Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world. … It was hard to imagine how such a forsaken place could become a flash point in a geopolitical power struggle. … To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East. … The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands. Since the 18th century, navigators have referred to the Spratlys as “Dangerous Ground” — a term that captures not only the treacherous nature of the area but also the mess that is the current political situation in the South China Sea. … Why the fuss over “Dangerous Ground”? Natural resources are a big piece of it. According to current U.S. estimates, the seabed beneath the Spratlys may hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. On top of which, about half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage and nearly one third of its crude oil pass through these waters each year. They also contain some of the richest fisheries in the world. … What China has done with Mischief, Scarborough and now with Ayungin is what the journalist Robert Haddick described, writing in Foreign Policy, as “salami slicing” or “the slow accumulation of actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.”
In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gas—methane hydrate, in the jargon—beneath the seafloor. Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers on continental margins, methane hydrate exists in immense quantities; by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined. Despite its plenitude, gas hydrate was long subject to petroleum-industry skepticism. These deposits—water molecules laced into frigid cages that trap “guest molecules” of natural gas—are strikingly unlike conventional energy reserves. Ice you can set on fire! Who could take it seriously? But as petroleum prices soared, undersea-drilling technology improved, and geological surveys accumulated, interest rose around the world. The U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a methane-hydrate research program since 1982.
Thirty years ago, Bob Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic. He could have stopped there. Yet today, at seventy-three, he remains the world's most vigorous ocean explorer. ... Money is a frequent topic of conversation for Ballard, because it takes $10 million annually to keep the Nautilus in the water for four to six months every year. (Similar vessels, he says, cost six times that.) Ballard's unique position as an oceanographer/owner makes him both liberated and beholden. For that money that frees him to explore, Ballard must regularly court private donors, corporate sponsors, and politicians who believe in his mission enough to fight for public dollars. The donors love to hear about the Titanic. The politicians are guided by an interest in everything from Ballard's commitment to education to his exploration of the earth's crust. ... Ballard seems prouder of his discoveries of the prizes for which he was not looking—the prizes you win, he says, by spending "time on the bottom." In 1977 he discovered the very existence of hydrothermal vents, hot springs in the ocean floor near where tectonic plates move apart from one another, releasing a steady flow of superheated water from deep in the earth's crust. The water is a chaotic mess of mineral-rich fluids including sulfide that, when discharged into the frigid, pressurized water on the ocean floor, can create new ecosystems hospitable to a wild mix of creatures. In the worlds of marine biology and geology, it was a monumental discovery. In the actual world, nobody much noticed. ... "I got addicted to it. In my fifty-five years of exploring, how much of the ocean floor have I seen?" He holds his thumb and forefinger close together. "In all my discoveries, just that much." His eyes grow wide. "So how much have I not seen?"
A remote island, an Arctic expedition, a one-way trip to Mars – what drives our urge to explore the farthest reaches? ... People tend to go out to the edges of things. Which things, exactly, depends on the era: 1.8 million years ago, our early ancestors moved overland out of Africa. Thousands of years ago, early Polynesians sailed outrigger canoes over the horizon, eventually populating the entire Pacific. In the late 19th century, nearly every year a new batch of European explorers headed northwards, throwing themselves into the jaws of the ice. Today, the planet’s atmosphere seems to be the edge of choice. It is not clear how many people applied to be on Mars One’s much-discussed mission to colonise the Red Planet, but what is clear is that a one-way ticket away from Earth sets some people’s eyes alight. ... That the urge to explore is glorious and universal is one of today’s most persistent romances. It has yielded great rewards for the people who go and for their societies; leaving the known is a fast way to learn new things. ... Yet exploration is not as obvious a thing to revere as you might think. It is often absurd. ... The tendency to become restless in the absence of something new they dubbed ‘sensation-seeking’. ... The key, though, is that there must also be people who don’t want to ramble, who turn their talents and energies to exploiting, to the best of their abilities, the place where they have settled. If there are too many explorers, the group is likely to starve.
The ocean-filled moon might hold the life we’ve long searched for in space. And scientists have one shot to reach it. ... Everything we know about life says that it needs water. Conversely, every place on Earth where water exists, life does too. The conventional thinking, then, is that if you want to find alien life, the first thing you look for is alien water. Europa is the wettest known world in the solar system. Life also needs food and energy. Europa scores there too: Its ocean might be nourished by a drizzle of organic chemicals and stirred by volcanic vents like the ones dotting the mid-Atlantic ridge. If any place in the solar system holds the answer to the “Are we alone?” question, it’s a good bet that Europa, not the Red Planet, does. ... Which is not to say that getting the answer will be easy—not by a long shot. To give you a sense of exactly how hard it will be, consider three more numbers: 600 million—the average flight distance, in miles, from Earth to Europa, meaning that the journey there could take at least six years; 500—the average radiation dose, in rem per day, on Europa’s surface, enough to fry unprotected spacecraft electronics within a matter of days; and 10—the average estimated thickness, in miles, of Europa’s ice shell, more than four times as thick as the glaciers covering Antarctica. Overcoming those numbers will test the limits of human ingenuity. But a growing chorus of scientists has argued that we must try. ... most of the liquid water in the solar system is found not on the surface of rocky worlds like Earth but inside icy bodies like Europa. That raises the stakes for NASA’s upcoming mission. If we find evidence of life on Europa, it would point to a whole new class of habitable worlds across the solar system, and probably across the universe.
Titled Breakthrough Listen, this 10-year, $100 million project will comprise what Andrew Siemion, director of Berkeley's SETI Research Center, called "the most sensitive, comprehensive and advanced search for advanced intelligent life on other worlds ever performed." (SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.) The goal is to detect some evidence of distant technology, such as radio communication or a concentrated burst of energy. If it succeeds, Breakthrough Listen will answer an existential and philosophical question that humankind has pondered for millennia: Are we alone in the universe? ... What separates the quest to find extraterrestrial intelligence from X-Files conspiracy theories is statistics, specifically the law of large numbers. Scientists now estimate that there are at least 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Fifty billion planets in our galaxy alone may be situated in what astrophysicists call the "Goldilocks zone," a region neither too hot nor too cold to host life, and thus potentially habitable. Last year, astronomers found evidence of briny water on Mars and located a distant exoplanet – dubbed Kepler 452b – so similar to Earth that some say the two could be cousins. ... There may be a troubling reason why in the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, no aliens have contacted us: The same technological leaps that will allow human beings to explore the galaxy, such as self-upgrading AI, are the genie that betrays its master once released from the bottle. ... Breakthrough Listen will be gathering as much SETI data in a day as was previously possible to collect in a year, using its expanded telescope access to scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum a hundred times faster than before and sucking in the equivalent of 75 Blu-ray movies per second.
Twenty-five years after the first diamonds were found in Canada’s Northwest Territories, it’s still a game of hurry-up-and-wait. For every thousand grassroots exploration projects, only one becomes a mine. Snap Lake, one of three operating mines in the region, was shuttered by De Beers last year, a casualty of harsh geography and falling diamond prices. Government attempts to add production value with a cutting industry collapsed years ago; all that remains of “Diamond Row” in the territorial capital Yellowknife is a line of derelict buildings behind barbed wire. ... And yet the dream lives on. At a time when global miners are shedding assets, De Beers is about to open the largest new diamond mine in the world, Gahcho Kué, 280 kilometers (175 miles) northeast of Yellowknife. A little further north, Rio Tinto Group last year found—and just sold—the largest gem-quality diamond ever recorded in North America at its Diavik mine, the 187-carat Foxfire. Dominion Diamond Corp. last week agreed to extend the life of the neighboring Ekati mine beyond 2020.
Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
Europa truly does represent a singular chance. Crossing 800 million kilometers with a sizable, robust payload will require vast sums of money—there won’t be a second chance. But Europa represents a gamble in another sense, too. No one knows whether NASA will discover a frozen, dead world far from the Sun or if the organization will make the most profound of discoveries just below the ice. ... During the last decade, NASA has recast its human and robotic space exploration programs around the search for life both in our Solar System and beyond. Much of this effort has focused on Mars, which is relatively close to Earth and may have harbored life in the past. Culberson has pushed the agency further to seek extant life. He and a lot of scientists believe the best place to find extraterrestrial life in the Solar System lies in deep oceans below Europa’s inhospitable surface. ... Notably, the JPL team thinks it has solved the vexing problem of planetary protection, the concern that any stray microbes from Earth could contaminate Europa’s ecosystem. The solution has come straight out of the pages of science fiction—the lander mission will be the first interplanetary spacecraft to carry a self-destruct mechanism.