The challenge of asteroid mining can be summed-up by the analogy of trying to find the one ripe apple in an orchard the size of Australia in the middle of the night then trying to eat it right off the tree with no hands. Yet the potential bounty in materials among the asteroids in our solar system is vast –enough to sustain a civilization vastly larger than our own today. Figuring out how to best exploit this great resource will probably be the single-most dominant technological and logistical concern for the Asgard generations.
Key problems for developing concerted asteroid exploitation are materials assay over such long distances and asteroid stabilization, since many will have complex patterns of rotation that must be stopped before mining operations can begin and some may be quite physically unstable. Various methods of gravity tugging, thrust breaking, tether breaking, albedo alteration, and the attachment of rough-landing attitude thrusters may all be explored. Some bodies may be unexploitable without the advent of very sophisticated nanotechnology able to seed them with self-assembling systems for their attitude stabilization.
Asteroid mining is likely to evolve across the Asgard phase in four stages keyed to available technology. Initially, when the first Earth-orbital settlements are still largely dependent on terrestrial resources, asteroid mining attempts will be based on the strategy of finding fairly small orbital debris –within several tens of meters in any dimension– within the Near-Earth System that can be collected whole by a single spacecraft and transported to orbital facilities for processing. This may coincide with the development of systems for space salvage, the same vessels and techniques devised for this activity lending themselves, with slight adaptation, to the task of collecting natural objects and the same technologies of recycling for salvage forming the basis of refinery for natural materials. Such vessels would rely on solar and electrodynamic propulsion in order to make the collection of such modest scale debris more cost-effective –though in general it may never be so fully, this phase in mining development concerned more with technology development than practical materials supply (space salvage actually being more valuable in this respect) and likely supply this asteroid debris to research more than the actual material reserves of settlements. Mining vessels in this phase are likely to be based on various forms of grappling structures intended to stabilize then lash-down the debris they collect. By this time they may even feature some of the first ‘mechanical adhesives’ based on nanotechnology. Larger objects may also see experiments in the direct attachment of thruster systems to transport them whole and the use of ‘gravity tug’ vessels which use the natural gravitational attraction between an asteroid and a spacecraft as the basis of slowly altering its trajectory to move it near a settlement or refinery –though this process would tend to take many decades to transport truly large objects.
The second phase of asteroid exploitation would focus on the more functional mass collection of material from large asteroids in the inner asteroid belt using vessels which double as mining systems and transports. Based on large beamship structures, this form of mining vessel would feature propulsion at one end and crude excavation systems akin to today’s bucket wheel excavators at the other and would store materials in the enclosed volume of the truss beam. Initially deploying systems for the purpose of stabilizing a target asteroid and its orbit, perhaps using its own structure as a gravity tug, it would then ‘dock’ with the asteroid to collect materials in the manner of strip-mining. Once full, the vessel would return to its parent settlement, using arc-driven plasma thrusters and a portion of its collected material as propellant. Round trip may take many years. This is not an especially efficient approach to asteroid mining since these simple mining systems would not have the ability to sort the more desirable materials from waste nor would it be able to collect many volatiles. But it would be suited to the early forms of artificial intelligence and allow for unmanned operation and the servicing of the vessels with all the resources of existing settlements. Over time these vessels would seek to incorporate on-board refinery capabilities and in their most advanced form may employ atomic mass distillation based on powerful electric arcs or lasers –much like today’s mass spectrometers but on a gigantic scale– as an alternative to cruder excavator systems and as a means of dividing materials into constituent elements. These systems would be very large, slow in operation, and demand great amounts of solar power from very large arrays but would be able to produce highly refined materials and discard undesirable materials in stable forms on the asteroid surface.
Because on-site refinery would demand such large complex systems and large amounts of power, the third phase of asteroid exploitation would likely see the development of permanent continuously operating facilities on the largest asteroids. Deployed initially as large vessels similar to those of the second phase of mining development, these structures would be intended to install themselves permanently on an asteroid, anchoring themselves firmly and then extending their truss beam structure with progressive excavation into and right through the core of the asteroid over time. The exposed structure would host massive solar energy systems, elaborate refinery systems, and docking structures serving fleets of transports dedicated just to the transport of this refined material. Waste material would be stabilized and deposited on the surface of the asteroid, the mining operations slowly transforming the asteroid into a uniform sphere as its interior is hollowed out. As discussed earlier in the section on Asteroid Settlements, such elaborate facilities may demand constant on-site maintenance while being beyond the range for efficient teleoperation so, should AI be insufficient for this by this time, a human presence may be necessary, thus creating an incentive for continuous habitation of the mining facility and its potential eventual evolution into a permanently inhabited settlement. These facilities would be exceptionally sophisticated. They may fabricate many of their structural components themselves and eventually all their hardware and even their own materials transport vessels from the materials they process. However, not all asteroids would be structurally suited to this type of exploitation owing to weakly bound composition. Thus these mining facilities may also serve as local refinery facilities for other mining operations based on the first and second phase mining methods.
With the advent of increasingly robust nanotechnology refinery systems would be radically reduced in scale and complexity. Excavation systems would become non-friction based, employing arrays of nanochips and/or disassembler colonies in a fluid medium and simultaneously sorting materials into completely refined molecular species while removing them. These materials would then be transported in the form of NanoSoup fluids or solid NanoAspic masses, the latter so strong that they could be fashioned as the core structure of their own transport vessels outfit simply by retrofitting other components to the NanoAspic mass. With such technology the mining approach of the second phase again becomes more practical than the use of large permanent manned refineries. Mining can be conducted by exceptionally small vessels that physically grow into vast vessels with their payload of refined materials. Or refineries can be reduced to a relatively small self-maintaining and self-mobile structures –its area dominated by solar collectors– which attaches to asteroids and extrudes large NanoAspic materials modules complete with their own means of propulsion. These would travel to space settlements and install themselves into combination docking/processing ports like the solid ink sticks in a solid ink printer where they are utilized in the same way they were made.
With the advent of NanoFoam this approach to asteroid exploitation could be reduced to simply seeding an asteroid with this self-replicating intelligent material which then grows plant-like and subsumes the entire mass of the asteroid before dividing itself into fleets of spacecraft delivering its payloads to various destinations while sending off more seeds to other asteroids. This would be especially well suited to exploiting the more difficult asteroids with fast complex rotation as very small particles of NanoFoam could literally be sprayed over the asteroid surface to seed it then replicate and link-up. Settlements of the Solaria phase may be started by this very same approach, NanoFoam seeding an asteroid, converting it whole into an enormous spacecraft that positions itself at a desired orbital location, and then transforming itself again into the desired habitat structure complete with materials reserves to last centuries.
- Life In Asgard
- Modular Unmanned Orbital Laboratory - MUOL
- Modular Unmanned Orbital Factory - MUOF
- Manned Orbital Factory - MOF
- Asgard SE Upstation
- Asteroid Settlements
- Inter-Orbital Way-Station
- Solar Power Satellite - SPS
- Beamship Concept
- Inter-Orbital Transport
- Cyclic Transport
- Special Mission Vessels
- The Ballistic Railway Network
- Deep Space Telemetry and Telecom Network - DST&TN
- Asgard Supporting Technologies