Off-Earth mining: The challenge of turning asteroids into “gas stations in space”

Some of the technologies required to mine in space already exist. Steve Carter, vice president of product alignment at Dassault Systèmes GEOVIA assesses the risks and rewards for those who boldly venture.

Some asteroids contain water, in the form of ice, other frozen gases and metals. If mined, the raw materials on these asteroids could provide the air, water, fuel and other consumables required to support permanent settlements in space.

Asteroids could become ‘gas stations in space’ where, according to Rick Tumlinson, of Deep Space Industries, whose company plans to analyse then mine asteroids, “you can get air and propellants”.

Carrying water into space is hugely expensive and requires large rockets that consume vast amounts of fuel. Using the resources already in space overcomes those lifting problems, at least for consumables and other raw materials, and would allow people to travel further at lower cost.

Another space exploration company, Planetary Resources, lists Richard Branson and Google’s Larry Page as investors. Its co-founder Eric Anderson estimates that some platinum-rich asteroids just 500m across could contain more than the entire known reserves of platinum group metals here on Earth.

Meanwhile, Wall Street research firm Bernstein notes that a big asteroid called 16 Psyche, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and measuring some 200km across, may contain 17 million billion tonnes of nickel-iron – enough to satisfy mankind’s current demand for millions of years.

The analysis of asteroids that have fallen to Earth has shown that they contain iron, rhodium, iridium, rhenium, osmium, ruthenium, palladium, germanium and gold as well as platinum. Many of these are in purer forms than occur on earth.

This supports the theories that copious amounts of these metals exist in asteroids, they just have to be found and mined, in space.


Making off-Earth mining a reality

Mining and living in space like the movie Avatar (2009) or The Jetsons TV series (1962-1988) seem like real possibilities with the availability of water, fuel and high value elements.

However, there is a lot of technology that still needs to be developed before off-Earth mining becomes a reality.

While it is highly unlikely that we will see mining on the moon in ours, or our children’s lifetime, many people have been speculating on what is possible with mining on asteroids.

Mining will be required to provide raw materials to support permanent settlement on other planets or moons. However, until we have people based long term on other planets or moons, there is no case for it.

The step that will precede this is asteroid mining, as this will support the permanent settlement of space, and because it’s a lower cost proposition than lifting everything from Earth.

There are 1,500 known asteroids within relatively easy reach of the Earth. And, although yet to be proven, there is an expectation that minerals in asteroids are evenly distributed, making them easier to detect and extract. Further, it has been estimated that a single water-rich asteroid 500m wide could contain 40Mt of water – providing a valuable resource to space travellers.


Jobs in space

Once resources are secured, manufacturing in zero gravity conditions offers the promise of new technologies, while finding raw materials ‘locally’ would save the thousands of dollars per kilogram in production costs compared to lifting them out of Earth’s gravity.

Fabricating transportation vehicles and their fuel in space offers many advantages to mankind. The reality is that this is still a long way off, but there are important things happening today on Earth that are precursors to asteroid mining.

Some things will be similar, exploration and resource modelling in particular, because asteroids have to be found and assessed prior to mining. This is likely to employ very different techniques though, perhaps using high-powered lasers to heat small parts of an asteroid to analyse the emitted light spectrum in order to assess its composition.

The act of mining itself is likely to be different through making use of remotely operated and fully autonomous robots. This is where current activities by large miners – Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton for example – to develop this type of mining equipment, are likely to be of benefit.

Although it’s likely that some people will still need to be in space, the use of robotics will go a long way to mitigating the associated risks.

The cost of asteroid mining will also drive companies to use much more sophisticated techniques for exploration and mining than are currently in use.

For example, Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE technology has been used across a wide range of industries – automotive, aerospace, industrial equipment and mining – to improve the quality of designs and the efficiency of processes. There is every reason to believe that it will help with mining in space.


Advancing the asteroid mining industry

Mining touches the whole of human activity, and has throughout history been correlated with human advancement.

Setting up colonies to mine on other planets is not just a matter of technology, but also of will; in 1900 man could not fly, but by 1969 we were on the moon. The will focussed the technology and the mission was accomplished.

The technology exists, or could be developed to get to space, develop transport and robotics, map model and analyse asteroids, determine their content and release their value, and companies such as Planetary Resources are currently recruiting engineers.

The risks, hazards and rewards are new, different and unknown. Not unlike those that faced the Wright brothers in 1903.

Images courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.



Ultrathin material sends building heat into the cold darkness of space

The buildings that we live and work in may never need to be fitted with air conditioning again as scientists have found a way to beam excess heat into the “cold darkness of space”.

Rooftops can be covered with an ultrathin material that reflects sunlight back into space and also sends out excess heat.

Researchers from Stanford University created the material, which could be sprayed onto rooftops, to deals with visible and invisible light.

It gets rid of the infrared heat from inside a building and mirrors sunlight away, to stop the building from heating up.

The researchers said that this will mean we do not have to pay for expensive air conditioning, which is also detrimental to the planet’s energy resources.

Lead author of the research, Aaswath Raman, said: “Across the developing world, photonic radiative cooling makes off-grid cooling a possibility in rural regions, in addition to meeting skyrocketing demand for air conditioning in urban areas.

“This team has shown how to passively cool structures by simply radiating heat into the cold darkness of space. We’ve created something that’s a radiator that also happens to be an excellent mirror.”

Professor Shanhui Fan, who led the work, said: “Every object that produces heat has to dump that heat into a heat sink. What we’ve done is to create a way that should allow us to use the coldness of the universe as a heat sink during the day.”


The team said that for the technology to be used and adopted on a wide scale there needs to be a way for heat to be gathered inside buildings so that it can be radiated outwards. And, also the facilities for large-scale production are needed.

But they envisage it could one day be sprayed onto rooftops to cool buildings.

Eli Yablonovitch, a professor of engineering at the University of California, said: “This is very novel and an extraordinarily simple idea. As a result of professor Fan’s work, we can now [use radiative cooling], not only at night but counter-intuitively in the daytime as well.”


Despite the potential for cooling down buildings without the need for air conditioning, the technology raises some questions.

These include what the effect of the material would be during cold winter months; it may lead to those inside having to use more energy to heat the building, at a higher cost.

Instead of wasting the heat generated inside of buildings by sending it to space, there is the potential to turn it into electricity.

Thermionic generators are able to convert heat or light into an electronic current.

Featured image courtesy of Stanford University



NASA eyes airships for long-haul stratospheric research missions

The humble airship could rise again as a valuable scientific tool, if NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory goes ahead with a planned challenge to develop record-breaking stratospheric airships.

It has issued a request for information about the achievability of a potential challenge, which if it were to go ahead would see $2-3m available in prize money.

The agency believes that airships have serious potential for scientific research, due to their potential ability to remain in the air in a stable position for long periods.

“We are seeking to take astronomy and Earth science to new heights by enabling a long-duration, suborbital platform for these kinds of research,” explained Jason Rhodes, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

By attaching a telescope to an airship located in the stratosphere – the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere above its weather systems – scientists would be able to get high-resolution images, and thus detailed data, about celestial bodies such as stars.

They would also be able to use an airship as a floating weather station to capture data about weather and climate change.

“You would be able to follow weather patterns, even get above a hurricane. A satellite can’t do that because its orbit can’t be changed,” said Rhodes.


The challenge would be split into two tiers, both of which are designed to achieve milestones in airship development that have never before been reached.

The first tier would be to develop an airship capable of carrying 44 pounds (20kg) and successfully getting it to remain at an altitude of 65,000ft (20km) for 20 hours.

The advanced, second tier would be to do the same but with a far greater carrying capacity – 440 pounds (200kg) – for a far longer period – 200 hours.

In both cases the airship could take the form of a blimp, with a soft body, or a zeppelin, with a rigid body, but would need to be lighter than air, powered and navigable.

The target altitude is an important feature of the challenge, as the agency believes it would be the perfect height to achieve the desired projects.

“The 65,000-foot mark is the sweet spot where the airship would get as high as possible while still having enough air to propel against, because it needs propulsion to stay in the same spot. It’s also a good altitude in terms of average wind speed,” said Rhodes.

While airships have previously reached this altitude, they have never been able to remain at such a height for more than 8 hours, making the targets of 20 and 200 a big ask.

Weather balloons can achieve this height for longer periods, but cannot maintain a static location in the way that would be required.


In addition to research, the agency also believes that airships flying at such altitudes could provide commercial benefits.

One of the biggest is telecommunications. Airships’ ability to remain static makes them an ideal way to bring wireless internet to remote areas, something that Google is already looking into with its Loon project.

Other companies are also looking at airships as a means of transporting heavy cargo to difficult-to-access regions.

Ultimately, if the challenge were to go ahead all sorts of unexpected uses for airships could emerge.

“We’re only limited by our imagination,” added Rhodes.

Featured image courtesy of Mike Hughes (Eagre Interactive)/Keck Institute for Space Studies via NASA JPL. Inline image two courtesy of Aeros.



Jackie Chan helps to improve solar efficiency

Jackie Chan can add yet another line to his resume after he has inadvertently helped to increase the light absorption in solar cells.

Researchers from the USA used the Blu-ray disc of Police Story 3: Supercop to improve the performance of polymer solar cells.

While it may not have been Chan’s finest performance (by a long way), the data storage pattern transferred to the solar cell from the movie was more efficient than patterns that were already being used on the solar cell.

The method of copying the random data pattern from the disc was then replicated from other Blu-ray titles, which have high storage capacities, and it was found that the content did not matter.

Jiaxing Huang from North Western University said: “We had a hunch that Blu-ray discs might work for improving solar cells, and, to our delight, we found the existing patterns are already very good.

“It’s as if electrical engineers and computer scientists developing the Blu-ray technology have been subconsciously doing our jobs, too.”


“We found a random pattern or texture does work better than no pattern, but a Blu-ray disc pattern is best of all,” Huang said. “Then I wondered, why did it work? If you don’t understand why, it’s not good science.”

This led to the suggestion that the benefits must have come from the encoding of the disc type.

The researchers found that the binary code embedded on the Blu-ray discs gives solar cells a better surface texture to improve their light absorption over a broad spectrum of sunlight.

The overall broadband absorption enhancement of the Blu-ray patterned solar cell was 21.8%, the group said.


As well as potentially improving the efficiency levels of the polymer solar cells, which the method was tested on, the researchers hope it may be able to be applied to other types of solar cells.

“In addition to improving polymer solar cells, our simulation suggests the Blu-ray patterns could be broadly applied for light trapping in other kinds of solar cells,” Cheng Sun from McCormick said.

If it does prove to be a viable method it may be that the application of the patterns could be easily incorporated into solar cells due to the existing infrastructure built up around the discs.

Featured image courtesy of Kaliva /



Bone regeneration a step closer to reality with remote-controlled magnetic nanoparticles

The ability to regenerate bones has taken another step forward thanks to researchers who have used magnetic nanoparticles to stimulate regrowth.

A team of scientists from Keele University and Nottingham University has been able to remotely control the nanoparticles in the injured area to generate mechanical forces and maintain the regeneration process through staged releases of a protein growth stimulant.

The process is considered minimally invasive compared to other techniques as it only requires the stem cells to be injected into the patient.

The magnetic nanoparticles were covered with targeting proteins and then directed to the appropriate area using an external magnetic field.

In their tests, on chicken foetal femurs and tissue-engineered collagen hydrogels, there was an increase in bone formation and also an increase in the density of the bone.

This could help pave the way to bone regeneration therapies, as well as ways to transport drugs to areas of the body.

They said it improves upon the current, painful, method of repairing bone that involves taking a graft from the patient.


James Henstock, from the University of Keele said the work shows the scope for future development in the regrowth of bones.

He said: “In our investigation we coated magnetic nanoparticles with specific targeting proteins then controlled them remotely with an external magnetic field to simulate exercise. We wanted to learn how this might affect the injected stem cells and their ability to restore functional bone.”

“This work demonstrates that providing the appropriate mechanical cues in conjunction with controlled release of growth factors to these injectable cell therapies can have a significant impact on improving bone growth. It also could potentially improve tissue engineering approaches for translational medicine” Dr Henstock said.


In a previous development scientists formed “bone-like structures” in mice using another stem cell-based technique.

At the time they said they believed, with more work, the method could be transferred for use in humans.

The technique allowed the creation of cells that have the appearance and behaviour of normal cells in the stage just before they form cartilage.



Scientists urge governments to turn old TV frequencies into free “super WiFi”

Governments should sack plans to auction off old television frequencies to the highest bidder and instead use the bandwidth for free super-frequency WiFi if they want to boost the economy, scientists have said.

Old television frequencies are becoming available for other uses around the world, thanks to a switch from analogue to digital transmission.

However, while governments are for the most part auctioning these off to whoever is prepared to pay the most – usually mobile phone networks – they should instead be using the frequencies to create free-to-use, wide-range WiFi, scientists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany have said.

This new “super WiFi” would have a far wider range than existing WiFi networks, which are mostly transmitted over wireless local area networks (WLAN) at frequencies of 2GHz or above.


WiFi transmitted over old TV frequencies could be transmitted at lower frequencies than traditional WiFi, resulting in a far wider area covered. This super WiFi’s coverage area could even be as big as several kilometres in radius, a massive improvement on existing networks.

This would mean that pricey mobile services such as 4G were no longer required, which the scientists believe would lead to more mobile internet use, and a wealth of economic benefits.

“Implementation of our approach would have far-reaching consequences,” said Arnd Weber of the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at KIT.

“Individuals, institutions and companies would be far less dependent on expensive mobile communications networks in conducting their digital communication. This would also be of great economic benefit.”

In addition to providing direct, measurable cost savings, the technology could, according to the researchers, result in the development of a host of new technologies just as existing WiFi has.

It could also provide direct benefits during disaster scenarios, as a means of providing updates and enabling communication.


However, the big challenge here is convincing governments that this is the right move.

Many have argued they these frequencies are common property and therefore should be made available to the public free of charge, a view that has been opposition from a number of people, including the late Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase.

Coase argued that the frequencies should be auctioned off to ensure they are most effectively used, and the money used by governments to fund other services.

Others have also argued that congestion would make these lower frequency networks unworkable, however Weber and his colleague Jens Elsner argue that it is possible to avoid such congestion with the right technological approach.

Ultimately, convincing governments will be a matter of showing that long-term economic benefits greatly outstrip the short-term financial gains of an auction.

While Weber and Elsner plan to make this case at the UN World Radiocommunication Conference next year, they will no doubt struggle to get many governments onboard.

In the long run, though, those of us living in areas where auctions have gone ahead could find ourselves quite jealous of the countries that choose the super WiFi option.

Featured image courtesy of gunes t, inline images courtesy of Mr. Theklan



The monitored office: Dystopian future workplace or efficient business of tomorrow?


Biometrics and wearables are making their way into the workplace as employers modernise access control and time-keeping. But with no legal framework in place, does this trend benefit businesses or violate employees’ rights?

The pressures facing businesses today are enormous. The economic crisis, competition in the marketplace and the continued rise of the data-driven culture mean employees are expected to work smarter and faster than ever before.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that technology that promises to help people do just that is generating excitement in boardrooms across the world. From Coca Cola to Apple and hundreds of companies in between, biometric and wearable technology is being explored to make businesses run quicker, safer and in a more cost effective way.

Early adopters suggest these types of technology are having a positive impact on performance but critics warn that a surveillance culture can lead to stress, sickness absence and higher staff turnover. So where should the line be drawn? And what can you do if you don’t fancy working in an office where Big Brother is watching you at all times?


Biometrics on the rise

In February tech consultancy Gartner projected that the number of organisations using biometric authentication for mobile devices would rise from five percent to 30% by 2016. As biometric technology has improved over the last decade, the use of fingerprint, face, voice and hand authentication has emerged as a more efficient alternative to more traditional access control methods such as cards, PINs and passwords.

“Biometrics are used across all vertical markets to solve the identity management challenge by linking physical and digital identities,” says Elaine Bliss, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Crossmatch, a leader in biometric-based identity management tech.

The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft

“Businesses are using biometrics to secure access to networks and applications so they know for sure who accessed what, when. They are also using biometrics to reduce fraud in payroll and transactions. Biometric solutions empower businesses to mitigate risk, drive productivity and improve service levels.

“Among the different biometrics, fingerprints are the most mature and dominant biometric used in commercial applications. The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft, who have incorporated fingerprint biometrics directly into their products.”


Vast potential for wearables

Wearable technology has been pioneered commercially over the last few years by the likes of the Nike Fuelband, Jawbone UP and the much-vaunted Google Glass. Now research and anecdotal evidence suggests that this kind of technology is beginning to find its way into offices and factories around the world.

Research from open cloud company Rackspace, which surveyed over 4,000 people in the US and UK in 2013, found that a small number of early adopter businesses (six percent) are already providing wearable technology devices for their employees. They also found that there is scope for the use of wearable technology in business to increase, with a third of respondents stating that they would be willing to wear devices offered by their employer.

“There are two types of wearable technology – wrist mounted and head mounted,” says Duncan Stewart, director of research for technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte in Canada. “Wrist mounted wearables are predominantly used to authenticate who you are.

“At Deloitte, our consultants used to spend a lot of time filling out time sheets on their PCs and mobiles to map their movements around the world. Now we’re using wrist mounted time trackers, the jobs and clients people are working with is logged automatically.”

If you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited

However, it is head mounted wearable technology that offers the most exciting potential for development, giving users the benefit of hands-free working, augmented reality and the ability to take pictures and video whilst they’re on the move.

“Imagine if you’re driving around a warehouse on a forklift truck, you’d be able to wear a device that could tell you exactly where the pallet you’re looking for is and what is stacked in front of it,” explains Stewart. “You’d also be able to record what you were doing so that, for instance, if one of the boxes was broken when you took it down you’d be able to prove it and demonstrate that you carried out your work with all due care.

“The potential is enormous but the appetite varies by industry. In the banking sector, the view is that wearable technology would not benefit either the customers or the businesses. However, if you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited. They expect to see wearable technology become widely used within five years and adopted as best practice within ten.”


The next frontier

People are already working on the convergence of biometric and wearable technology to provide the ultimate authentication device. Last year Bionym created the Nymi bracelet, a wearable powered by a person’s unique cardiac rhythm that can be used instead of swipe cards and passwords to help users sign into computers and open doors.

“Your heartbeat is consistent, which makes it different from an iris or fingerprint which needs to be scanned,” says Lee Odess, general manager at Brivo Labs, which is partnering with Bionym to develop the technology. “This makes it a frictionless form of identification, since you don’t need to stop to be verified.

The next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information

“We are now beginning to see technology that allows people to present themselves to spaces and in response, spaces know what to do with this knowledge. This means that, while opening doors and unlocking passwords are a starting point, the next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information, such as the specific seat they are assigned to at a baseball game or that a concession stand several feet away that might trigger a peanut allergy.

“It’s not just about a signing in. It’s about bringing attributes about yourself so that you can have a curated experience.”

Big Brother is watching

While the possibilities opened up by biometric and wearable technology are exciting to many, they are a source of concern to many others. The UK’s biggest trade union, UNISON, has warned of the dangers of what it calls a surveillance culture and is rallying members on how to fight the introduction of such technologies in their workplaces.

“UNISON believes that workers should not be subject to unnecessary or intrusive monitoring at work,” the union said in a factsheet sent out to members. “A surveillance culture in the workplace can lead to increased stress, sickness absence and staff turnover. Biometric monitoring, particularly for the purposes of checking on time-keeping, clearly qualifies as an over-the-top and unnecessary measure.

UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring

“There is also the question of the kind of relationship that employers want to have with their staff. The process of finger-printing is understandably associated with criminality in the public mind. So when employers start fingerprinting their own staff it sends out a very negative and confrontational message. UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring.”

Aside from issues of privacy the use of wearable technology could, if handled badly, have further negative impacts upon the companies that are employing it, according to Duncan Stewart.

“If you have employees going around with wearable cameras will that lead to people spying on each other?” he says. “That could be a problem but the biggest thing would be the potential threat to intellectual property (IP). Lots of sensitive processes take place behind closed doors. If everyone is recording everything then it could easily lead to leaks that could cost companies billions of dollars in lost IP.”


Keeping it legal

As there are no direct laws governing the use of biometrics and wearable technology in the UK, employers would have to obtain the consent of their staff to record and process biometric data in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. But what can you do if you’re placed in a position where you feel uncomfortable by the technology your boss is asking you to use?

“Employees are likely to be suspicious that the information will be used for other purposes and employers would need to explain why they are looking to impose change, how it will affect staff and how the information will be used,” explains Chris Tutton, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell.

The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt outpace the development of workplace rules

“An employer should consult its workforce before introducing this type of new technology and ensure they deal with all concerns in a reasonable manner. If this does not allay the employees’ concerns, they should discuss these with their employer. Employees have the right to raise a grievance about their working conditions and employers must deal with these appropriately in accordance with the ACAS Code of Practice.

“If the business mishandles the process and for example, adopts a heavy handed approach, an employee might be able to claim that this has undermined his trust and confidence in the employer and decide to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal. The employee would need to have at least two years’ service to bring such a claim, but if successful, he could be awarded up to twelve months gross pay.

“The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt continue to outpace the development of legislation and workplace rules. Whilst the legal framework slowly catches up, workplace norms will have to recalibrate as these technologies become all the more pervasive.”

Image two courtesy of Google and image four courtesy of Jawbone


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