Science fiction has broadened and inspired the imaginations of millions worldwide, and while providing a glimpse into our possible future, at times it has also served as the basis for the progress of technology beyond many of our wildest dreams.
Imagine a future where astronaut-miners or “droids” travel to nearby asteroids in search of water and precious minerals and metals. Sounds a lot like James Cameron’s film, Avatar, doesn’t it? In the film, humans mine a fictional moon named Pandora for a precious metal called unobtainium. Whereas Avatar was science fiction, a group of wealthy entrepreneurs announced plans this week that they hope to begin mining asteroids in the near future.
On Tuesday, Planetary Resources announced that it hopes to begin mining near-Earth asteroids for everything from water to precious metals and minerals. Although it sounds like science fiction, Planetary Resources co-founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis hope to launch the first stages of their ambitious project in as little as 18 months to two years, and they’ve attracted some very high-profile advisers and investors including James Cameron, NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Google Execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot, Jr., and Charles Simonyi.
While asteroid mining may seem far-fetched, some aspects appear to make sense. Many of these near-Earth objects are easily accessible from Earth. Asteroids are known to contain water and are also believed to contain untold riches in precious metals and minerals. Besides the obvious potential to make gazillions of dollars, asteroid mining may help open up space for further exploration (and exploitation). According to Anderson, “If you believe it’s important to have continued prosperity for future generations, we need resources from somewhere. Near-Earth asteroids are way, way more appealing than just about any other place we might look.”
But if asteroid mining still seems too “out there,” a sampling of other technologies that sound like science fiction but are already in use today just might convince you that “truth is stranger than fiction.” According to the website “Things Nerds Like,” the alien “heat rays” in H. G. Wells’ classic, “The War of the Worlds,” may have been the inspiration for the U.S. military’s ‘Active Denial System,’ which uses a focused beam of directed wave energy to “heat up” the outer layers of human skin, causing intolerable pain. The device is used for crowd control.
Another unusual device used to control people is the Mosquito. Billed as “teenager repellent,” the Mosquito emits a high-pitched whine that irritates young people and is used to deter loitering and other “anti-social” behaviors.
Designer children anyone? Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” examined controlled reproduction and genetic manipulation’s consequences on society. Although we’re not yet creating humans from designer blueprints, we’re not far from it. In vitro fertilization, somatic and germline gene therapies, cloning, and the use of donor eggs to create children with three genetic parents are just the beginning. But if designer humans aren’t enough, there are always human-animal hybrids.
What do you get when you cross “mad scientists” with the 2008 Human Fertilization Embryology Act? A really bad horror movie or, as of 2011, more than 150 human-animal hybrid embryos created secretly in labs at Warwick University in the U.K. Scientists say the techniques used to develop these embryos can also be used to treat a wide range of currently incurable illnesses as well as provide a “unique” way to help feed the world. Feed the world? According to an article in Science Daily, scientists are developing a new approach for producing large quantities of “human-derived gelatin” which could be substituted for animal-based gelatin in desserts like marshmallows, candy, and numerous other products. Did someone say “Soylent Green?”
Then there’s the matter of anti-matter. Shea Laverty of Oilprice.com says that “Antimatter already sees use in medical imaging technologies such as positron emission tomography or PET scans. The energy released during a matter-antimatter interaction is beyond incredible, with a single kilogram each of matter and antimatter capable of producing the same amount of energy as 43 megatons of TNT. Such energy generation only falls slightly below the yield of the Tsar Bomb, the largest and most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever detonated. While antimatter faces issues of scarcity and controlling the reaction to produce stable energy instead of a flaming nuclear hell-storm, the potential is there to create an incredibly potent energy source.”
Throughout history, science fiction has made the improbable possible. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name just a few—all have had profound influences on society and scientific technology. Jules Verne wrote about nuclear-powered submarines and rockets to the moon long before any of those technologies existed. Remember those hand-held flip-style communicators in the original Star Trek television series? While today’s touch-pad screen devices make those devices seem almost archaic, it is interesting to note that flip-style cell phones looked a lot like those devices. And the list goes on.
Although we’re not yet zipping around outer space in starships fueled by more efficient sources of energy, if the writers of science fiction have their way, the groundwork has been laid. Perhaps in the not too distant future, when asteroid mining is a reality and free energy is available for all, our descendents truly will be able “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”