA replication. So good, you’ll hardly realize it’s an advertisement for their new line of PCR kits!

Chris Hadfield – “Space Oddity”
The former commander of the International Space Station covers the David Bowie classic while literally “sitting in a tin can, far above the world.” The guitar may have cost $75,000 to get into orbit, but the gorgeous backdrop of this video shows it to be money well spent.

Emerald Cities – Vertical Farming

As I write this post in central Illinois, I’d be hard-pressed to associate farming with anything other than flatland. Acres and acres of industrial monoculture stretch as far as sight allows, 12.2 million of corn and 9.4 million of soybean in the state alone. It is difficult to imagine feeding a burgeoning world population, projected to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050, through any other means but increasing these rural, single-crop expanses. Some thinkers, however, envision a future where crops are grown up, not out, in a technique known as vertical farming.

The idea was first developed by Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University. As he explains in his book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” the central concept is simple: instead of continuing to convert natural ecosystems into farmland, a practice that can lead to environmental pollution and may contribute to climate change, humanity should “[g]row most of our food crops within specially constructed buildings located inside the city limits using methods that do not require soil.” In these structures, crops would enjoy the advantages of human-controlled conditions, avoiding the dangers of drought, disease, and pests, and could also be produced year-round instead of seasonally. Growing food where demand is highest would also greatly reduce the most harmful “hidden cost” of agriculture, the vast amount of  edible material lost due to spoilage during harvest and transport.

Vertical farm concept, courtesy of Oliver Foster O Design

Although the gorgeous structures of green and glass envisioned in architectural sketches haven’t yet become reality, a number of more modest vertical farms have made the leap from theory into practice. In Suwon, South Korea, a three-story vertical farm is testing highly-controlled techniques for lettuce production, while in Manchester, England, the Alpha Farm project is turning a derelict office building into an agricultural hotbed. Chicago seems to be the center of the movement in America, with the FarmedHere greenhouse producing large-scale quantities of basil for Whole Foods and other retailers and The Plant creating an ambitious aquaponics setup where agricultural waste becomes food for edible tilapia fish.

These proofs-of-concept have been promising, but a huge gap remains between vertical farming as a novelty and as the world’s primary agricultural technique. The most troubling technical issue has been the provision of adequate light to the plants. In a traditional system, the sun obviously does all the work, but when crops are grown inside, energy must be constantly supplied to the building. Some of this cost can be offset by using “pinkhouse” technology, where LED lights are used that emit only the specific frequencies used by plants in photosynthesis. From an economic standpoint, the start-up costs of a vertical farm are the largest barrier to entry; one estimate of a project in Toronto, Canada approached $110 million. In light of Despommier’s vision, where vertical farms help relieve the environmental problems of and ease urban expansion in developing nations, this capital-intense figure seems out of reach. Even in the industrialized world, the cost of buildings in urban centers may prove too much for farming to fund profitably. If nothing else, the concept of the vertical farm has given producers an alternative to consider, and it remains to be seen how far the idea will develop.

Ounces of Prevention – Genetic Disease Testing

Actress Angelina Jolie, it could safely be said, has one of the most admired figures in the world. It is then understandable that her recent decision to undergo a double mastectomy also received a great deal of attention. Jolie chose to have the procedure after a genetic screen revealed that she carries a rare variant of the BRCA1 gene associated with a greatly increased risk of breast cancer. The spotlight attached to such a high-profile celebrity has been turned on genetic testing, much like attention was given to colonoscopies after Katie Couric of the Today Show broadcast her own, and many women are now considering tests for BRCA and other potentially harmful mutations.

A 23andme testing kit, courtesy of Paul Stamatiou.

The market is certainly willing to provide these sorts of tests, many of them without the consultation of a medical professional. 23andMe, for example, provides a self-administered kit for $99 that screens for over 240 health conditions,  while GenePlanet offers a comprehensive analysis of disease risk and drug interactions for €499. These tests operate using relative inexpensive SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) techniques; in essence, they search for a difference in one “letter” of the genetic code that has previously been associated with a given health condition. Many of the tests used in a hospital setting, however, involve the sequencing of at-risk genes, reading the full “sentence” of the DNA that codes for a protein or regulates other parts of the code. These tests can be quite pricey: Myriad Genetics, the company behind Jolie’s BRCA testing, charges up to $4,000 for its most comprehensive examination of breast cancer risk. Myriad currently holds patents on the BRCA genes, granting it a monopoly on tests for harmful mutations (a monopoly currently being challenged in the Supreme Court).

These kinds of price tags, which in many cases may not be covered by insurance, have caused some doctors to question whether the enthusiasm for genetic testing may be premature. A pressing issue for many is that, while testing may provide information on disease risks, in most cases there are few preventative actions that can be taken. Mastectomy and breast cancer is an obvious exception, but as Stanford University’s Andrew Fire has been quoted, “if someone off the street is looking for pointers on how to live a healthier life, there’s nothing these tests will tell you besides basic physician advice like ‘eat right, don’t smoke and get plenty of exercise.’” For genetic tests of conditions like Lou Gehrig’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, a positive result can at present yield little but stress and referral to genetic counseling. In the future, it may become possible to replace faulty regions of the genome in a process called gene therapy, but the science of this technique, while promising, is still very much in the exploratory phase.

However, a powerful reason for more widespread genetic testing is that these tests become more powerful the more they are administered. SNP tests work by correlating differences in DNA with diseases; these correlations are not perfect, as many other factors are usually involved in the development of a disease. Yet after a person is tested for a given SNP, whether they develop a given disease becomes a data point for the interpretation of that genetic variant. The statistical strength of the test increases with the sample size, making predictions for other patients more accurate. Those who undergo testing today are laying the groundwork for the future, where it may be possible to do more about the results than wait and worry. Each individual must weigh whether that contribution to science is worth the potential pain of learning about a disease for which little can currently be done.

The Species Has Spoken – Mars One

On July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis successfully touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bringing its mission, along with that of NASA’s manned spaceflight program, to a close. For nearly two years, U.S. astronauts have resorted to hitching rides on the Russian Soyuz rocket, while U.S. satellites and International Space Station components have been ferried to orbit by private companies like SpaceX. In NASA’s defense, its recent unmanned missions, like the bold landing of the Curiosity Mars rover or the ion-propelled Dawn asteroid probe, have pushed the envelope of science and engineering. Yet after Congress cut funding for the Constellation program, NASA’s planned successor to the shuttle program, in response to a tightening budget, the prospects of human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit have seemed rather unlikely.

Astronaut hopefuls may yet have another ticket to the Red Planet in the Dutch non-profit organization Mars One. Its founder, Bas Lansdorp, recently gave a TED talk outlining his ambitious goal: the establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2023. In contrast with the scuttled Constellation program, Mars One plans to assemble its hardware from existing suppliers rather than develop its own, saving significant amounts in research and development costs. The greatest savings, however, come from the mission plan itself, which includes no possibility of return for the Martian settlers. Much of the expense of spaceflight comes from the fact that a rocket must not only carry enough fuel to put its payload into orbit, but also enough fuel to get that fuel into flight.  For the Martian astronauts to return, an entire second rocket would have to be either sent into or assembled in space, safely landed on Mars, and have enough fuel to make the return trip. NASA has estimated the cost of a such journey at $100 billion; Mars One, in contrast, claims it can land its crew on the planet for a mere $6 billion.

Artist’s rendition of the Mars One colony, courtesy of Fox News.

The organization’s most revolutionary idea may be the way it plans to finance the endeavor: the creation of the most ambitious and important reality TV phenomenon in history. From crew selection and training through launch and landing, Mars One plans to televise, tweet, and post the entire course of the mission. The company has already leveraged the power of YouTube in its astronaut selection process; over 78,000 applicants have uploaded videos explaining why they should be selected for the 20 available crew slots (with an application fee of up to $73). If successful, this approach would monetize the most important intangible of space exploration, the sense of wonder inherent in the vast distances and unknown mysteries of space. Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk drew approximately 125 million viewers in the US, a 93 percent share of all TV viewers in the country; the cost of a 30 second ad for the most recent Super Bowl, with a market share of only 48 percent, was $4 million. Although some may consider it crass to advertise during the coverage of this great adventure, it seems a small price to pay to allow the mission to take place at all. Until it becomes possible to mine asteroids for platinum or other valuable metals (a possibility this blog will explore in a future post), the riches of media may prove the best way to fund the exploration of space.