Published on April 25th, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi
Space News: 'Strange Objects' Punch Holes in Saturn Ring, Will A Plan to Mine Asteroids Help Earth's Economy? [VIDEO]
Half mile-wide objects that NASA and ESA experts are calling “strange” and “mysterious” have punctured holes in Saturn’s “weirdest” ring, known as the F ring…Ok, that’s three words that mean unusual, so you know that something odd is happening…
The objects were observed by the Cassini orbiter probe and took some time and careful hunting by astrophysicists to notice. Photo analysis showed the objects puncturing Saturn’s F ring — the thinnest and outer-most ring of our solar system’s second larest planet. The visual effect is quite compelling; the objects — currently believed to be giant ice or “snow balls” — drag long trails of ice particles with them through the ring, leaving trails of glistening debris (“mini jets”) in their wake.
Saturn’s ‘Weirdest’ Ring
Saturn’s F ring is called “weird” because of its complexity; it is comprised of “isolated bright clumps, individual strands, braided regions, and kinky (as in knotted-looking) segments”, according to Space.com. The ring is held in check by two of Saturn’s moons — Prometheus and Pandora — known as the “shepherd moons ” for this reason. Thanks to the Cassini probe and its treasure trove of images (amassed since 2004), scientists now have a better understanding of this ring’s “weirdness” and how its features are formed.
Where these mystery ice balls hailed from was a bit of a puzzle, originally, but it is now decided that Saturn’s moon Prometheus is responsible for triggering the formation of the large ice objects due to its slightly off-set and faster orbital time (than the ring) and its odd, potato-like shape. Every 68 days, the moon’s orbit disurbs the ring’s orbiting debris field. According to Cassini imaging team member Carl Murray:
“Some of these objects will get ripped apart the next time Prometheus whips around. But some escape. Every time they survive an encounter, they can grow and become more and more stable.”
Watch this cool Casssini video of the objects punching holes through Saturn’s F ring (article contiunes below):
Coming Soon to an Asteroid Belt Near You…
As reported earlier here on planetsave and elsewhere, Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron announce his plans yesterday to mine asteroids for minerals, via a collaborative venture company with several Internet billionaires called Planetary Resources.
In a rather strange but entertaining press conference, Cameron stated that the venure will ultimately, add “trillions to the world’s GDP” in addition to aiding space travel by providing oxygen and hydrogen fuel from mined ice (this presupposes a system of orbiting “depots” to store the mined elements).
The announced ‘big sky’ plan to exploit the enormous mineral riches of near-earth objects (NEOs), or asteroids (NEAs), to improve the world’s gross domestic product, seems to be a shared, childhood dream of this group of high-profile space venturists. The proposed ‘space mining’ venture will most likely use robotic mining technology (this saves on life insurance costs too).
Helping the World’s Economy…Maybe
There was no mention at the press meeting, though, of the environmental impact of this operation (mineral ores will need to be returned to Earth for refining, assuming that a space-base refinery is out of the question, financially speaking).
Further, the assertion that the products of said space mining will benefit humanity by adding “trillions” to the world’s GDP seems to this author to be both bold and problematic. How will these profits benefit the world unless they are taxed and the revenue redistributed to those in need (say, those developing nations struggling to adapt to climate changes caused by advanced/developed nations)? And, such a taxation plan, if unreasonable, could prove to be a disincentive for such an ambitious venture, or subsequent ones.
The space venture group also believes that mining asteroids will ultimately reduce the “cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage…” We’ve heard this claim before about computer technology (which actually added to the cost of doing business). Since the cost of such a venture (with humans or with robots) will be enormous, and the promised “new technologies” will take time and experimentation to develop, cost savings, if they come at all, would be in the distant future. Lacking public subsidizing, massive private investment will be needed for many years before any profit is ever achieved.
From the macro-economic view: How will this putative increase in the world’s GDP translate into benefit for the masses? It would seem to be a noble (for a massive capitalist undertaking), if far-off goal, but one lacking in details.
Clearly, there’s a lot of explaining (and policy work) to be done. For more in-depth coverage of this proposed, controversial space venture, check out this excellent post on The Daily Beast by my colleague and friend Vivien Marx.
And, for two book reviews on the subject of exploiting space resources, check out the links (‘Moonrush’, ‘Space on Earth’) on my website’s book/film review page.
Top Photo: This mosaic of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft depicts fan-like structures in Saturn’s tenuous F ring. Bright features are also visible near the core of the ring. Such features suggest the existence of additional objects in the F ring. CREDIT: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.