As I have said
in this slot
before, you would have to be mad not to be in Burlington House, Piccadilly, on the second Friday of the month. That’s when the Royal Astronomical Society meets for about the most gripping couple
of hours of intellectual life that I know about. Stuff that would be the high point at TED or Davos is completely routine here. One hint: the meetings are held only from October to May. The gentlemen who started the Society in 1820 (most prominently Charles Babbage) would never be in town in the summer.
Last week’s high point for me was an appearance by Martin Elvis from Harvard. His double focus was on quasars and asteroids. Both of them get their names from the fact that they look like, but are not, stars. That is where the
similarity ends. Quasars are distant, ancient galaxy cores, while asteroids are nearby bits of rock that never quite got swept up when the planets formed. Some still do get swept up, as the dinosaurs found to their cost.
All Elvis wanted to do in his life as a scientist was to look at quasars more closely. He wants a telescope that will resolve their detail, not just allow for higher-quality guesswork about them. However, the business pages suggest that on the current model, he won’t be able to. The big space observatories, most famously Hubble, may not be replaced, much less improved upon. And the next generation of Earthbound telescopes, with light-gathering surface up to 100m across, are also a long shot in the current funding climate. Today’s big telescopes cost $1 billion, let alone these much bigger ones. As he sees it, we are reaching the end of a Golden Age for astronomy, because it is hard for any Golden Age to last more than maybe 50 years.
However, the energetic Elvis is not one to despair. Instead, he has decided that private enterprise can save the day. Mine some asteroids: make a profit: build a big space telescope. Only in America.
The plan he has developed (which he tells me has distracted him massively from his life as a quasar investigator) starts with
current plans to cut spaceflight costs massively by avoiding state agencies and their box-ticking mindset. It envisages low-cost spaceflight which would, as he put it, have greed as a prime motivator.
This is where the asteroids come in. They are fascinating things to know about because they are leftover bits of the early solar system. But they also contain useful stuff such as water, indispensable for people in space, and precious metals such as platinum – nice for jewellery, vital for catalysis, eg in motor car exhausts. One 200m asteroid would contain $30bn of platinum, so much that you could not bring it all back to Earth without killing the price.
This raises all sorts of fun questions. First, we need a better way of characterising asteroids and finding out which ones might have the good minerals. Second, we need technology to do the mining. Elvis recommends we start small by parking a 7m asteroid to practice on.
Mastering this technology probably gives you the ability to divert dangerous incoming asteroids, by the way.
But I have always thought that this tale of mining asteroids and bringing the good bits back to Earth is only the beginning. The real story is that doing this allows massive structures to be built in space from asteroid material. That’s got to be where the action
Meantime, as Elvis puts it, this new business creates a subject called “Applied Astronomy.” He says that people might even be able for the first time to go into astronomy for the money. Certainly the loose change would buy him his quasar-cracking telescope.
At the RAS, his talk (which reveals a high level of thought and planning) was received with enthusiasm. In the US, there has been more hostility, and the Ayn Rand jibe. Watch this space for more on Elvis’s maturing plans.