Georges Schmit, pictured, is a member of the Luxembourg advisory board on space resources
Photo: Matic Zorman
As Asteroid Day returns to Luxembourg on 28 June, Delano speaks to the man who gave the cause a home in Luxembourg.
Asteroid Day was co-founded by astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Dr Brian May, Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, filmmaker Grig Richters and B612 president Danica Remy to promote awareness and provide knowledge to the general public about the importance of asteroids in the formation of our universe and the role they play in our solar system today.
Luxembourg became the headquarters of the Asteroid Foundation when Georges Schmit, then the general consul for Luxembourg in San Francisco, met the founders of Asteroid Day. “At the time, it didn’t have a real home,” Schmit explains. “Brian May is a citizen of the world, always on the road; Grig Richters, who was coordinating local initiatives around the world, was living in London.” As Luxembourg was developing and promoting its space resources sector, part of whose aim was to attract new companies to the grand duchy and also to raise awareness and education about asteroids and other celestial bodies, it seemed like a natural fit. “Because of the ecosystem surrounding space resources, it is ideal for Luxembourg to be a home to the Asteroid Foundation,” Schmit says.
The educational aspect of Asteroid Day is a key to the future, according to Schmit. He explains that although we all learn about the planets at a relatively early age, general knowledge regarding asteroids is limited. “There are millions in the asteroid belt and several 100,000 in near-earth orbit, but we have only identified around 17,000 of them,” he says.
Threat of impact
He thinks children as young as primary school age can learn about asteroids. “They can learn as soon as they learn about dinosaurs. They have common fates, I guess,” Schmit says with a wry smile. “That doesn’t mean as a foundation that we want to scare people. But the reality is there.” After all, Asteroid Day is scheduled each year during the week of 30 June, the anniversary of the largest asteroid impact on Earth in recorded history, the so-called Tunguska event in what is now Russia in 1908.
A whole string of people are taking the potential threat of a near-earth object colliding with our planet very seriously. Schmit and Schweickart are among thousands of astronauts, scientists, artists and celebrities--ranging from Brian Cox to Whoopi Goldberg--to have signed the “100x Declaration”. This calls for increasing the asteroid discovery rate to 100,000 (or 100x) per year within the next 10 years. “All kinds of people feel it’s important we give more attention to the threat,” Schmit says. Slowly, governments are paying attention, and some have initiated projects to deal with the risk of asteroid impact. Nasa, for instance, is targeting 2020 to launch its Double Asteroid Redirection Test against the smaller of the binary near-Earth asteroid Didymos. If launched on time next year, the spacecraft is set to deliberately smash into an asteroid in the autumn of 2022.
However, the Asteroid Foundation wants to provide a positive message that there are also opportunities and not just threats from asteroids. Becoming an asteroid scientist could be a project for life, says Schmit. As well as Luxembourg, the Japanese government and private companies are among those looking at opportunities, he says. The conference will hear some very interesting stuff from Patrick Michel from the Côte d’Azur Observatory who is working closely with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) on its Hayabusa2 mission.
The possibilities of space exploration in the future are unfathomable. It is, after all, only 62 years since the launch of the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, Schmit says. The suggestion is that ideas that were the stuff of science fiction back in 1957 have become reality, and who is to say what science fiction ideas of today will be fully realised by 2079?
“Continued solar system exploration, particularly if it is to involve humans--manned spacecraft or even settlement--will need to rely on asteroids and their resources.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for example, wants his Blue Origin space services company to build so-called “O’Neill colonies”, enormous spinning cylinders taken from Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill. The idea has been dismissed by rival Elon Musk, who tweeted in mid-May that the challenge of building space colonies of that size “would be like trying to build the USA in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean”. But Musk, who has his own plans for a vast satellite-based internet network called Spacelink, has said that humanity must become multiplanetary in order to survive. And he has acknowledged that any future settlement by humans of space, of the sort being touted by Bezos, would require the “transport of vast amounts of mass from planets/moons/asteroids”.
Other space transportation companies, including United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are also trying to get in on the act. “These people are thinking beyond,” says Schmit. “The key force that is preventing us from doing more is the cost of launch from Earth because of gravity.” So why not use space resources and launch from outside Earth’s gravitational pull? This so-called in-situ resource utilisation is already being explored by Nasa for launches, but also for the manufacture in space of things like solar cells from materials, such as silicon and aluminium, found in lunar soil.
Schmit admits that space mining is a term that can give cause to misunderstanding, because it has connotations with exploitation, destruction and “ripping off riches”. “Bringing back resources to encourage the richness of the few is not something we will see in my lifetime, and it is certainly not the focus of anyone who is involved in space resources exploration and utilisation,” says Schmit. “The main focus will be using resources in space for further space exploration and settlement. There are two main objectives, to keep machinery going and to keep human life going.”
Meet the astronauts
There are a series of events for the industry, sponsors and school students during the three-day programme. The main public event takes place on Saturday 29 June at noon at the Cercle Cité. This is a meet and greet family event offering visitors a chance to talk with astronauts, scientists and experts.