Space exploration and the future exploitation of asteroids
The discoveries of exoplanets in recent years have been absolutely extraordinary, and they could relatively soon be reached by our technology. Over the next decade, scientists expect TESS to fulfil its primary mission, which is to discover thousands of exoplanets. Only recently, thanks to the development of satellites and high-power, high-definition telescopes, has it been possible to study neighbouring planets more accurately, particularly those capable of harbouring life. In the early 1990s astronomers, although with high-powered telescopes, were unable to detect distant planets. The search had already intensified ten years earlier, in 2009, with the launch of Kepler, the first space telescope designed to detect exoplanets. Although the search for exoplanets was initially aimed at establishing how many planets in the galaxy orbit the stars, the results are staggering: our galaxy has about 400 billion stars and, according to recent discoveries, on average each star hosts at least one planet: this means that there are at least 400 billion planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The discovery of such a large number of exoplanets is a radical change in our knowledge of the Universe, but the idea that millions of planets might not only be able to host other life forms, but also to generate them, is even more extreme. Scientists are astounded at the amount of planets discovered in the habitable zone that could harbour life forms: as mentioned above, there are at least 400 billion planets in our galaxy – hence even just one per cent equates to four billion planets that could potentially be habitable.
The theory, coupled with the practical discovery that the galaxy teems with Earth-like planets, has triggered a revolution in the scientific community. Despite the immense distance, an ambitious programme to study it by spacecraft is underway. Light travels at a finite speed: the sun rays take about eight minutes to reach the Earth. In recent years, an increasing number of astrophysicists have speculated that mankind could unravel the mysteries of interstellar space travel much sooner than previously thought. Mount Palomar, California, October 6, 2013: a red supergiant star in the constellation Pegasus. One of the basic concepts of astronomy is that almost everything we see happened in the past because light does not travel instantaneously. Billions of years from now, our star, the Sun, will turn into a supernova and the day is inexorably approaching when we should migrate to another habitable planet. At La Silla Observatory in Chile, in August 2011 astronomers announced the discovery of a large Earth-like planet in the constellation Orion: the planet is in the habitable zone and the star around which it orbits is very similar to ours, thus making it suitable for hosting life.
However, specific resources are needed before practice can be developed from theory. Metals such as rare earth elements, gold, copper, zinc and platinum have been mined on Earth for thousands of years and are vital to civilisation, but their supply is limited partly because they do not come from our planet. It is widely known that without the use of metals, technology and civilisation would not have existed. The most sensible choice is to build spacecraft to find asteroids, extract material and take all the advantages and benefits. Mountain View, California, April 2013: scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Centre discovered two new potentially habitable exoplanets, Kepler 62E and 62F, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope. This means that in a phase of expansion and space migration, not only raw materials are needed, but also water which, once broken down and split into hydrogen and oxygen, could be used as fuel with the processes that are at the forefront, which I have analysed in some of my previous contributions. It is firmly believed that the search for life forms will further undergo a revolution very soon.
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