In pre-space speculative fiction the image of the belt miner recapitulated the image of the prospectors of old. Grizzled belters in small ships, big enough to hold them, a small partnership, or perhaps a family, who would set out, hunt down a “motherlode” rock, hack the ore out of it with traditional miner’s tools loosely adapted to space, then net it up and sling it on its way to a smelter, cash-for-density.
This concept was, as you might expect, wrong in almost every respect.
To begin with the nature of the beast, ore veins are not to be found among the asteroids. Without a planet’s gravity to differentiate them, or hydrothermal processes to concentrate it into ore bodies, pay dirt tends to be evenly differentiated throughout the rock. And to call an asteroid a rock is itself generous, insofar as the majority of them1 are little more than heaps of rubble glued together with a dusting of regolith.
Thus, the smeltership.
In its modern form, the smeltership is instantly recognizable; they look as if a starship had collided head-on with one of the larger breeds of industrial plant2, and decided for whatever reason to keep on going, accompanied by their flock of parasites and the inescapable halo of dust3. From these ships, the collector drones, “spikers”, travel to nearby target asteroids and wrap them in finely woven titiridion nets, preventing the escape of fragments, then haul them back to the maw of the smeltership proper.
Behind the maw, the smeltership incorporates a maze of ore processing and smelting equipment. While in theory plasma-fountain distillation can reduce anything to its component elements, it is an inefficient process reserved only for otherwise intractable residues of ore processing. More conventional processing chains, therefore, handle the commonplace elements once the asteroids have been powdered by the initial grinding step at the back of the maw.
Meanwhile, flocks of lighters, typically drone freighters and tankers – for the volatiles driven off – attend the stern of the smeltership, collecting the ejected ingots of metal and blocks of other elements, bundling them together, and hauling them to market.
The “almost”? While the largest operators, such as Atalant Materials’ space subsidiary, Celestial Mining, operate entire fleets of fully automated smelterships, many smaller or more specialized mining interests instead contract smelterships owned and operated by independent belt miners – often, indeed, small partnerships or family outfits whose homestead-hab is permanently docked to their ship. So while incorrect in method and scale, the writers of yore did, to their credit, predict the demographics of belt mining correctly…
– A Dirtsiders‘ History of the Belt
- And, ironically, those preferred for mining. More solid asteroids have other uses, while rubble piles are generally considered only of use for mining, and thus the claim-staking fee is lower.
- Not the vegetative sort.
- Even with high-grade electrostatic traps, regolith fines get everywhere.