Tumbling like tarnished jewels, a billion tons of rock and ice spin through the void between Mars and the giant gaseous Jupiter. Aided by the colonization of Mars and the prospect of untold mineral wealth, a steady steam of robot mining droids, and foolhardy individuals clutter the solar system’s main asteroid belt.
Did I fool you with this romantic description? Well, the Belt is quite a fucked-up place.
There are many thousands of “Known” asteroids and a vast number of others which have never been cataloged. The largest congregation of asteroids occurs in an area which stretches between Mars and Jupiter and is generally described as the “Main Asteroid Belt”. Known as the “Belt” since the dawn of space travel, this collection of asteroids provides a vast array of interest for scientists and corps alike.
The composition of asteroids vary. They contain a variety of materials and, in some cases, are rich in metals and other minerals which are required for modern manufacturing. It’s mostly this lure of large amounts of relatively rare, at least rare on Earth because, you know, groundsiders are the measure for everything, this lure of large amounts of rare materials simply drifting in space, motivates many of the major players in space to invest heavily in reaching and monopolizing sections of the Belt.
The largest asteroid in the belt, Ceres, is approximately 930 km across and contains over a quarter of the entire mass within the Belt. NASA has already set up two small automated mining factories on Ceres, which extract raw material and partially process it before using a small mass-driver to eject “packages” out from the Belt. They are subsequently collected and taken to Mars for use in construction and manufacture.
The Hidden Gems
The Belt provides a promise of vast wealth for those foolhardy enough to risk its dangers. Although automated factories have already begun sucking some of the larger asteroids of their minerals, the real gains lie in a rare class of smaller asteroids which are particularly mineral rich. A single such silicate or iron-rich asteroid, can make is discoverer wealthy. The few Highrdiders who have so far risked their lives and survived in uncertain precincts of the tumbling asteroids are the hardest and most daring individuals. After hitching a ride with an exploration or corporate vessel they set out in their own deep space Orbital Transfer Vehicle with a hold full of supplies. Months later they may return empty-handed or be found frozen with the wreck of their craft by a later expedition. Several Belters have honeycombed living quarters out of a medium-sized asteroid and settled down to live there while waiting for a major find.
And if all the risks I already numbered weren’t enough, the visitors lured to the belt face another, human-made threat: the newer automated factories spawned by large corporations, called “hunters”, because they move between asteroids, drilling into their cores. These roving machines pay little attention to something as insignificant as humans and will happily core and begin mining an asteroid even if an unfortunate Belter has set up camp there. Considering the thousands of objects actually within the Belt, the chance of an accident like this happening is remote, but as the number of factories and Belters increases, the danger becomes more real.
Working within the Belt is extremely hazardous, Although the Belt itself is in a relatively stable configuration, its component asteroids swarm in random paths, often spinning singly or paired with other objects, so collisions occur more often than not, sending clouds of small particles and several larger pieces flying in all directions, sometimes out of the Belt entirely.
This is a very charming picture altogether but the promise of wealth can romanticize even the wastelands of hell. So if you’re one of those fools who dream about finding the big one and retiring to Crystal Palace you better ask yourself: how much do you appreciate your life?