Wednesday, March 29

The largest hydrocarbon reserve is not in Russia or the Persian Gulf: it is on Titan, Saturn’s moon

It was a Spaniard. The first person who suggested that Titan could have an atmosphere was Josep Comas i Solá on August 13, 1907. “Using 750 magnification, I have seen Titan with very dark edges, fading into the darkness of the sky […]. We can legitimately assume that this great darkness of the edges demonstrates the existence of a very absorbent atmosphere around Titan”, said the Catalan astronomer.

I was right. In fact, it’s not just that Saturn’s moon has an atmosphere; is that, despite being 7.3 times denser per square meter than that of our planet, it is very similar. For starters, because it’s the only other rocky planet in the solar system that has large expanses of liquid on its surface. Finally, because (viewed from the outside) these atmospheres (with their storms, storms and anticyclones) are very similar.

Welcome to space mining. The only “problem” is that, in short, the seas are made of methane and the deserts are made of silicates (also) made of hydrocarbons. Cassini, in 2013, made it possible to calculate the depth of one of these seas and verify that Titan contains 40 times more hydrocarbons than all the oil wells on Earth. Together. That’s why I put “problem” in quotes, because there are many who are beginning to see it as an opportunity.

The race to be the first in asteroid mining: this is how the idea is being considered

It is clear that, even if exploiting Titan’s hydrocarbons would be cost-effective, we don’t have the technology to do so, and when we do, the hydrocarbons probably won’t be “juicy” enough to be worth going after. However, the huge oil well on Titan makes us wonder a lot about space mining. After all, it is NASA itself that says that the value of all the minerals stored in the asteroids of the main belt of our Solar System is approximately one hundred billion dollars for each inhabitant of Earth.

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Big opportunities and big risks. A few years ago, the astronomer and popularizer Neil DeGrasse Tyson said in an interview that “the first trillionaire in history will be the person who exploits natural resources in asteroids.” It won’t be easy, but I wasn’t exaggerating. If the annual production of unprocessed metals on Earth reaches 660,000 million dollars per year, those extracted from asteroids would move in 700 quintillion.

The world would not have seen anything like it since the discovery of America’s gold and silver deposits 500 years ago: the global economy would change forever. A simulation that several students at Tel Aviv University pointed out a few years ago that the first shipment of metals from an asteroid that returned to Earth could drop the price of gold by 50%. The same would happen with the rest of the minerals extracted in space and Titan, with its hydrocarbons, would not even enter that first phase. Space is dangerous in many different ways.

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