Rhyolite, Nevada, April 1, 2010: Earlier this year a team of astronomers under John Sutter from the American Western Center for Minor body Observations of Nevada (AWCMON) in Rhyolite, Nevada found yet another Earth orbit crossing asteroid. Nobody took much notice; neither the asteroid's orbit or its size were remarkable. It was given the identification code 2010AU79 and that was that. Back to more important work - or so one thought.
However, in February there was an opportunity for spectroscopic analysis. The results of this did make people stop and think. The first reaction was to disbelieve the data or their interpretation. But then, just a few weeks later, more data came in and confirmed the February findings. Finally, science had to face the fact that 2010 AU79 was anything but a run-of-the-mill asteroid.
A press conference was held today, Thursday, April 1, 2010 in the city hall of the thriving Nevada township of Rhyolite. There, the asteroid's discoverer Sutter declared that:
[...] The extremely high rotation rate of once every 7±0.3 seconds inferred from the light curve leads us to believe that this body must be a monolith.[...]
(Author's note: rubble pile asteroids held together by gravity cannot rotate rapidly; this would lead to large centrifugal forces and rip the body apart. In fact, the rotation of such bodies cannot be faster than once every 2.2 hours.)
Sutter went on:
[...] Having a 300 meter (author's note: 1000 ft) object like 2010 AU79 that is a fast-rotating monolith occasioned raised eyebrows, but no dropping jaws. [...] (Author's note: Spectroscopic) analysis showed that it must be a metallic body. Metallic, or M-class asteroids make up about 5% of the asteroid population (Author's note: = the total number of asteroids out there) and they are typically composed mainly of iron and nickel. However, 2010 AU79 is different; at least 10% of its mass must be ... gold.
All heavy elements including gold are formed in supernova explosions. The gas and dust clouds from which stars and planets form are known to contain gold, as do asteroids and comets - albeit in minute quantities. The fact that this particular asteroid contains such a high percentage of gold is extremely unusual.
Although Dr. Sutter made a great effort to downplay its significance, this announcement hit like a bombshell, and not just among scientists. The press conference ended in uproar, Rhyolite city hall had to be cleared by Nevada state troopers, and the scientists were discreetly led out through the back door. An unusual end of a scientific press conference, even by Nevadan standards.
This much is certain: The political and economic implications of this discovery are enormous. Even if only 10% of 2010 AU79 are made up of gold, this amounts to 20 million metric tons - over one hundred times more than all the gold ever mined on Earth!
Mining stock suffered dramatically in the wake of the announcement but then recovered when it was realized that there would be no way of mining the asteroid any time soon. The world's governments are still jittery, though. All major currencies are backed by national gold reserves. If these suddenly became worthless, chaos would ensue.
Conversely, ufologists saw their stock soar. Imaginative theories sprouted like mushrooms: for these people, no natural process can account for such a mother lode in space; no explanation short of an alien artifact is acceptable.
I am very upbeat about the turn of events: Space agencies should send missions to 2010 AU79 and bring back a few kilograms of samples. Then not only would scientists find out for sure how this body came to be, the proceeds of the subsequent sale of the asteroid material should serve to finance the mission cost. Its exclusivity should ensure that the price per ounce of asteroid gold remains a multiple of that of an ounce of gold mined on Earth, and if they bring back only a few kilograms every time, the market will not collapse.
So here, finally, we have a business case for self-financing space research, at least for the coming decades. Of course, if the quantities of mined asteroid gold do rise dramatically, the business model will have to adapt - but that will not happen in the immediate future.Usually well-informed sources in Washington DC have picked up as yet unconfirmed rumors that the White House is considering a reversal of its February decision to ditch the Constellation program that would allow manned exploration of near-Earth asteroids. It is not known whether these rumors are related to the 2010 AU79 announcement.
One thing is for sure: The world is in for a change. 2010 AU79 will turn out to be a watershed not only in the way things are run on Earth, but also in the way we explore space. April 1, 2010 may well be remembered as the day when spaceflight started for real.
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