Asteroids threaten our survival, but some are rich in potential.
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.
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.