Chasing comets: the implications

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This is a photo of the comet that the ESA probe Rosetta took after its 10 year journey to rendezvous with the celestial body. This is cool for a variety of reasons. First and foremost there’s the awe factor. I mean, look at that! That’s an actual comet! Also, thinking about all the work that went into this makes my head spin. Considering the vastness of space and the sizes of the probe and comet, the math involved must have been difficult to say the least. I mean, essentially what the ESA did was throw a grain of sand from New York and hit a gnat in LA. Again, amazing.

But I think the real takeaway is the implications this has for our future. Scientists have long wondered if comets could be cosmic seeds of sort. Can life–or the building blocks or ingredients for life–really hitch rides on comets? Well, I think we’re going to find out in the near future. But, perhaps a little more practical, I think that this has far-reaching implications for us in an economic sense.

There are only so many resources on this planet. There are only so many people it is capable of supporting, and we continue to add to the population everyday. And as if that wasn’t enough, we insist on destroying and poisoning the very environment we are dependent upon for life. Eventually, unless we get our population growth under control and clean up our act when it comes to our industry and technology, the only place left to get the vital resources we need is going to be space. There are already companies like Planetary Resources that plan on figuring out how to mine asteroids for the ores they contain. But comets might be a great source for something else we desperately need: water.

Clean water is something that’s in short supply on this planet anymore, and the situation is only getting worse. In the US alone, major water sources are at historical lows. And that’s not to mention the millions of people worldwide who don’t have access to clean water at all. According to the WHO, disease from unclean water or the lack of sanitation that clean water brings kills more people every year than all forms of violence combined–even warThis site does an excellent job summarizing the water problem facing this planet, as well as providing links to WHO reports on the subject.

Luckily space is full of water. It’s everywhere. Just take a look at what NASA has to say on the subject. Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has twice as much water as all the rivers and oceans of earth. Even our own moon has ice–millions of tons of it, according to NASA. And we’ve already been there, so mining it is within the realm of possibility. But how much water does a comet contain? Well, that would obviously depend upon the size of the comet. But, to give you an idea, when comet LINEAR dissolved after passing too close to the sun about a decade ago, scientists were able to use the Hubble telescope to see what was inside. According to their estimates, that comet had 3.3 billion kg of water in it (this comes from NASA again).

The possibilities that this latest human achievement represents give me a sense of optimism. I still believe that we humans are capable of getting our act together here on our little blue oasis. But if that doesn’t happen, or it occurs too late in the game to reverse the course of things, it’s nice to know that science can offer us other solutions. If nothing else, this proves that the human race is capable of remarkable things. In a world full of short-sightedness, greed, corruption…it’s nice to see a glimmer of mankind’s potential shine through. Perhaps one day we will all be able to live up to that potential.

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4 thoughts on “Chasing comets: the implications

  1. Nice article. I like the awe factor you mention. So true.

    I think most scientists would agree that life wouldn’t survive the extreme heat as the comet enters the earth’s atmosphere. But many believe the “seeds of life” could be kick-started by a comet entering the earth’s atmosphere. Conditions in space may be able to create complex dipeptides, and others hope that some comets may have been able to form proteins, but even so, we’re still far from anything that could be considered “life”.

    I also agree with the practical and economic implications mentioned, although I don’t share in any sense of alarm. I agree that there are only so many resources on this planet, but I also think a lot of it is renewable, and that we have more than what is generally acknowledged. But even if we were to completely use it all up (which will never happen), we’ll have other options, including these resources from space.

    We’re not “destroying” the environment. I think we may be altering the environment, but not destroying it. Something will always be able to take advantage whatever new environment emerges. The earth is robust and built to withstand as many humans as it needs to support, but I’m still all for space exploration and the practical uses that can be obtained. I don’t think it will be practical to mine water from outer space at this point, but perhaps someday it may be worthwhile.

    I think what I like most about your article is how you highlight the amount of water in space. And that’s something the Bible briefly mentions in Genesis 1:6-9 in which God separated water beneath the sky from the water above the sky.

    1. Thank you for the compliments!

      I guess I should have been more specific in my definition of environmental destruction. While I generally tend to believe that given enough time “life will find a way” in this article I mean “destruction” in that sense that it is no longer useful to human beings. That might not be irreversible in the long run, but I’m of the opinion that short term, stop gap solutions will probably be needed at some point in the future until we can sort everything out.

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