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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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Space
This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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