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Space likely for rare earths search, scientists say
by Staff Writers
Sydney (AFP) Feb 20, 2013


Vast asteroid impact zone found in Australia
Sydney (AFP) Feb 20, 2013 - Scientists have discovered a 200-kilometre-wide (125-mile-wide) impact zone in the Australian outback they believe was caused by a massive asteroid smashing into Earth more than 300 million years ago.

Andrew Glikson, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said the asteroid measuring 10 to 20 kilometres in diameter was a giant compared to the plunging meteor that exploded above Russia a week ago.

While that event set off a shockwave that shattered windows and hurt almost 1,000 people in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, Glikson said the consequences of the Australian event would have been global.

"This is a new discovery," Glikson told AFP on Wednesday, describing the impact zone in South Australia's East Warburton Basin.

"And what really was amazing was the size of the terrain that has been shocked. It's now a minimum of 200 kilometres (in diameter), this makes it about the third biggest anywhere in the world."

The basin has evidence of some 30,000-square kilometres of terrain that has been altered by some kind of shock, which Glikson first began studying after another scientist showed him rock samples that displayed structural anomalies.

"Following that I spent many months in the lab doing a number of tests under the microscope to measure the crystal orientations... and determined that these rocks underwent an extraterrestrial impact or shock," he said.

"We are dealing with an asteroid which is least 10 kilometres in size.

"It would have had a global impact, not just regional."

Besides leaving a vast crater, now buried under more than three kilometres of sediment, it would have released huge amounts of dust and vapour that would have blanketed the Earth.

"We think it was part of a cluster. We think it could be... about 360 million years ago. There were a number of other very large impacts at that time. That cluster we know has caused mass extinction," Glikson said.

Glikson, from ANU's Planetary Science Institute and School of Archaeology and Anthropology, said despite the recent Russian meteor and the 45-metre wide asteroid dubbed 2012 DA 14 that whizzed past Earth last week, events of the scale of the Australian asteroid were extremely rare.

"They fall once in every several tens of millions of years," he said comparing it to once a century for the meteor shower.

"I don't think we have to worry about it, not as much as we have to worry about nuclear accidents or about climate change."

The quest for rare earths vital to some of modern life's most indispensable technologies may see mining robots jet to the stars within decades, a world-first conference in Australia was told Wednesday.

Yttrium, Lanthanum and the other 15 minerals which make up the group of elements known as rare earths are crucial to everything from wind turbines and hybrid cars to cruise missiles and the ubiquitous smartphone.

As technology advances so too does demand for the elements which, although relatively abundant, require laborious and waste-intensive processing to be freed from surrounding rock.

They are a precious commodity -- so precious scientists are now looking beyond Earth's reaches for new supplies, with moon and asteroid mining becoming a lucrative prospect, according to researchers and tech firms gathered in Sydney for the world's first formal "Off-Earth Mining Forum".

"It's about joining the dots," explained conference convenor Andrew Dempster from the Australian Centre for Space Engineering.

"I think we've got to the point where people are saying 'yeah, I think we can do this'."

A cross-section of the space and mining industry's top minds have gathered to swap ideas about the latest advances in space and mining technology, from Rio Tinto and Sandvik to NASA and Japan's space agency JAXA.

Rene Fradet, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- the organisation behind the current Mars Curiosity Rover mission -- believes space mining will be possible and economical within 20-30 years.

But Dempster thinks it could be quicker than that.

"Most of the technology already exists, but there needs to be a business case. It depends on making that business case."

Like the challenges, the costs are substantial: to transport one kilogram to the moon is $100,000, and none of the cutting-edge completely automated technology comes cheap.

One delegate, NASA affiliate Berok Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California, has developed technology to make waterless sulphur-based cement from the loose rubble on Mars and Earth's moon.

Matthew Dunbabin, from the Australia's government's science agency CSIRO, has done a large-scale simulation of using mining machinery in space and told delegates the main issue was electrical power.

Few space missions had attempted significant excavations -- the sum total of all NASA's Apollo missions had been 382 kilograms and the Mars programme had netted in the order of "grams", Dunbabin said.

Gravity, temperatures, atmospheric pressure, radiation and the consistency of surfaces themselves all present unique problems, complicated by the fact that operations in space would have to be largely automated and remote-controlled.

Space drilling also throws up the question: who owns the moon's resources?

SingTel Optus lawyer Donna Lawler likened it to the law of the high seas, where energy firms can mine in international waters without claiming territorial ownership.

More than 100 countries including the US have ratified the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which holds signatory nations responsible for activities in space but it is as yet untested.

It may be soon if space mining joins the moon landings in the annals of science fiction-turned-reality.

"There's nothing really science fiction about any of this. In many ways a lot of the technology already exists, I don't think we really have to invent much science," said Dempster.

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IRON AND ICE
How Do We Know the Russian Meteor and 2012 DA14 Aren't Related?
Washington DC (SPX) Feb 20, 2013
So how can we tell that the Russian meteor isn't related to asteroid 2012 DA14? One way is to look at meteor showers - the Orionids all have similar orbits to their parent comet, Halley. Similarly, the Geminids all move in orbits that closely resemble the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which produced them. So if the Russian meteor was a fragment of 2014 DA14, it would have an orbit very similar ... read more


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