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Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 09:19 am
I am really excited by what I've heard about Planetary Resources, a private company that has just announced plans to mine near-earth asteroids for precious metals and other resources. Here's a write-up from the Bad Astronomy blog that goes into details: it sounds like these folks have a plausible business plan (as well as the necessary level of patience, and a dedication to the underlying cause of advancing humanity in space that will be an important complement to their profit motive).

Maybe it's just too much science fiction in my youth, but I've always felt that it will be important for humanity to Get Out: to avoid having all our eggs in this one basket called Earth. There are a whole lot of reasons for that (more of them than I had as a youthful sci-fi reader), and I won't go into them now. But it's been clear to me for a long time that while governments were the obvious choice to take the first steps into the solar system, we won't really be a spacefaring species until private industry and even private individuals are able to go there on their own. Asteroid mining seems like a really good stepping stone in that direction: small and close enough to be achievable, and with enough potential profit to make it appealing to investors. As soon as one of these ventures pays off, dozens more will spring up overnight, and space industry will go from being an epic project to a commodity. I don't know if we'll ever get out of our own solar system, but I look forward to the day when we can at least use more of it than we do today.

Meanwhile, in other news (only tangentially space related), it's possible that the Fermi gamma ray telescope satellite has seen a direct hint of the long-sought dark matter particle! There's a full write-up at the R├ęsonaances blog, but the gist is that if you look straight at the galactic core (where dark matter should be most concentrated) the telescope sees an excess of photons with a very specific energy, as if there were some unknown source at that energy on top of the known gamma ray sources (which are all spread out over a range of energies). The only model in the literature that could explain such a pattern is the decay of a dark matter particle with that same energy (or something close to it). The most likely particle mass that would explain this data is about 130 GeV: that's 130 times the mass of an entire proton (and, by an odd coincidence that might not be a coincidence, just 5 GeV or so above the current best estimate of the Higgs boson mass).

This will be a big deal if it turns out to be true: the first direct evidence of particle physics beyond the 30-year-old "standard model" (and the first concrete reason to believe that particle physics won't be dead as a practical matter after the LHC). It's thrilling stuff. The one thing that's puzzling to me about this is that I saw this news a week ago on that one blog, and I haven't heard anything else about it since. (I talked to an Alma graduate who studies experimental cosmology while he was back for graduation, and he said he'd heard about it but didn't know enough to comment beyond that.) Is there some reason for skepticism that has kept all of my other physics/astronomy blogs silent on the story thus far? Only time will tell. But it will be a lot of fun to watch.
Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 07:33 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I hadn't heard about the dark matter particle bit either. Fascinating.

The combination of the two items above make me wonder if you've seen this depressing article: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/may/10/crisis-big-science/?pagination=false .
Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 02:43 am (UTC)
Yep. I really don't have much to add to it, unfortunately. It makes its points pretty well, and I can't really disagree with any of them. Weinberg doesn't really propose a solution (apart from "government needs more money", which I'm sympathetic to, but saying it will accomplish precisely nothing), so there's not much to say on that front. (I don't have a solution, either.)

In general, it's getting harder and harder to push the boundaries of science in a lot of directions. We may lose a generation of particle experimentalists after the next big accelerator (or the one after) gets cancelled and before they come up with clever ways to accomplish the same task for less money. (It will be very hard to talk folks into paying for the ILC if the LHC doesn't reveal some really exciting new particles to study with it, and I worry that it will be tough to justify whatever comes next even if there's great progress being made.) I just hope the experts who came of age with the LHC are still around once that happens to teach the following generation how to deal with real data.

Man, now I'm sounding even more grim than Weinberg. ("Prove me wrong, kids, prove me wrong!") Probably it's not as bad as all that: there's always been a case to be made for supporting basic research, and we've made it well enough to more or less get by for at least 150 years now (the death of the SSC notwithstanding). I'm optimistic that we'll find a way to keep going even as it gets harder to fund the projects we need.
Thursday, April 26th, 2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
If Planetary Resources excites you, then I highly recommend High Frontier. It is my current boardgame obsession, and it is awesome. I have only played it solo and two-player. I suspect it's more fun with more people. You can find a copy on Amazon for $48.

My favorite current boardgamegeek thread on that game is this one, discussing the Salt Water Zubrin thruster. The game designer contacted Dr. Zubrin and asked him about heat radiation off of his thruster design. Although this session report is a hoot, too.