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To Mars, and beyond

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Mining the asteroids may be the next great frontier for investors, says Adriana Marais, the only South African selected for the Mars One expedition. She spoke to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Dr Adriana Marais is not your typical extraterrestrial. For that matter, she’s not even your typical Earthling. With a doctorate in theoretical physics, a passion for jazz and a lifelong love of reading, she sparkles with enthusiasm. Most of that energy is devoted to her pet topic: why a human colony on a distant planet is not just a good idea, but an essential one.

Adriana is the only South African selected for the Mars One project to establish a permanent human colony on Mars in the next decade. The catch: they can never come back.

Yet, the organisers claim 200 000 people applied for a spot on the mission. Just over a thousand made it to a second round pool, and 100 finalists were announced in February 2016. In September last year, six teams comprising two men and two women were selected – and one was from South Africa.

Many have questioned whether the project is even possible.

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“That’s the point of dreams: the dreamers have a belief in themselves that propels dreams into reality,” she said in an interview this week. “As Nelson Mandela said, something is always impossible until it is done.

Adriana Marais speaking at the Saphila 2017 SAP user conference in Sun City.

“The American announcement that it would put people on the moon was an impossible dream, but it was achieved in eight years. Team size and budget and determination made it happen. We’re in a similar position. I think it will happen unless we self-destruct as a species before then, we will be a species living off Earth in a few decades.”

Adriana Marais speaking at the Saphila 2017 SAP user conference in Sun City.

Adriana Marais speaking at the Saphila 2017 SAP user conference in Sun City.

The question Adriana is asked most often is not an engineering one about space travel, but a psychological one: how will she cope with the desolation of potentially being one of only 24 human beings on an entire planet, for the rest of her life?

She jokes at first: “I’ll finally have some peace and quiet, and have time to read, which I’ve loved to do since I was a child. Seriously, any price you’d need to pay to be one of first members of a new society on a new planet would be worth it.

“I’m very lucky to have been born in this very narrow window of human existence, of life on earth. These few decades are the most unique in the history of the planet.”

The broad project concept

The broad project concept

Meanwhile, she is likely to be kept busy for some of the ten years that have been scheduled for training the astronauts.

Far from leaving everything behind, Adriana’s selection for the project kickstarted a new career: the enterprise software company SAP, which runs 15 Co-innovation Labs across the world,  approached her to run the South African facility. She was appointed head of innovation at SAP Africa, where her duties include driving strategic co-innovation projects and taking responsibility for the SAP Start-up Focus programme, which provides small and medium enterprises with digital solutions to help accelerate growth.

The current planned missions to Mars

The current planned missions to Mars

At this week’s Saphila 2017 SAP user conference in Sun City, she teamed up with a mining software specialist to present her perspective on a topic as visionary as a colony on Mars: mining the asteroids.

“I believe mining resources from asteroids is a more ethical way of mining than disrupting unique ecosystems on Earth, which is teeming with life. And there are far more metals in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter than have ever been detected on planet Earth, on these bodies floating in space not having life on them, waiting to be harvested.”

She gives the example of the asteroid Anteros, a 2km-diameter lump of rock that is so packed with rare minerals, it has been valued at US$5.57-trillion. A methodology has already been developed for asteroid mining, going by the acronym SHEPERD (Secure Handling by Encapsulation of a Planetesimal Heading to Earth-moon Retrograde-orbit Delivery). Adriana enthuses about the engineering innovations that will make the mission profitable.

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“While bringing the samples back to Earth, you can already start mining, using electroforming, which uses gases to differentiate metals from volatiles, which burn off so that you can collect the metals. As you’re electro-forming, you’re doing spectral analysis of the particles flying off. If at any point you find that the metals accumulating are not of sufficient value, you can abort the mission. It provides real time profit analysis.”

Empie Strydom, vice president of marketing at mining software company MineRP, joined Adriana in the presentation to explain the way minerals embedded in asteroids can be detected and valued. His company already provides that services to conventional mining houses on Earth, saving millions through eliminating human error in detecting mineral deposits.

He was equally enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“The time for putting together a space mission is the same as the time it takes to sink a mine shaft, and the cost is the same. The difference is 30 years life of a mine here, in which time you retrieve the minerals and make a profit over time. But when bring back a big rock in one go, you have potentially, for example, a trillion dollars of platinum right there.”

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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