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All This For A Thimbleful Of Dirt

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Peter Barus
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View of asteroid Ryugu from Hayabusa 2
View of asteroid Ryugu from Hayabusa 2
(Image by JAXA, University of Tokyo & collaborators)
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The Hayabusa2 spacecraft collected about 5 grams of material from the nearby asteroid (162173) Ryugu and brought it to Earth, where scientists have access to more techniques and can collect data with far greater sensitivity than is possible with spacecraft instruments.

---SCIENCE, 23 Feb 2023 Vol 379, Issue 6634, pp. 782-783

Five grams of an astoroid has been returned to Earth. Scientists are analyzing it grain by grain, molecule by molecule.

I say "most expensive" referring to the fact that it cost everything humanity has ever done to send an object to an asteroid millions of miles away in space, and grab some of it, and bring it back to Earth.

Had Hannibal not... had the Buddha not... had the builders of Stonehenge not done what they did, exactly as they did it, we would not have this thimbleful of sand from a place about as definitively inaccessible as a place can be.

I have to admit, although it is ultimately pointless to put people in space--I mean where are they gonna go without Earth?--that this is what a space program should be about.

An asteroid doesn't care if we tap it for vital minerals, and discover traces of the elements that could form life. It doesn't care if it plows into Kansas at thousands of miles per second, ending the whole experiment. And it's field research: it might get us closer to a condition of sustainability before we consume even the dirt under our own feet.

We're already consuming the dirt under the feet of just about everybody in the "Global South" as it is, just to run our cellphones in the "Global North." Unforch, that, too, was necessary to get less than a handful of particles off that clump of detritus pitching through the void to nowhere.

So I feel profound gratitude to all who contributed to this amazing project. The cave-painters 40,000 years ago. The people who walked across the Bering Strait when it wasn't there yet. The Byzantine Empire. Genghis Khan. Robin Hood. Jack the Ripper.

So, now what? The clock's ticking. Time is not on our side.

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I'm an old Pogo fan. For some unknown reason I persist in outrage at Feudalism, as if human beings can do much better than this. Our old ways of life are obsolete and are killing us. Will the human race wake up in time? Stay (more...)

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