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One Company's Bold Plan to Mine Asteroids

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By Chris Gayomali

Brace yourselves for the coming asteroid gold rush. U.S. company Deep Space Industries this week revealed plans to send spacecraft on missions to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious metals. According to the announcement, the company plans to dispatch a series of small, low-cost satellites by 2015. A year later, a larger spacecraft equipped with mining tools will land on any potentially lucrative space rocks to dig out the goods. The mission, says chairman Rick Tumlinson, would tap into resources necessary to "expand the civilization of Earth out into the cosmos ad infinitum." 

How would it work? The company is hoping to fly two tiny prospecting probes — FireFly and DragonFly, both of which weigh less than 75 pounds — into space. To save on costs, these vessels would piggyback on the launches of larger communications satellites. Once airborne, FireFly and DragonFly would then spend half a year buzzing around asteroids to collect rock samples. 

According to some estimates, it's easier to reach some 1,700 asteroids than it is to fly to the moon; each one of those asteroids could contain valuable materials like platinum, gold, and other rare-earth minerals. Because it's so difficult to get expensive materials such as these into space in the first place, the asteroid scraps might even be used to assemble parts for space stations or spacecraft. The Guardian explains:

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. [Guardian]

Some critics question whether harvesting space materials is a financially sound investment. NASA, for example, is reportedly considering a new mission proposed by the Keck Institute for Space Studies that would send a robotic spacecraft to tow a small asteroid into the moon's orbit. Total cost: $2.6 billion.

Just last year, film director James Cameron, Google executives Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, and other wealthy investors revealed similarly ambitious plans for a separate asteroid-mining venture. Apparently, they see dollar signs in the stars, too.

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How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain
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From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

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Space
Neutron Star Collision Sheds Light on the Strange Matter That Weighs a Billion Tons Per Teaspoon
Two neutron stars collide.
Two neutron stars collide.

Neutron stars are among the many mysteries of the universe scientists are working to unravel. The celestial bodies are incredibly dense, and their dramatic deaths are one of the main sources of the universe’s gold. But beyond that, not much is known about neutron stars, not even their size or what they’re made of. A new stellar collision reported earlier this year may shed light on the physics of these unusual objects.

As Science News reports, the collision of two neutron stars—the remaining cores of massive stars that have collapsed—were observed via light from gravitational waves. When the two small stars crossed paths, they merged to create one large object. The new star collapsed shortly after it formed, but exactly how long it took to perish reveals keys details of its size and makeup.

One thing scientists know about neutron stars is that they’re really, really dense. When stars become too big to support their own mass, they collapse, compressing their electrons and protons together into neutrons. The resulting neutron star fits all that matter into a tight space—scientists estimate that one teaspoon of the stuff inside a neutron star would weigh a billion tons.

This type of matter is impossible to recreate and study on Earth, but scientists have come up with a few theories as to its specific properties. One is that neutron stars are soft and yielding like stellar Play-Doh. Another school of thought posits that the stars are rigid and equipped to stand up to extreme pressure.

According to simulations, a soft neutron star would take less time to collapse than a hard star because they’re smaller. During the recently recorded event, astronomers observed a brief flash of light between the neutron stars’ collision and collapse. This indicates that a new spinning star, held together by the speed of its rotation, existed for a few milliseconds rather than collapsing immediately and vanishing into a black hole. This supports the hard neutron star theory.

Armed with a clearer idea of the star’s composition, scientists can now put constraints on their size range. One group of researchers pegged the smallest possible size for a neutron star with 60 percent more mass than our sun at 13.3 miles across. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists are determining that the biggest neutron stars become smaller rather than larger. In the collision, a larger star would have survived hours or potentially days, supported by its own heft, before collapsing. Its short existence suggests it wasn’t so huge.

Astronomers now know more about neutron stars than ever before, but their mysterious nature is still far from being fully understood. The matter at their core, whether free-floating quarks or subatomic particles made from heavier quarks, could change all of the equations that have been written up to this point. Astronomers will continue to search the skies for clues that demystify the strange objects.

[h/t Science News]

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