Ever since an asteroid blew up over Russia last year, space visionaries have gone crazy with fear and greed. Fear that a major asteroid impact would be the end of us. And greed over dreams of untold mineral wealth locked up in these wandering bits of rock.
Terrifying and tantalising as it all is, it seems to have passed South Africa by like a fireball in the night. While the country’s gold, platinum and other precious mineral reserves are dwindling, and the mining industry is on its knees thanks to strike violence, our corporate mining giants, government and unions are arm wrestling over what to do to save the industry. Have they no vision?
It’s time to get out there with our internationally top-ranked mining technologies and join the race for space riches. The country’s allies in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have the rocket scientists and we have the mining expertise. If governments don’t come to the party we can collaborate over pure private sector space ventures. This would provide a big bang comparable to the discovery of gold in 1887, except that it would involve platinum group minerals (PGMs) rather than gold.
There are lots of problems to overcome – technological, economic and political – but did that ever stop human beings from trying something outrageously new? We’ll get there, just as we managed to get down to 4km+ underground. It couldn’t be done, until it was. The subject has been broached in mining houses and government but what is needed now is vision and leadership to get us there.
The only big bang we are seeing right now is strikes on the mines leading to tragedies like Marikana, near Rustenberg, where 44 died in violent incidents and police shootings in August last year.
Scene at the shooting of mineworkers in August 2012 – From Amandla website.
Put it this way, if our miners do NOT get involved it will not be long before PGMs from space flood the market and knock out our platinum mines permanently. Alternatively, we can create a whole new mining industry – and upgrade the workforce to highly specialised minernauts – by embracing the wave of innovation that is coming.
In my 3-volume Edge Series, a history of SA science, engineering and technology published in 2005, I covered the amazing achievement of our miners at more than 4km depth. This is the deepest humankind has gone into the Earth’s crust, and the conditions are hellish. So much so that from here on down, automated robot-mining is the only way. Human mining has reached its limit at the gold mines Savuka, Tau Tona and Mponeng, all situated at Western Deep levels some 50km from Johannesburg.
Our increasingly sophisticated technology has a place in outer space where machine mining will have to be done. The costs of establishing new deep earth shafts are becoming prohibitive, and comparable with mining in space. Although South Africa does have a lively space programme (satellites, telescopes like SALT and SKA) this is focused on pure research. If we team up with rocketeers, especially in the BRICs, we can score big and maybe pull our mining sector out of its nose dive.
Although the Apophis asteroid is not guaranteed to hit the earth there is a 1/100 chance that it will do so in 2036, destroying possibly all life across a continent or more.
Asteroids threaten our survival, but some are rich in potential.
Credit: Eric James/NASD
A fireball over California and Nevada last April scattered meteorites all over a wide area. The debris centred on Sutter’s Mill, named after the nearby historical site that started the California Gold Rush, so the space rock got the name Sutter’s Mill Meteorite. The asteroid itself turned out to be a scientific gold mine.
The pieces were collected by a quick-off-the-mark research team. Sent to labs for analysis, they have a complex structure showing that many asteroids are formed from multiple accretions of floating space dust, rocks, minerals and water. There is nothing simple about the makeup of this carbonacious chondrite and scientists are excited by what it reveals about how asteroids formed from the matter of the solar system.
The more we learn about asteroids – the loose cannons of neighbouring space – the more interesting and attractive they become. They could be used as bases for future space travel and the mining of metals like nickel. We could tow them to the moon and stockpile them. They may also reveal secrets of how life started in space. Read more.
The much bigger asteroid that blew a huge hole in the Earth at what is now known as the Vredefort structure or Domeis also associated, like the Sutter’s Mill Meteorite, with gold. Neither brought any gold (at least not that we know of) but they have enriched our knowledge of planetary science.
Credit: Chamber of Mines, South Africa
The Vredefort impact forced existing gold-bearing seams of the Witwatersrand Supergroup deep underground. Down there, preserved from erosion for two billion years, the world’s richest gold deposits lay hidden until in 1886 an Australian prospector called George Harrison spotted some outcrops on the surface.
There is much to tell in the fascinating story of how gold has shaped modern South Africa.
Harrison’s discovery provoked a wild gold rush. Miners from California, the Yukon, Australia, Europe and elsewhere flooded into this country. Vast wealth was generated for a few lucky capitalists. Meanwhile a system of labour exploitation had been evolving from earlier diamond mining and this was now applied in the much larger and richer gold industry. It was a system that drew big business into an alliance with racial separatists. The outcome was the political structure of apartheid.
The discoveries of the gold diggers led to the development of advanced mining engineering and the transformation of the economy. It was truly a cloud with a golden lining. The exploitation of migrant black labour on a massive scale disrupted millions of lives across the subcontinent. After decades of crushing oppression, an upsurge of mass protests and armed resistance brought apartheid’s leaders to the negotiating table to establish a democratic state for all. Without the asteroid, none of this history could have unfolded in the way it did. Read more.
Passers-by might have been forgiven for thinking the TV show Top Gear had come to town. The lovingly cared-for E-Type in the photo above was just one of the marvels from an earlier age that made the trek to the Dome from Johannesburg and other towns. This was a collection of fairly antique Jags (and a Daimler) driven by gentlemen enthusiasts who insisted on sticking mostly to the tar of course! They ventured ever-so-slightly onto the dirt to visit the meteorite melt rocks of the Salvamento Quarry (below). The club was treated to a lecture tour by Graeme Addison, followed by a sumptuous lunch at Dome Inn. Sadly for club chairman Gerry Kramer his beautiful car conked in on the way and he missed the tour – though not the grub. He finally made it by lunchtime. Way to go! Gerry commented afterwards: “Thanks for the wonderful day you arranged for us. Received only compliments from the members for the very informative lecture and tour, which was presented in quite an informal yet very interesting manner – really sorry I missed it all!”
The group showed interest in a Battlefields Tour of the Dome area next time around. We call this the Crucible of Chaos, for not only did the world’s biggest meteorite hit here, but human beings have been fighting over the rich grasslands, the Vaal river and the gold for generations. A two-day battlefields route would be best. Accommodation over night could be at Otters’ Haunt. The tour could take in the Battle of the Vaal (Mzilikazi’s first attack on the Voortrekkers, 1836), the “Blood River of the Free State” (Vegkop, 1836) as well as gold rush events (1887-1911), the Boer Wars of 1880-1 and 1889-1902, the Rebellion of 1914, the Miners’ Strike of 1922, the Ossewa Brandwag and World War II, and the apartheid era with Sharpeville and attacks on Sasolburg. In fact, conflict comes to the present because this is the heartland of the Afrikaner rightwing and quite recently a radical group planned to blow up Vaal Dam. Not quite the peaceful area it appears!
What kind of Dome experience are you looking for? Science, astronomy, Dome by river, hiking, wildlife & ecology, origins of life, human history, culture, battlefields – or the lot?
I’m finding that there are basically four kinds of visitor to the Dome, all wanting to know more – but each in their own way.
- The average visitor, from South Africa or abroad, has heard about the Dome and is curious about what it is, where it is, and what it all means. Here I try to give a general overview, starting with the geology and astronomy (the asteroid and its impact on the Earth) and then sketching the story of the Witwatersrand gold, the evolution of life on the planet, and the tale of human origins, cultures and migrations, down to the battlefields of modern times. This general introduction to the Spirit of Place serves to excite further interest, and visitors go away with their appetite whetted for more.
- School tours are definitely taking off, as World Heritage Sites are in the curriculum. Thanks to the interest of educators in geography, history and biology we get busloads of youngsters aged anything from 8 to 18, many of whom have never done a nature tour in their lives. We try to interest them in the environment and in the marvellous scientific investigations that have led to our current knowledge of the Dome. When we show videos of the destructive force of asteroids, the kids are gripped – and realise that the fate of humankind hangs on science and engineering to steer dangerous asteroids away from our planet.
- Heritage and humanity. Increasingly, academics and students are realising that both the Cradle of Humankind, the other World Heritage Site just to the north, and the Dome, tell a connected story. Human fossils and current realities merge when one examines the facts about how various peoples have criss-crossed this landscape as hunter-gatherers, herders, invaders, colonists, gold-diggers, guerillas, administrators, builders and business investors. The architecture of the Dome reveals a vast mix of cultures. The growth of ecotourism shows that this area just south of the industrial heartland of Gauteng occupies a special place in South Africa’s wildlife and adventure offerings. The beautiful Vaal River is one of its biggest drawcards.
- Specialists and researchers of all kinds come here alone or with student groups to study the area. Geologists, botanists and zoologists, archaeologists, astronomers and many more are on their own missions. We can’t duplicate what they know about their own specialities but we can facilitate their visits because we know the ground and have the contacts.
- The Vredefort Dome is the oldest and largest asteroid impact crater on Earth, right? No! It used to be… until we learnt that there is at least one older crater nearby (much smaller) and probably a bigger one under the Antarctic icecap. But we can be sure that the Dome represents the largest visible impact site on Earth and is very, very old – 2 billion years. The whole crater (of which the Dome is merely the central core) is so big it can only be seen from space, but there are some pretty good viewsites on the mountains from which to get an idea of the scale of the thing. The crater stretches from Johannesburg to Welkom, some 300km or more.
Why not a Pilgrim's Rest?
Hats off to the Dome Conservancy – a hardworking crew of volunteers – for once again running a successful Kuns, Kos en Kultuur day. Held at the little dorp of Venterskroon (don’t blink or you’ll miss it!) the annual fete drew a considerable crowd. I’ve always thought the Old Imperial Inn where the fete was held should become the centre of a Pilgrim’s Rest type olde golde rush towne. It’s a charming building, but it’s been vandalised several times while standing empty. Let’s hope better days lie ahead for it.
Karen from Otters’ Haunt went along and commented that pensioners were selling handcrafts for R10 an item on average. The younger set of fleamarketeers averaged R40. That’s capitalism, age-related. But what I want to know is who needs the money more? One thing’s for sure. Recently there was a rather poorly attended fete in Parys, entrance fee R50 or more depending on the shine of your shoes. The wise decision of the Conservancy was to charge R10 a head and pack-em-in. That’s how to popularise. Get the crowd in and let the income look after itself as they go around spending. Anyway it’s only money but the Spirit of Place is what really counts.
From spaza to fleamarket is not so far
But I do have a question. It’s time to include black home industries and culture on a much more proactive basis. Sure, there will be problems getting people from the townships but remember, the Dome has been a melting pot in more than one sense. After the Almighty blew a hole in the ground here He decided it would be interesting to mix up the tribes of humanity.
The Dome has been crossed and recrossed by innumerable migrants from the time of the First People (Bushmen) to the arrival of the Khoi and then the first Bantu-speaking tribes from the north. Then came the Matabele invasion, the Voortrekkers, the gold rush and the Uitlanders, wars, immigrants and Gauteng commuters… all had a role and all should have a presence.
Easy to say. How do we pull them all in to the fleamarket thing?
It’s a big one – but harmless for now!
From The Guardian:
Astronomers around the world have readied their telescopes to catch a glimpse of a speeding ball of rock that will hurtle past the Earth on Tuesday night. Scientists say the asteroid, which is about a quarter of a mile wide, will pass inside the moon’s orbit and come within 198,000 miles (319,000km) of Earth at 23.28GMT. This is the closest a tracked object this size has come to the planet.
Nasa calculates the 400-metre (1,312ft) wide asteroid, known as 2005 YU55, has roughly has a one in 10 million chance of hitting Earth in the next century. Were it to strike, the collision would unleash the equivalent of several thousand megatonnes of TNT. Even with clear skies the asteroid will not be visible to the naked eye, but professional and amateur astronomers will turn their telescopes on the rock to learn about its surface and chemical composition. …More
Rocks floating in space may have brought life to Earth, but they can also be killers. NASA’s current exploration of the asteroid belt is revealing that there are fewer asteroids than previously thought (they still number in the hundreds of thousands). But there are still dozens of dangerous ones that could hit us – with catastrophic consequences. Great extinctions have been caused by asteroid impacts, and unless we can work out how to deflect these loose cannons we could suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs.
One of the theories about asteroids and their cousins the comets is that during the “era of bombardment” of the planets about 4.3 billion years ago, these chunks of rock and ice brought the Earth’s water. They also may have contained the building blocks of life, the amino acids that go into DNA. This theory of “panspermia” holds that life did not begin on Earth but was brought here from space. It suggests that life may be widespread in the universe, though as yet we have no scientific confirmation of that. The search for life in space has been going on for decades without positive results – and anyway, even if we found it, it could be too far away, or too alien, for us to communicate with it!
For more on these topics:
See the evidence of impacts, early life and asteroid traces on a visit to the Vredefort Dome! – Graeme Addison