Friday, April 1, 2011

A is For Asteroid Farmers!

A is for Asteroid Farmers

Asteroid Farmers live a secluded existence, farming the rocks, minerals and precious metals out of asteroids and dead comets across the galaxy. Sometimes families will have been asteroid farming for centuries, others are corporate farmers, working the asteroid fields for their employers, and trying to eek out whatever else they can from their life in the far reaches of the solar systems.

Asteroids – Asteroid farming became important when planetary resources of minerals and precious metals became depleted and no terrestrial sources could be easily obtained.

During the formation and subsequent cooling of a planet, the internal gravitational would pull heavy and precious metals into the interior of the planet, thus locking those resources deep into the planet. As the crust solidified, and when and if the planet was subjected to bombardment from planetoids, meteors, asteroids and comets, the mineral and precious metal components of those bodies would embed their contents in the crust of the planet. These resources were the typically available minerals and metals that could be easily extracted for use. Once those resources were used up, the cost of burrowing deep into a planet to extract resources would not be cost effective. Alternatives were sought. It was quickly realized that the resources locked into asteroid bodies could be many times over the available resources of entire planets. The challenge was how to get the material from the field to use.

Enter the
Inter-System Drive
. The Inter-System Drive allowed the rapid transit, with  either freighters filled with raw or refined material, or in some cases, embedded directly into an asteroid, of asteroid material to orbital or terrestrial manufacturing facilities, storage yards or processing plants within an asteroid rich system. Minerals mined include gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium and ruthenium.

Asteroid mining was turned into a race when Ozminium was found during a routine extraction operation. Ozminium, is the key element to FTL travel, and is the most precious of all elements in the known galaxy. A family operation that finds 10 kg of Ozminium will be wealthy beyond even their wildest dreams.

Operations – Asteroid mining operations are either Family or Individual Farming operations, Corporate Operations, or National operations.

Family or Individual Operations are typically stationed out in the asteroid fields themselves, with home bases on repurposed freighters, cruisers, mothballed military, or luxury liner ships, or even on purpose built platforms to house the crew, administration, workshops, storage, materials, and fueling operations. Some are also based on mined out husks of asteroids. These home bases bristle with domes, spires, defense turrets and buildings. Virtual fortresses to guard the buried treasure that is mined out of the fields.

Most family operations are small ventures, eeking out a living on the frontier, with all members of the family pitching in on all aspects of the operation. Maintenance, equipment failures, protection of resources, shipping, and survival are real challenges to surviving as a family operation. Some family operations have grown quite large and prosperous through cooperative agreements with other small operations. Some large family operations have turned into the most successful Corporate Operations. Verskool  Enterprises is a good example of a successful family operation that went corporate.

Some Individual operations have become famous or infamous for their more piratical nature, and some fields have become ripe for hasty set ups of bandit kingdoms and pirate lords in abandoned corporate asteroid operations bases.

Corporate Operations are governed by one thing – profit. Corporate farmers move in, extract, process, haul, and move on. Most operations are based out of purpose built bases and ships, especially after the lesson learned in the so called ‘Blackbeard Skirmishes’. Most corporate operations are run by a board of directors on-site who direct the day to day operations of the venture. Additionally, there is an overall Manager of Operations who is the corporate authority in all issues, and who has the final say as they see fit on operational issues. The Sendai Conglomerate, CGF Exploration, and OXXON are all examples of corporate operations that may be encountered.

National Operations may also be encountered in the fields. National operations tend to be more like forced labor or penal operations. National operations are notoriously brutal, under supplied, and one step from rebellion at any time. And in fact on several occasions, full scale rebellion has occurred and led to the loss of thousands of people and billions of credits in loss of equipment and material. Most National operations have ceased, unable to successfully compete with the family or corporate operations.

Most farmers work in isolation when in the fields. They will work from a type of universal/mining/extracting/blasting/sampling vehicle fitted with plasma cutting/laser cutting tools, drills, graspers, and explosives. The operators will, once they have created enough loose material will call in remote robotic diggers and haulers. Once a fissure has been opened up, remote controlled extractors are set up on the surface of the asteroid to begin the extraction in earnest. These extractors burrow deep worm-like holes in throughout the asteroid, testing as they go, as they deplete the asteroid of its precious cargo. Once completed, a new asteroid is targeted, and the process starts again.

Some highly valuable (based on testing) or large asteroids are fitted with their own Inter-System Drive, cockpit and quarters, and are flown to a processing station or orbiting manufatcturing plant somewhere else in the system. the drives, cockpit and quarters assemblies are then removed, shipped and refitted to another asteroid in the system.

Daily Life – Daily life on the fields can be difficult. Long hours are spent every cycle mining, processing, loading, hauling and storing materials. Most work cycles are 12 hours long. And a typical week of cycles is 10 days long before a 2 cycle break. Most workers are trained on multiple operations so they may be rotated to reduce the fatigue and dementia associated with long farming operations.

Off time during a cycle is spent sleeping, exercising, eating and whatever else can be found to do. Some operations are known for their offwork entertainment, and in fact, some farming operations are followed by a train of pleasure ships, gambling and entertainment ships and the like to meet the needs of the farmers. Drugs, illegal implants, and other illicit things are rampant through some seedier operations, as the Manager of Operations knows a happy farmer is a busy farmer.

Family operations tend to be more sedate, as they focus on survival and how they will keep their equipment operating to hit the next score.

Challenges – Challenges for the different operations vary. Family operations are challenged with struggles in keeping operating, delivering material and finding someone to buy their material, and with defense of their bases and their claims. Many a skirmish or full out war has erupted between family, corporate, or national operations based on claim rights, claim jumping and assassination for the rights to farm individual asteroids or whole fields. Many family operations wind up on the short end of the stick in these skirmishes, because of their smaller size and limited resources. Mercenaries, protection fleets, even navies have interjected in some of these occurances to defend the rights (just or not) of their family, employers or nation.

Equipment failure, fatigue, supplies, health, and psychology, are but a few of the significant challenges that face every farming operation. Equipment failure, metal fatigue, electronic or propulsion issues all can bring an operation to its knees. The most important facility in any operation, next to the bar, is the maintenance shed and workshops. Without these mechanics and engineers constantly ensuring that the equipment is running, the operation will make no money.

Worker fatigue, health and psychological issues run rampant through a mining operation. It’s a dirty, grimy, hard life for anyone. Most family operations deal with this issue better than any other. Their life is in the fields, so they aren’t concerned with returning home or to a space port to spend their R&R time. Corporate operations rely heavily on providing entertainment to their farmers during their down time, to curb the long term effects of isolation, fatigue, and deteriorating health. Most corporate farmers only farm for a few years, before they give it up for an easier lifestyle.  

Some Real Facts:
(At 1997 prices, a relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of 1 mile (1.6 km) contains more than $20 trillion US dollars worth of industrial and precious metals.[1]gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium and ruthenium… In 2004, the world production of iron ore exceeded a billion metric tons.[4] In comparison, a comparatively small M-type asteroid with a mean diameter of 1 km could contain more than two billion metric tons of iron-nickel ore,[5] or two to three times the annual production for 2004.


  1. Wow. If I didn't know better, I'd think. . .! That's a lot of detail, amazing creativity, and a terrific start to the A to Z Challenge. Wow.

  2. What an extensive post. Great information, I'm trying to learn a little more about the craft of science fiction - there's a lot to it!

    Look forward to seeing what else you come up with for the A-Z challenge (don't burn yourself out with all this research). :)

    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

  3. Your A to Z posts are great. That is a very comprehensive description of asteroid farming. :).

  4. Thanks all. Hope you are enjoying.