Gaia’s Revenge

There is a lot of talk about the dangers of space travel, the risks of radiation causing sterility, DNA damage or other maladies. But much less is discussed about what happens when space travelers return to Earth after being away. Here we will check in on Tyler after his return from a six month mining trip, and see just what revenge humanity’s birthplace is exacting on him.

The Fun Part

January, 2032
Approximately 0.5 feet above San Francisco on a couch .

Six months…that was all. Why was he feeling like such shit? Just getting up from the couch seemed to ignite a fire in his knees and back, while laying there felt a bit like he was being crushed.

Tyler’s combination of prior military experience, a dad who was a coal miner, and a degree in electrical engineering made him a shoe in for the first mining trip to the asteroid 1999 JU3. Planetary Resources had been planning that first trip for five years, and man they paid well.

By any reasonable metric that first trip was a fantastic success. The company sold the cargo for well in excess of $1.5 billion. Since anything above a billion meant his team and the company split the proceeds 50-50, he was sitting on an extra 45 million dollars. Not a bad half-years wage.

But he couldn’t enjoy that money laying here on the couch. And what the fuck were wrong with his legs – they looked like fucking balloons. He had been cleared by the company’s med team three days ago after he got back, so what was going on? They told him that he ‘might experience flu-like symptoms for a while’, but this was clearly more than the flu. Although come to think of it, he was having a hard time concentrating.

Maybe if he just got up and got active that would help. After all, just laying around wouldn’t make him better. Tyler had been an active runner, and a closet Crossfit’er before he went to 1999 JU3, but going on a run now seemed out of the question.

Eating didn’t seem like a good idea now either. He had already thrown up twice today. What about just sitting up and watching something. That would be a good start right? As Tyler started to sit he felt a horrible itching on his side, and pulled his shirt up to reveal his entire side covered in a bright red, splotchy rash.

Ok, he thought, that’s it, i’m calling 911, something is really fucking wrong here.

The Real Deal

THE Returnee’s Syndrome

The problems Tyler is experiencing are pretty normal for people coming back from extended sessions in micro/zero-G environments. This month NASA published the results of their ‘twin study‘ in the journal Science. The study found humans are able to adapt to living in micro-gravity despite the many hazards from increased radiation exposure and weightlessness.

Despite this, there are significant challenges for the human body including hypoxia, disrupted circadian rhythm, and abnormal gene activation (the full effects of this are not understood yet, but no our DNA doesn’t change in space). The researchers theorize that being further from Earth’s protective magnetosphere, such as for a trip to an asteroid, would increase the damage to our bodies.

While this study is important for understanding the impact of space-flight on the human body, a particularly interesting thing happens to humans when they return groundside. Their body rejects being home.

Astronaut Scott Kelly’s (one of the twins in the study) immune system went on high alert upon returning to Earth (it did the same when he first went into orbit). His body acted as if it were under attack. Mentally, Scott experienced at least temporary (roughly six months) cognitive decline. He likened his experience of trying to work to taking the SAT while having the flu. He may have known the answer, or how to do something, but accessing the information in his brain was problematic.

Scott also noted that adjusting to life in space was easier than re-adjusting to live back on Earth. He said he didn’t feel like he got back to ‘normal’ for about 8 months. In the days and weeks after he got back he had all of the symptoms Tyler did above, and then some.

While it isn’t clear if some of these conditions were worse because of Kelly’s age (he was over 50 when he spent his year in space), or if he has some genetic pre-disposition to Returnee’s Syndrome, but it sure looks like Gaia took her revenge on him for being gone so long.

Scott Kelly after his return from a year in space…and yes he was bald before he went up
Mine Baby Mine

Over the past 20 years, scientists have identified over 11,000 near-Earth asteroids (in addition to the near million we know of in the Main Belt). A handful of companies are exploring options to begin prospecting on some of these asteroids in the coming years. Most of these plans involve initially mining ice to be converted into fuel (because refueling in space is way easier than bringing it all up from the ground). After refueling infrastructure is more established, mining will likely start to expand to rare metals, and other minerals for use in on-orbit manufacturing.

Despite the high number of near-Earth asteroids, researchers say the majority of these are not suitable for mining with current (or near current) tech because of the following five factors:

Speed. One of the first considerations when looking at an asteroid to mine is how fast it is going. The faster it is moving, the harder it will be for a spacecraft to match velocity and land. It is basically the difference between jumping on a train slowly pulling out of the station of trying to jump onto a moving bullet train. James Bond may be able to do both, but that doesn’t mean they are both the same difficulty.

Spin. For many of the same reasons as speed, the spin of an asteroid can prevent a landing. But aside from trying to land on a top, the faster an asteroid is spinning the more likely it is to actually disintegrate, making it a less desirable target for mining. No point risking equipment if it is going to be lost after the drill breaks the entire rock up.

Size. Yes I am saying size matters. At least here. Anywhere else – you are on your own. In this case it is because anything smaller than about 3-400 meters across just wont have enough water or ore to make a trip worth it.

Structure. Asteroids are classified by what composes their structure. C-type asteroids are about 20% frozen water (and considered ideal initial targets for space mining operations), M-type are largely metallic, and S-type are stony.

Orbit. At the end of the day, the closer an asteroid is, the easier it is to get to. If you have the four S’s aligned, but the asteroid is far away, then it is probably not a good prospect for your mining operation.

Three typical orbits of near Earth asteroids.
Image Courtesy of Planetary Resources

Conclusion

It may not be a fun thought to realize that returning to Earth after a trip to space will be a painful experience. Especially considering how isolated space travelers will be. People returning to society will likely want to get out and enjoy themselves, but will Gaia’s Revenge ensure that isn’t possible? Maybe there is an easy medical fix for this condition, and maybe it is the inevitable cost of a new environment.

If it isn’t a preventable condition, it may be the spark which pushes people to form orbital societies faster than currently anticipated. I know I would probably prefer to live with everyone I know and love up in relative health up in space rather than return and suffer for six+ months. I guess we will see how prevalent this condition is as more people venture forth from our home.

If you enjoyed this and want to make sure you don’t miss future stories in the pre-history of humanity’s second century in space, sign up below. Until next time – may the light of science guide you.

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