Astronomy

Deep Space Exploration in the Future for Resources



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Deep space is, without a doubt, one of our last remaining unexplored frontiers. Most of earth and near space have already been trawled through with an acute scientific community. But deep space is also the most fascinating of all unexplored territory.

Space exploration is perhaps one of humanity's greatest signatures. It is an epitome of technology, and an insignia to the capability of this race. In breaking free of the terra firma, we have underlined that mankind is not just another step in the proceeding of life, but a definitive one.

Many minds have been captured by this endeavor. People come up with movies about space, write books about aliens and far off planets, find faith in God, and select Presidents depending on the funding they give to the national space program. It is a natural continuation of the human desire to step outside the boundaries.

But there are more mundane and practical reasons for space exploration. Space exploration is no lively jaunt. Space exploration will define the most powerful community of earth: the nation with the greatest command in space will not only be the most revered of all, but will also inherit the right to harvest the vast resources of space.

Indeed, we will not initially find a use for space in the fantastic terms of shifting to new planets. Our primary, and true, purpose will be to explore space for minerals and energy - two resources that we are depleting rather rapidly in our home planet. That, in fact, is even the current focus of the three most powerful space faring factions in the world today: USA, Russia, and the European Union.

Mineral sources are defined as sources that allow manufacturing of regular, useable items. Metals, chemicals, gases and materials are all considered minerals. Energy resources, on the other hand, are those that can be harnessed to generate the power required to convert the minerals into items we need and use. Perhaps one good example of a mineral planet would be our very own Mars which is rich in iron. And a good example of an energy body would be our Sun - if we could even learn to harness its massive fusion reaction as an energy source.

Such resources, though, are often too far off in space for us to reach quickly or even easily: often many billions, trillions, and quadrillions of kilometers. The sources close to home are calculated to have a poor "investment to return ratio" i.e. the resources and time taken to reach them is not recovered by the actual resources we can harvest.

Some analysts suggest the use of time dilation, or wormholes in time-space, to reach the far off resources. Time dilation is what happens when something travels very close to the nearly 299,792,458 meters per second speed of light i.e. time slows down to a crawl for that object. Thus if you were to travel at nine tenth of that speed, your wristwatch would tick far more slowly than the others who were not travelling with you. The latter concept of wormholes require a little more understanding of the general relativity theory, but a rough idea is to imagine a flat rubber sheet that you force together at the ends. The two ends are connected, but actually not close to each other when considered as part of the sheet.

The problem, however, is that these techniques require astronomical amounts of energy - much more than we can feasibly produce on earth. And this disregards the fact that these 'techniques' are little more than theories, tested only at microscopic levels.

A more feasible situation is to use closer resources as 'hops'. Humanity could waste some resources on harvesting close by sources. We could then use those resources to forage really deep into space, gaining a net positive resource balance. We should have the technology capable of achieving such travel in perhaps a hundred more years, but not the initiative.

And then there is the problem of learning to travel that far. Humans are notoriously short lived: tens, or even hundreds, of years amount to zilch when talking in terms astronomical travel. Unless that is somehow solved by some new breakthrough in cryogenics or artificial birth mechanisms, this will remain a certain stumbling block to our deep space exploration aspirations.

It has been many decades since we put a man on the moon. We have, however, progressed no further. Work on the International Space Station (ISS), once heralded as our ultimate demonstration of space capability, has been proceeding at a lethargic pace. As a case in point, we are even about to lose our capability to perform free spacewalks away from the ISS, as the current space shuttle fleet is retired.

Truth is - space exploration for resources will go on in the future. It is just that our generation will not see the Star Trek scenario come to life.

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