If you're going to mine in space, the last thing to do is bring minerals back down to earth

Miners! In! Space!

Following on from Planetary Resources, the asteroid-mining company formed by a small group of billionaires, engineers and space exploration enthusiasts including Titanic director James Cameron and Google co-founders Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt, a second firm, Deep Space Industries, has revealed plans to launch a fleet of spacecraft to strip resources from small asteroids passing close to earth.

The Guardian's Ian Sample reports:

Announcing the proposals, chairman Rick Tumlinson said that resources locked-up in nearby asteroids were sufficient to "expand the civilisation of Earth out into the cosmos ad infinitum".

The first prospecting missions with what the company call FireFly and DragonFly probes could hitch a ride into space on the launches of large communications satellites, it said.

The company hopes ultimately to land spacecraft on hurtling asteroids and have them scrape up material for processing in space or for return to Earth for sale. One long-term idea is to build a space-borne manufacturing facility that takes in asteroid material, processes it into usable alloys and other substances, and makes objects with the material via a 3D printer.

The crucial thing to realise in order to make space mining work is that, surprisingly, most minerals are far more valuable if they are left in space.

For all the talk — repeated by Deep Space Industries — of "asteroids with more gold and platinum in them than the human race has used in its entire history", the company has a ready made market if it takes advantage of the fact that it costs roughly $20,000/Kg to launch something in to space. That means anything it can mine up there which has the slightest bit of use in space exploration — water, oxygen, hydrogen in particular, but many other common minerals — can be sold for around that amount to other companies trying to do things in orbit.

In fact, until that launch price drops — perhaps because of a space elevator (we should build a space elevator) there is no reason to mine anything for earth's consumption at all. Even platinum, one of the most valuable things they could find, is only worth $50,000/Kg on earth right now. The costs getting a Kg of platinum just from orbit to ground level are pretty high — though obviously not as bad as the reverse trip — but once you start bringing it down in any large quantity, the market will be flooded. Unless Deep Space Industries are planning on become a sort of Star Trek De Beers, controlling the supply of precious metals with an iron fist, they'd do better steering clear of the shiny stuff and focusing on helping future astronauts breath and drink.

A concept rendering of a fuel harvester. Photograph: Deep Space Industries

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear