Diamonds in the sky: Uranus isn’t the only planet in the universe raining treasures – Salon

 In Science

It may come as a big surprise to many, but there is actually no difference between how science works in astronomy and climate change — or any other scientific discipline for that matter. We make observations, run simulations, test and propose hypotheses, and undergo peer review of our findings. […] Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere. The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.

The vice nebulae

The longest stretch of alcohol on Earth is probably the two-mile beer pipeline that runs under Bruges, Belgium. In space, astronomers have observed multiple giant clouds of alcohol — methanol, the toxic stuff, and ethanol, the drinkable stuff — including one  that is about “a thousand times the diameter of the solar system,” according to a New York Times report from 1995.

In 2006, astronomers at Jodrell Bank Observatory found a 288-billion-mile-long cloud of methanol around a nebula. Drinking it might make you go blind, but then again, opening one’s helmet to get a taste would yield other problems.

Finding alcohol molecules in space is strange, given that it’s an organic molecule, but these alcoholic clouds are not formed by distant life forms distilling gin. Rather, alcohols like methanol and ethanol are relatively simple compounds of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, which are rather abundant elements in heavy stars; hence, scientists believe that they formed naturally — on the surface of nebular dust grains that stuck to the stray hydrogen, oxygen and carbon molecules, and served as a catalyst for the reactions that would bind these molecules to create alcohols.

The avarice asteroids

Our solar system was once a nebula — a giant cloud of gas and dust left over from the wake of an exploding star. Slowly, this stellar nebula coalesced into the sparse solar system we know today, with rocky planets, gas giants and a single central star. We know now that this process happens all over the universe, and there are many solar systems like ours with similar planet distribution and composition.

Yet because of the way that our solar system formed, the distribution of resources on Earth differs from the overall distribution of resources in the universe. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of helium in the universe, and almost none on Earth. Similarly, many metals like neodymium, gold and platinum — exotic on Earth — are much more common in the asteroid belt, which consists of many giant rocks whose metallic surfaces never conjoined with any planets. Many of these asteroids have a mining value that is far greater than the wealth of our entire world. One enthusiast website, Asterank, is devoted to cataloguing asteroids, and includes a means of sorting them by how much their metals are worth. Many are in the trillions.

Asteroid mining isn’t something that humans have done yet, and it still seems prohibitively expensive. Also, ethical questions abound: Would said mining be done by private corporations? If mining companies drag asteroids closer to Earth, how do we mitigate the risk of them careening into our planet and killing everyone? Does it make sense for a single asteroid-mining corporation to amass more private wealth than exists on Earth? These are theoretical questions for now, but they speak to the issues raised by such a prospect.


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