Those Pesky Belters

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 DirtsidersHistory of the Belt


  1. 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.
  2. Not the vegetative sort.
  3. Even with high-grade electrostatic traps, regolith fines get everywhere.

Filk: “Space Uranium Fever”

Ttto and blatantly imitating: “Uranium Fever”, by Elton Britt [1955].

Verse 1

Well I don’t know but I’ve been told
Reactor fuel’s worth more than gold
I sold my hab, bought an OTV
With a smeltin’ stack and refineree-

Chorus

Uranium fever has done and got me down
Uranium fever – it’s spreadin’ all around
With a Geiger counter for spacewalks
I’m a-goin’ out to stake me some orbitin’ rocks
Uranium fever has done and got me down.

Verse 2

Well, I had a talk with the I.G.S.
Bought some charts to the stars they thought were best
Picked out a belt ’round a star of class B
So I laid out my course; loaded up delta-v.
A hundred lights I surely burned
Chasin’ that metal for which I yearned
When three weeks later I braked to meet
That shiny rock that I aimed to deplete.

Chorus

Uranium fever has done and got me down
Uranium fever – it’s spreadin’ all around
With a Geiger counter for spacewalks
I’m a-goin’ out to stake me some orbitin’ rocks
Uranium fever has done and got me down.

Verse 3

Well, I took my Geiger and I opened the lock
Got on my candle and headed to the rock
Set up my bore and started to drill
(As all the space-burned rock-rats will)
I drilled that ‘roid from crust to core
But of ion clicks there were no more
And for all the gas that I spent that day
Not a single core would earn my pay.

Chorus

Uranium fever has done and got me down
Uranium fever – it’s spreadin’ all around
With a Geiger counter for spacewalks
I’m a-goin’ out to stake me some orbitin’ rocks
Uranium fever has done and got me down.

Verse 4

Well, you pack up your kit and you burn again
For another lonesome rock where nobody’s been
You find a spot where there’s clickin’ ore –
And that spot’s been staked seven times before…
Well, I ain’t kiddin’, I ain’t gonna quit
That bug’s done caught me and I’ve been bit
So with a Geiger counter for spacewalks
I’ll keep right on stakin’ them orbitin’ rocks.

Chorus

Uranium fever has done and got me down
Uranium fever – it’s spreadin’ all around
With a Geiger counter for spacewalks
I’m a-goin’ out to stake me some orbitin’ rocks
Uranium fever has done and got me down.