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white pill #28 // asteroid mining, a planet of rivers, a techno-optimist manifesto, electric salt, artificial skin, fun stuff
Readers, it’s great to be back in your inbox with the 28th issue of the White Pill, the world’s most excellent space, science, and technology newsletter. Since we took a bye last week, this White Pill is especially full of new developments you’ll want to read about.
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Ok, let’s get to it.
Starquakes and fast radio bursts. A team of University of Tokyo astronomers find that data provided by surveilling heretofore mysterious, high-energy phenomenon called fast radio bursts (FRBs) — brief, intense flashes of radio waves originating from distant galaxies — seem more like that which is produced by earthquakes than solar flares, leading them to conclude that the surfaces of neutron stars are solid, and experience earthquakes (starquakes)! (Neutron stars have been among the more plausible explanations for some fast radio bursts.) From co-author Professor Tomonori Totani:
The results show notable similarities between FRBs and earthquakes in the following ways: First, the probability of an aftershock occurring for a single event is 10-50%; second, the aftershock occurrence rate decreases with time, as a power of time; third, the aftershock rate is always constant even if the FRB-earthquake activity (mean rate) changes significantly; and fourth, there is no correlation between the energies of the main shock and its aftershock.
More uses for lunar regolith. While I’m disappointed that none of you, to my knowledge, have so far taken advantage of the demand for orbital regolith-based propellant depots that sell fuel to moon-bound craft at prices cheaper, by volume, than the cost to deliver orbital payload (an arbitrage opportunity) by starting a moon mining and cislunar logistics business (I even gave you a name, “Regolift MegaCorp”) that I sketched out in my interview with Phil Metzger, I’m happy to have the opportunity to get on the moon dirt soapbox again.
A few weeks ago, the European Space Agency (ESA) demonstrated that it could use an almost-8-square-foot (2.37 square meter) lens to focus sunlight — or a CO2 laser — to melt synthetic lunar regolith and create "bricks" with strength comparable to concrete. Moon bricks are important because they can be used to build roads, and you need roads because dust kicked up by lunar industrial activity will be incredibly annoying; “agitated into the low-gravity environment, the tiny, charged particles hang in space and pose a major hazard to the intricate working of Earth's machinery.”
The ESA was even able to create tiled bricks, perhaps mimicking with some precision what a robotics mechanic on a two-week stint a a moon base will walk on, on his way to work. Pics above — click in for detail. (Science Alert)
Speaking of how annoying moon dust is, it was actually a big problem for Apollo astronauts. It’s tiny, jagged, and gets into everything. But a team is working on spacesuit design for Artemis astronauts that uses electrostatic forces to repel the dust and keep it from sticking to the suits. (Space.com)
New asteroid mining paper. Noting, among many other factors, the declining ore grades of terrestrially mined metals against our ever increasing reliance on them, and the extremely superior ore grades in asteroids versus in the earth’s crust, a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that “over the next 30 to 40 years, harvesting metals from asteroids could become not only profitable but also the predominant means of mining precious metals as prices rise and the cost of working in space declines.”
Ancient mars. “We’re finding evidence that Mars was likely a planet of rivers. We see signs of this all over the planet,” said the lead author of a new paper that analyzes Mars rover Curiosity’s discoveries. Does the destiny of our species include terraforming it back to the water-rich world that it may have been some 3.5 to 4 billion years ago? This 360° video of Mars with real sound will help you think about that.
Also check out the issue of the White Pill that features my interview with Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin on the economics and survivability of future Martian colonies.
Above is the imagery NASA’s Juno probe captured mid-month of Jupiter’s moon Io. Due to its extreme tidal forces (gravitational interactions between itself and Jupiter that cause the moon to ‘stretch’), Io is the most volcanically active celestial body in our solar system. (@volcanopele)
SpaceX will offer “ubiquitous coverage” from “cellphone towers in space,” i.e., its Starlink satellites. Once up and running, it will work with “existing LTE phones wherever you can see the sky. No changes to hardware, firmware, or special apps are required, providing seamless access to text, voice, and data” according to SpaceX. Next year should have text capabilities, with voice and data coming in 2025, but the timeline is tentative and may depend on getting Starship flying regularly. (Ars Technica)
Above is Curiosity’s drill bit with a sample in its core. Check it out in action here.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has found nanosized quartz grains (basically particles of glass) in the atmosphere of a gas giant orbiting close to its star. It’s the first time quartz particles have been found in an exoplanet atmosphere. That’s some very weird weather. (Webb Space Telescope)
NASA supported research is working to build AI powered space lasers to redirect space junk into lower orbits so that it burns up more quickly in the atmosphere. It does this by vaporizing a “small portion of the debris, generating a high-velocity plasma plume that pushes the debris off course.” (SciTechDaily)
A type of desert dwelling cyanobacteria uses sunlight and CO2 to produce oxygen, and scientists have developed a biocoating (i.e., paint) from it that could be used on Mars to generate supplemental oxygen for future explores and colonists. (Science Alert)
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Technology, Engineering, Computing
A techno-optimist manifesto. a16z co-founder and inventor of the web browser Marc Andreessen posted a techno-optimist manifesto on X last week — it’s worth a read (though if you’re subscribed to this newsletter, you’re probably already familiar with the position he describes). Solana summarized the tech press’ reaction, which was lockstep hysteria, in our most recent issue of our tech newsletter The Industry. I liked how he closed it:
The tech press’s most pointed grievance with the manifesto, however, was probably Marc’s position that technology reduces poverty. While this position is common among most rational humans, it undermines the media’s carefully constructed theater in which the rich get richer exclusively at the expense of the American poor, including actual homeless people, who now enjoy the entire knowledge of our world from their pocket supercomputers (which we are not supposed to ever mention). Such facts, for ardent socialists — which this is always about — must be difficult to explain away each day, and industry figures reminding people of the truth is, I think, greatly damaging to their cause (again, it’s socialism).
We should continue to tell the truth.
We also spent a fair amount of time on the manifesto in our most recent podcast episode.
No need to worry too much about evil AGI just yet, says Yann LeCun, Chief AI Scientist at Meta and NYU professor, who has been on the front lines of resistance to AI safetyism for quite some time. He posted on X: “Anyone who thinks Auto-Regressive LLMs are getting close to human-level AI, or merely need to be scaled up to get there, *must* read this” thread.
Watch this video of Neuralink’s femtosecond laser mill shaping the tip of a needle at the scale of 10 to 12 microns, or slightly larger than a red blood cell. They use this needle to insert threads in brains without damaging them. 🎃
Japanese professor Homei Miyashita designed a gizmo for making foods salty without salt (video above) that he calls Electric Salt. Using an electrode embedded in a bowl, voltage is passed through the food, which charges its sodium ions, causing them to stick to your tongue better. You can even set the gizmo to different saltiness levels.
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. Deals are sourced using a combination of Pitchbook and reach outs to each company.
Paper-thin LED lighting — Inuru, a Berlin-based company developing ultra-thin visual interfaces (they can be used on pill bottles or energy drink labels, for instance), raises $10.63 million in venture funding from Adamed, ARIA Fund and Aper Ventures
Satellites designed for the SpaceX age — K2 Space, a startup that’s betting that the collapsing cost of space launches will result in bigger, heavier, and more complex satellites (and is building the parts to make this happen), raises $7 million in venture funding from Alpine Space Ventures and other undisclosed investors
Satellite vegetation intelligence — Overstory, a company building a platform that can use imagery to provide insights on the “size, health, and species of any tree on Earth,” raises a $14 million Series A led by B Capital Group
Language learning with AI conversations — Speak, a company building the first app that helps users learn English by conversing with an AI tutor, raises a $27.25 million Series B led by Lachy Groom
Humanoid robots — 1X, a startup building human-esqe robots (their initial models are called EVE and NEO), is in talks to raise $85 million of venture funding in a deal led by SoftBank Group
Nuclear power in Canada — Terrestrial Energy, a company working on fission energy via an “integral molten salt reactor,” receives $23 million of grant funding from Department of Energy and Government of Canada
New genetic tool. We all know about CRISPR, a gene-editing tool taken from bacteria and adapted for use in higher plants and animals. It has the potential to cure genetic diseases, and create better crops and livestock among other things. Now there’s another potential tool, called Fanzors, that come from eukaryotes (organisms with complex cells containing organelles, such as plants and animals). It’s thought that because they come from eukaryotic cells, they might be easier to adapt to working in human cells, speeding up research and medical applications. (Interesting Engineering)
Functional DNA nanomachine prototype. Attempts to build nanomachines from DNA isn’t a new idea, but this team successfully powering and controlling their creations is a huge step forward. “It is the first time that a chemically powered DNA nanotechnology motor has been successfully engineered,” they said, with plans to build more complex nanomachines in the works. Applications for this sort of technology are numerous, particularly in medicine, where one day they might be used to cure disease and treat individual cells. (Interesting Engineering)
An artificial skin that closely mimics natural human skin — three main layers — has been bioprinted and successfully tested on mice and pigs, with minimal scarring resulting where it was grafted onto skin injuries. (Singularity Hub)
Infection in the brain by a common fungus called Candida albicans causes Alzheimer’s disease like symptoms in mice. It triggered the creation of amyloid plaques like those which occur in Alzheimer’s, suggesting there may be a link in some human cases. This was bolstered by finding evidence of the fungus in autopsied brains of humans with the disease. In mice, clearing the fungus resolved the symptoms. A lot more work needs to be done, but if it explains some cases in humans, ready treatments exist. (Science Alert)
Finally, the fun stuff
A mammoth journey. Scientists have used strontium isotopes from plants (and modern vole teeth) to track the movements of a mammoth named Kik, who died in Alaska around 17,100 years ago. They mapped where he traveled throughout his life, how far he went — about 2x the Earth’s circumference, “farther than mammoths were thought to travel” — and even the average daily distance he walked. This unprecedented detail was possible by looking at isotopes preserved in the ivory from his tusks. “It adds a new layer every day… The isotopes in those layers record where the animal was and what it ate that day.” (Smithsonian Magazine)
Dating back to 240 to 250 AD, “a physician was buried with a set of surgical instruments, a stone palette, and a bronze medicine box with a sliding lid and separate compartments to store medical substances” at a Roman necropolis in modern day Bavaria, Germany (pictured above). “Two products were marked with names of pharmacists who specialized on ophthalmic remedies.” Insane. (@DrNWillburger)
It looks like the story of Neanderthals and Modern Humans is more complex than previously thought, with Neanderthals inheriting 6% or so of their genome in an encounter with an older branch of Modern Humans about 250,000 years ago. (Phys.org)
“Super Mario Bros. (1985) was made by a team of five people, *38 years ago*. Of those five people, four of them worked on Super Mario Bros. Wonder” — the game they just released for Switch last week. Dream job. Read more about that in this thread.
Touch grass this weekend.