Ah, the asteroid belt. There’s not a lot to see here; the view out of our windows as we arrive looks about as empty as everywhere else. And yet, this bleak void is the birthplace of humanity’s space colonization efforts. These boring space rocks were gold to the early spacefarers – well, platinum to be specific.
The Early Mining Colony
We set down in a hollow asteroid barely a thousand years after humanity first began to explore the void. Even now, we’re traipsing about in a tourist trap. The mineral resources and strategic location of this rock are a thing of the past; the cramped living quarters and maintenance tunnels are packed with floating tourists from Earth and Mars.
The tour guide tells us that “colonies” such as this weren’t that impressive at first; just temporary quarters for highly-paid remote-mining equipment operators.* Over time, the living space grew and the meager stations evolved into full-fledged communities. Yet even now, only a handful could be considered comfortable or urban – and only the largest bother producing their own centripetal “gravity.” We travel through the large common area on guide ropes strung between rooms. We could “free-fly” in this low-gravity environment, like the ancient miners did, but the last thing the station managers want is a bunch of landlubber tourists with no sense for gravity-free environments literally bouncing off the walls.
Traveling In Style: Inside an Asteroid
We’re done with this tourist trap; there’s more than one asteroid colony, and we’re sick of hearing tour-guides talk about the “ancient space miners” – we want to see some real mining in action. And if you want action these days, you head to Vesta.
How are we getting there? Well, we could just take our spacetimeship, but while we’re here in the asteroid belt, we might as well see what it’s like to travel in an actual asteroid. Eventually we find what we’re looking for: a colossal, spinning stone cylinder with a huge docking port on one end. We transmit credit information, fly through a series of airlocks, and find ourselves in a vast green-and-blue tube. We’re in a spinning paradise where travelers en route to Vesta can enjoy a quiet stroll through the garden, or gaze up at the “stars”: overhead streetlights and lanterns. The gravity is low-tech and the ride is slow, but nothing beats a hollowed-out asteroid for safety*, efficiency*, and luxury*.
Getting a Glimpse of Vesta
When we visited Mars, newswaves were abuzz about the Vesta* project. And now, gazing at the camera monitors that pass for windows here, you see why. You’re witnessing the largest-scale mining operation in the history of mankind: the complete disassembly and processing of Vesta’s metal-rich core. It’s an unfathomably vast reservoir of raw metal, but considering the scale of some of humanity’s recent undertakings,* it’s only just enough.
We dock at a half-asteroid space station with a good view of the action, and chat up some miners over dehydrated ice cream sandwiches. They’re really more like remote-control robotics operators and zero-G detonation experts than miners; actual humans almost never set foot on half-disassembled Vesta itself. Most of the personnel here are international observers, safety bureaucrats, heritage engineers extracting and safeguarding Vesta’s old colonies, and protesters from HACS: the Historical Asteroid Conservation Society. As we chat, we see bright flares in the distance. The miners fill us in: these are carefully positioned detonations for weakening and blasting away Vesta’s crust, and shuttles firing their engines to intercept any large pieces that drift past the perimeter control drones.
Skipping Ahead to Full Terraforming
It’s been a fun trip so far, but nothing in the current asteroid belt seems terraformed per se; some of the hollow asteroids are filled with little scraps of wilderness, but they’re more like terrariums* or zoos than whole worlds with ecosystems. (The lack of natural sunlight doesn’t help matters.) Even Ceres, largest and most planet-like of the belt asteroids, is too small for meaningful terraforming; there’s a large dome city and a few low-gravity skiing resorts, but nobody expects that it will ever resemble Earth in any meaningful way.
We’ve traveled space long enough – it’s time to travel, well, time. Let’s visit a small asteroid colony in the far-distant future. Skeptics, are you ready to be pedantic and annoying? Because we’re going to a blue-and green EARTH-LIKE asteroid. Sorry, but we’re going there. On the other hand, if you like The Little Prince or Super Mario Galaxy, this is the trip for you.
It’s the distant future’s distant future. The current biohacking trends make humanity nearly unrecognizable. Being entirely blue is in fashion now; last year it was scales and prehensile hair. Impossibly large solar collectors ring the sun… mostly as relics, since everyone uses direct matter-to-energy fusion cells now. We’ve passed a number of ships that look like ancient sailing vessels, complete with a full crew on deck. It’s hard to tell whether they’re air-agnostic androids or if the ship is surrounded by a pocket of air held in via an invisible shield. It looks like these “sailing” ships, the space whale, and dozens of other oddities that hardly appear spacefaring to our ancient eyes are headed to the same place we are. TerraTwin Corporation has invited the whole Solar System to witness the unveiling of their latest vanity project: the smallest-ever fully habitable Earth!
They have the resources, the talent, the power, and most importantly, the tech. Gravity is now bound to humanity’s leash.* This has a number of bizarre implications, and we’re about to see the latest example. The company de-lenses the light just outside the port window, revealing… the Earth. Well, a version of the Earth that’s barely ten times the size of your ship.
It’s a legacy model; Greenland and Antarctica are white with what looks like real snow (the snowman on Greenland is a nice touch). Small cottages dot the tiny “continents” where the major cities would be: the vacation homes of ultra-rich celebrities and TerraTwin executives.
We’re allowed to land – because hey, who’s going to say no to time travelers* – and we find the world to be both gorgeous and disorienting. This place is NOT for the agoraphobic; the horizon falls away much too quickly, giving the sensation of being atop a hill with nothing but space below. The gravity and the sky seem exactly Earth-like, but as you pick up the Rock of Gibraltar and give it a throw, you see it follow a bizarrely curved trajectory – it disappears behind the horizon before you can see where it landed.
More curious is the Sun. We’re in the far reaches of the Asteroid belt, yet the sun looks as big and bright as it does on Earth. Now the little moonlet we saw orbiting this miniature Earth makes sense: it’s an orbiting spotlight – an artificial sun. After all these years, humanity has decided to spite Galileo and prove Aristotle right.* This fake sun orbits in such a way that it covers up the actual sun (two suns would break Earth canon, you see).
The asteroids may be barely-noticeable space grit in the 21st century, but their mineral wealth* and accessibility predestines them to undergo the Solar System’s most remarkable transformations. Over the centuries, they will be mining outposts, military bases, tourist traps, enormous hollow ships, quaint homesteads, impossible-looking cities, and even gardens.
Stay buckled: next up are the distant moons and planetoids of the heat-forsaken outer Solar System. We may as well stay in the distant future for these – it will take quite some time before we see the familiar greens and blues of life on these far-flung snowball worlds.
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