Psyche Mission – How Big is Big?

Psyche AsteroidI read an article the other day about how scientists would like to send a probe to an asteroid called Psyche (16 Psyche). The article itself focused on the fact that the asteroid is thought to be made up almost entirely of iron-nickel. It is irregularly shaped at 240x185x140 kilometers.

This was not a particularly “sexy” science article and didn’t attract the usual stream of trolls. A healthy number of the comments were from science geeks like myself. I’m not sure they would embrace the term geek, as do I.

Much of the talk centered around bringing Psyche into Earth orbit and mining the metal. One person mentioned the weight of Psyche 2.27x10E+19 (10 times 10 times 10, nineteen times) kilograms and how moving such a massive object would not be easy. Most people skipped right over this reality. I think because the number is really too large to fully comprehend.

I wanted to see if I could figure out the math and maybe get an idea in my mind how big is BIG. The NASA calculation is based on the influence that Psyche has on the orbit of objects around it but I hoped to figure out how much a roughly 200 kilometer sphere of iron would weigh. Math is not my strong suit so off to the Internet I went.

We need to be able to calculate the volume of a sphere and know the density of iron.

The volume of a sphere is calculated by this formula: 4/3*Pi*radius^3 (cubed).

Iron has a density of 7.87 grams per cubic centimeter.

So to get the volume comparable with the density we need to convert the roughly 200 kilometers into centimeters. Easily done. There are 100 centimeters in a meter and 1,000 meters in a kilometer so there are 100,000 centimeters in a kilometer. Multiply that by 200 and we get 20 million centimeters.

Our equation thus reads 4/3*Pi*20,000,000^3.

The next thing we need to know is that math isn’t always done left to right, it’s done by something called an Order of Operations. Some of you might remember Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. The operator takes precedent over left to right.

  1. Parenthesis
  2. Exponential
  3.  Multiply and Divide
  4. Add and Subtract

The upshot of that is we take 20 million cubed first. Then go back and take 4/3*Pi and multiply the cubed result by that. The volume is 3.35103E+22.

From here is relative simple to multiply that result by the 7.87 grams per cubic centimeter density of iron and then convert grams into pounds for many in my audience. I ended up with a result of 5.81E+20 lbs or 2.64E+20 kilograms.

My numbers don’t match the official mass of Psyche likely because I roughly guessed the spherical size and based the entire weight on the density of iron. Both of these were estimates but the result I got is fairly close to the official mass and I think I’ve done my math right.

What’s the point of all this?

When it is noted that Psyche has a mass of about 2.27x10E+19 kilograms what we are really saying is that it weighs this much:

  • 22,700,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms
  • 50,044,933,515,967,200,000 pounds.

No wonder most people just skipped over it. That number is so big it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist at all. We cannot imagine such a thing and yet Psyche is just a fairly large object in the asteroid belt. The biggest object in the asteroid belt is called Ceres and contains more fresh water than is found on earth.

What’s the point of all of this?

I suppose I’m suggesting that we stop and smell the density. Having a great idea, mining iron from Psyche, is a good thing; but don’t ignore obstacles because they are difficult to grasp. They are the most important thing to consider in any plan.

Think about how Big is Big and what difficulties it presents. Not just in mining an asteroid but in everything you do.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Spear of the Hunt
Next Release: The Broken Throne

Rare Earth Elements and China

Irare earth elementsn my daily perusal of news stories I’ve noted a recent trend in misinformation about China’s monopoly on what are called rare earth elements and the danger this represents to the United States. I thought I’d take a quick look at what these elements are, how they are used, and how China’s cutback on shipment of the elements will affect the world. It’s not a particularly exciting story but I found it interesting and I thought some others might as well.

The Wikipedia article is extremely thorough and you should look at it for more details but I’ll try to summarize quickly.

Rare Earth Elements are not rare. They are fairly common although they encompass a wide variety of elements. Seventeen to be exact. Some are much rarer than others and they have many varied uses including with lasers, alloys, superconductors, magnets, and even chemical reducing agents.

The big controversy seems to be that China controls the total world output as almost a monopoly, currently about 90% . This is true but deceiving. China controls about 23% of the proven reserves of the elements although even this is a high figure because China has done far and away the most searching for the elements.

Up until 1980 the United States was the leading producer of these elements and even as late as 1990 China only produced about 27% of the total amount. However, they were undertaking a massive program to mine these elements and soon flooded the market with cheap product. This immediately wiped out all competition and lead to them reaching as high total contribution of about 95%.

A lesson about monopolies is in order here. I’m a Libertarian and I do think capitalism is the best economic strategy but there are anti-trust laws for a reason. Monopolies are dangerous not only to the general public but to nations as well. When one company or nation controls the vast majority of a highly sought after commodity only ill can follow.

Anyway, enough of that talk for now. This is about rare earth elements.

For various reasons China is now reducing its exports of the elements and the last few years have seen ramped-up efforts to resume mining in the United States and other countries for fear of shortages. This is a natural evolution of capitalism and perfectly normal. The thing to keep in mind is that there are actually plenty of these elements available. It is only because of the monopolistic practices of China that they are not being mined in more places, it simply wasn’t profitable. If it becomes profitable then the mines will spring up.

One more quick aside and then I’ll be done. The mining of these elements usually releases something called Thorium which is radioactive and has been blamed for a number of health problems around the mines, particularly in China and other countries that don’t have regulations against pollution. One reason China is reducing output is because of popular unrest over the rise in toxic waste in the water supply from unregulated, illegal operations.

So, I don’t foresee a rare earth element panic because other nations will begin to mine once China reduces output. It might take a few years to ramp up production but there is, in my opinion, no serious danger. Surveys of the seabeds near hydrothermal vents seem to indicate massive reserves are available for eventual exploitation. Health concerns are legitimate but that’s what limited governmental regulations are all about. Keep an eye on the mines and make sure they aren’t dumping Thorium and all should be well.

Thanks for listening to this boring blog. I hope someone finds it interesting!

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Hammer of Fire
Upcoming Release: The Sword of Water

Science Rocks

Science Week – Geology

ScienceYep, you probably guessed it. Geology. It’s probably not the most exciting of the sciences but its study has incredible implications as far as they way we think about our world. And by that, I mean it presents tremendously strong arguments for critical thinking and against faith based thinking. That’s why I’m going to devote the last day of Science Week to Geology.

Geology is the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Simply the study of the planet we live upon. This study is a critical tour de force destruction of the proposals of the Bible and faith based thinking as a whole.

It is also important in preparing for natural disasters and is a great hobby for those of you who like to collect rocks like Andy Dufresne. It also leads to Paleontology which is a super cool science! Who doesn’t like dinosaurs?

But, onto the real reason for my post. How geological discoveries contradict faith based thinking with tremendously strong evidence. Now, there are faith based thinkers who are happy to acknowledge the Earth’s age of 4.7 billion years and allow for a deity that created the universe but those aren’t the thinkers I’m talking about here. I’m talking about those who take the bible as the literal and absolute truth.

Literal translation of the Bible places the Earth around 6,000 years old based on a counting of the ages of fathers and sons for many generation. A simple look at the stratification of river canyons seems to obviously indicate long periods of erosion which strip away layers of earth each with their own characteristic colors and compositions. This is called the Law of superposition. Basically, lower layers are older. It’s really quite simple, intuitive, and obvious. It’s only when we have faith based thinking wherein it must not be true that people find convoluted explanations that contradict the evidence.

This law is further reinforced by something called the fossil record. The idea is that in each layer of the earth we find fossils. The lower we go the more primitive the species that are found. This is called the Principal of Faunal Succession. For example, in the stratified layers that contain dinosaur fossils we find no human fossils. This is tremendously strong evidence that dinosaurs existed long before humans which contradicts literal Biblical translations. This method is so powerful that geologists can look at the fossil record, pinpoint a “missing link” and then go find a layer of the earth where that creature should reside and soon enough, they find it. This has happened again and again.

It seems patently obvious to me that if all animals were created at the same time, as suggested by literal biblical translations, they would be evenly distributed through the layers. They are not, this is fact.

There is also something called Relative Dating which again shows a particular sequence of rock layers one piling upon the next the whole world around. Absolute Dating is a method by which a more precise age of rocks is determined. There are various methods each which present further strong evidence of the age of the earth and the progression of fossil species in each layer.

Geology also gives us the field of Plate Tectonics. Any five year old when first presented with a globe immediately recognizes that North America and South America fit together like pieces of a puzzle with Europe and Africa. Plate Tectonics shows us that the earth is a fluid place with the continents drifting. Again, this is fact. This also goes into the Faunal record where we find a species in bands that include South America and Africa clearly indicating the two were once joined. If the two were always separated then one species would not exist in both places. We find this evidence again and again in the fossil record.

It doesn’t take even a modicum of intelligence to put together the pieces. But, faith based thinking doesn’t want the earth to function like this so it is forced to come up with bizarre explanations for easily understood phenomenon.

Plate Tectonics also explains why we find little fish-like fossils high in the mountains. Faith based thinking tells us there must have been a flood. If that was the case, of course, we would find fish fossils of many different, modern species in the mountains. We don’t. We find only ancient species. It’s all so apparent once you eliminate your preconceived notions and look at the simple facts.

That’s my point today. Use your critical thinking skills. Look at the evidence, make strong conclusions. This sort of thinking is not just about geology, it is about how you lead your life, the decisions you make, and ultimately how much happiness and success you have.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed Science Week. Next week is Dumb Platitudes I saw on Facebook week so stay tuned for the fun!

As always, Like, Pinterest, PlusOne, Tweet, Stumble, Digg, and all the rest if you think someone you know might find this topic, the stunning excitement of geology, interesting.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist