Fragmented Neighborhood

Life on asteroid B612 was apparently not so bad for the Little Prince, although he was ultimately beset by a sense of great wanderlust. The charming story of The Little Prince, penned by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1943, was written as a child's story, but it points in a prescient way toward a possible future.

The asteroids located in the main-belt region between Mars and Jupiter might in principle support a large population of human beings. The by no-means-large city of Regina, in Saskatchewan, Canada, where the author lives, covers an area of 118.4 km2 and provides work and accommodation for a population of 194,971 people (2006 census). A spherical asteroid having the same surface area as Regina would have a diameter of about 6 km. There are of order 30,000-50,000 asteroids of 6-km diameter and larger in the main-belt region.

Now, while it is entirely unrealistic to expect that each of these asteroids might eventually be engineered to support a population similar to that of Regina, if they could be so converted, then the asteroid belt alone might accommodate over 6 billion human beings. This estimate, of course, assumes that each asteroid republic could feed itself and provide enough energy and work to meaningfully occupy its citizens.

An enthusiastic believer in the potential role of asteroids as future homes was pioneering aerospace engineer Dandridge MacFarland Cole. Indeed, in the last few years of his lamentably short life, Cole wrote three remarkable books on the topic of the human exploration of space, and he specifically advanced the idea of hollowing-out large asteroids to provide the room for interior living spaces. Recent developments in our understanding of the internal structure of a kilometer-sized asteroid, however, unfortunately casts some doubt upon the practicality of Coles hollow-world concept. Specifically, current observations appear to indicate that the interiors of kilometer-sized asteroids are, in fact, not solid through and through but rather are rubble piles composed of multiple, loosely bound fragments (see Figure 8.3).

No doubt some asteroids will be amenable to the hollowing-out process advocated by Cole, but the advantages afforded by such

Figure 8.3. Asteroid Matilda as revealed by the Near-Shoemaker spacecraft in 1997. The asteroid has an irregular profile, some 60 km by 50 km across, and reveals several large craters. The bulk density of Matilda has been determined to be about 1400 kg/m3, but since its surface is composed of rock that has a density of some 3,600 kg/m3, it must be highly porous within its interior. Image courtesy of NASA.

living are still unclear. Indeed, rather than the smaller asteroids being populated in any great numbers it is more likely that they will be utilized in purely commercial mining ventures. Their role will be to provide the raw material (hydrates, silicates, and nickel-iron) that will be used in planetary terraforming projects elsewhere, as well as in the construction of space habitats (such as the O'Neill colonies, which will be discussed later). Poetically, James Oberg in his wonderful book New Earths: Restructuring Earth and Other Planets (Stockpile Books, Harrisburg, Pa. 1981) writes, ''The asteroids appear to be ripe for plucking. They come in bite-size nuggets, and they roam through a wide variety of orbits, some quite convenient for Earth.''

Many researchers have looked at the ways in which an asteroid might be mined, and, as we saw in Chapter 7, Freeman Dyson has suggested a dynamo method by which asteroids might be spun up and thereby disrupted, each ''bite-size nugget'' then being crushed, sorted, and re-formed by a fleet of ''feeder'' spacecraft. Other researchers have suggested that orbit shifting might be employed in order that a specific asteroid can be mined in close proximity to the actual construction site.

A small asteroid, perhaps just a few kilometers across, might reasonably support just a few tens to perhaps hundreds of human beings, although one can also easily envision some of the more modest-sized asteroids being engineered to support small communal villages. In terms of living conditions, however, such converted worlds would have to be entirely self-contained, and therefore they offer little to no relative advantage over those provided by an orbiting spacecraft.

Gerard O'Neill, writing in his book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (William Morrow and Company Inc., New York, 1976), suggests that a homesteading approach to asteroid colonization, similar to that of the great wagon train expansionism across the western United States in the late 1800 s, might take place, the expansion outward being driven by a spirit of adventure and the desire to search for new and ever-richer pastures. This may or may not be a good way to proceed, and there is no specific reason to suppose that the Solar System should be colonized according to what are essentially North American economic ideals. Again, it seems worth reiterating the point that humanity itself will have to change its present consumer approach to life long before it makes any reasonable sense to begin terraforming planets and colonizing the rest of the Solar System. Exporting the currently dominant ethic of short-term economic gain over long-term investment and stewardship, and the continued acceptance by richer nations of crippling poverty in the poorer nations and resource mismanagement that is rampant in many places will not result in a viable, long-lived, and harmonious Solar System community.

Perhaps the ultimate long-term asteroid habitat is that described by Dandridge Cole and co-author Donald Cox in their book Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids published in 1964, where they suggest that a hollowed-out asteroid might be used as an interstellar arc to carry humanity to the stars. Such a venture would in many ways represent the ultimate panspermia mission (recall Figure 3.11).

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