16 May 2015

What We Will Fight Over: Asteroids

Wars over resources is nothing new, and is most likely the original root cause of most armed conflicts in human history. As our global population grows, it's demands will outstrip our planet's abilities to met those needs. Out there could be the answer in the hunks of rock that float in our solar system. It has been estimated that trillions of dollars of ore and water are trapped in asteroids and they are ripe for the taking. With these resources and the nose-bleed high value of these asteroids, it is certain that asteroid mining will be part of our future...but will wars over these space rocks? In the continuing serial on the genesis of future wars, FWS will exploring if asteroids will be a trigger for space wars.  

Why Mine Asteroids At All?
In the Sol System, there several asteroid belts, the primary one being in between Mars and Jupiter. There are millions of asteroids in this belt along with thousands being more than one kilometer long. With a few hundred being 100 kilometers in length. The near-Earth belts: the Apollos, Amors, and the Atens have nearly 10,000 asteroids, of which, 1500 are close enough for possible mining. Why is this important? Contained within these space rocks is valuable metals and water that could be worth billions if not trillions in today's money. These resources could head off the exhaustion of our own planet's resources with the demands of billions of humans. Instead of founding off-world colonies to prevent an ecological or economic collapse due to dwelling resources and lack of water, asteroids could mined and the resources of space could be imported to Terra. This monetary gain from mining resources and water is not only the reason for asteroid mining, but asteroids could form the foundation of space colonies and asteroid-based starships for deep space exploration.   

Classifications of Asteroids

Type: S= These asteroid made up of silicates with a mixture of nickel, iron, and platinum, Only between 17% to 20% of Sol System asteroids fall under this type.

Type: C= 75% of all asteroids in the Terran system are under the "C" classification and are comprised of carbon and a very dark in color. They contain carbon, metals, and some water. 

Type: M= These are the more rare, with only 10% being of this type that are composed of the metals nickel and iron.

The Risk of Asteroid Mining in Terran Orbit
Beside Belt Wars over valuable asteroids, there is another risk associated with asteroid mining in Earth orbit: collision. Some have suggested that asteroids could be transported to the Earth or near Earth to allow for less transit time and allow humans themselves to mine the resources, allow for jobs. However, the risk of deliberately transporting space rocks so close to the Earth is that one of these asteroid could get loose and slam into the Earth. There could even be deliberate direct actions taken by shitbags like ISIS or hostile governments, to use asteroids as  space-based weapons of mass destruction. Also, orbital warfare over rich asteroids could also be vector for space-based conflicts and even (space) piracy given the proximity of the asteroids to the Earth and not in deep space.

The Reasons for Wars over Space Rocks

There is Gold in them Rocks!
There is no better reason for Belt Wars than the assumed resource wealth that asteroids could yield. By some estimates, there are asteroids in our solar system that could contain trillions of today's dollars in resources. From gold, to water, to metals asteroids could contain all manner of materials and ores, known and unknown. If the richest asteroids, like S type and M type are claimed by one corporation or government, there could be wars fought over these asteroids and the claims of ownership. After all, he who controls the space rocks could control some of the only sources of new metals and fresh water...you know, for more ice in my whiskey and a new iPhone. 

Hallowed-out Asteroid Space Colonies
One of the uses of asteroids could be has the foundation for space colonies and this idea is popular among science fiction authors and creators as well as scientists. While expensive, asteroid space habitat due to the hearty construction, materials available inside the rock itself, and more normalized construction and livability than a spinning wheel in space. Space colonies could be a site of warfare just because people are there. Think of Omega from Mass Effect 2
Asteroid-Based Military Outposts
Asteroids would make ideal military outposts due to the material they are constructed out of and just by virtue these stations existing, they could be site for any future conflicts. Any government or private military company, or even corporation could use asteroid-based military outposts to stake a claim on a rich asteroid or to mount surveying operations, or use they has base-of-operations for any military/peacekeeping force. 

Future War Scenario: Space Pirates and Asteroid Mining
Science fiction has projected asteroid mining operations as a feeding ground for space pirates that could fuel the first establishment of space-based military units. We can imagine, space pirate raiding vessels attacking lonely mining outposts, stripping the outpost of its load, and escaping before any armed response. I do believe that space piracy is highly likely with the advent of asteroid mining, but do I think that Harlock and Company will be the raiders? That all depends on the advancement of manned space flight and the willingness of humans to become space pirates. While robotic hijacking of asteroid loads is going to happen, the flesh-and- blood space pirates of sci-fi are going to be a few centuries away. However, the isolation and the money involved in asteroids will be tempting. Space piracy could be in the form of hacking to hijack harvested ore on inbound transport vessels. If space piracy was an issue, it could lead to formation of patrol organizations. 
Future War Scenario: Robot Space Wars!
At the moment, there are two present-day companies established for the sole purpose of harvesting asteroids. Given the present technological limitations of manned space flight, robots will be mining asteroids. Most of the robotic mining probes would be possible with present level of technology, but it is uncertain if the reliability of such technology is up to the task. With the possibility of robotic asteroid mining operations, comes the possibility of robotic space wars over the richest interstellar real estate. It would be a simple matter to problem one robotic probe to use itself as a kinetic projectile to take out another mining probe. There does not need to be complex weapon systems, simple kinetic energy weapons will do the job. These robotic conflicts in the solar system could be waged not at just in the asteroid fields, but also during the transit back to Earth. After one probe as done the hard work, another robot could be designed to come in and hijack the load. The likelihood of this scenario for future warfare is very high.  

Future War Scenario: It Starts Out There and Winds Up Here
Nations and companies will be involved in asteroid mining, that much is assured, but could that lead to wars out there and down here? If could be possible that actions taken by one faction out there in the black could and would lead to wars back on Terra, and belt wars could be the trigger. Depending on the economic dependency of future societies on asteroid mining could be deciding factor for starting wars. After all, when Saddam Hussein threatened Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, the US and other nations got involved real quick, and the same could be said of Belt Wars. 

Future War Scenario: Corporate Warfare in Space
Imagine Con-Am Mining and Weyland-Yutani mining expeditions both arrive at the same rock in deep space that has a great deal of rare-earth minerals. That is when space mining corporations could fight their own deep space wars over the richest space rocks in the solar system. Like the scenario above of robots stealing mining materials, the same could be true here. Corporations could pit their robots against other corporate robots in a bloodless war for space rock real estate. Of course, any mining operation on an asteroid could be attacked in an "hostile takeover" and reoccupied by another company, Of course, corporations could hire mercenaries as proxy forces in any Belt Wars.

Future War Scenario: Trespassing Alien Miners
Consider this: Much of the "aliens coming to take our resources" trope mostly revolves around those aliens coming to Earth. If there are indeed spacefaring alien species that can reach our star system, they would not even fucking bother with the attacking the Earth for resources. Out there in the black are thousands of asteroids that bear the same resources as here on Earth, and without the pesky nuclear-armed savage humans getting in the way. At this very moment, alien miners could be in the various asteroids belts craving out a nice profit without us even knowing about it. Hell, the alien might have even sent robots to mine the space rocks instead of coming themselves. There are those that believe that right now, aliens have established mining operations on the Moon, some asteroids, and other moons. One day, when we reach out to mine asteroids, we could find aliens already doing the same thing...and this could spark the first interstellar wars. 

Future War Scenario: Space Miner Riots
Some sci-fi creators have used the isolation and working conditions of space mining to provide a vehicle for future conflicts. Space mining riots or independence movements could lead to future wars and the deployment of military forces to these far-flung human outposts. . One corporation or government could use miners' rights strikes to destabilize the hold on an asteroid. Space miners could some of the original humans in the deeper regions of the sol system, and that could the genesis of these space miners forming their own society, separate from Terra.

Asteroid Wars and Science Fiction
Since the publication of Edison's Conquest of Mars in 1898, asteroid have been projected as a battleground for future wars in space. This idea has filtered through science fiction since the publication of that story, showing up in works like Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids, Gundam, and Space: Above and Beyond. With the popularity of sci-fi tabletop RPGs in the 1970's and 1980's, there seemed to be "Belt War" scenarios in nearly all of them. It was also common in these RPGs to have a fleshed out backstory of the universe that the players were inhabiting and often Belt Wars were mentioned, as in the Babylon 5 RPG, to be the trigger for the first space conflicts and the formation of the first space military organizations. At the moment, Belt Wars are less common that other triggers for future wars, but it is my guess would be that Belt Wars in sci-fi will become more popular as asteroid mining moves from science fiction to reality.


2038: Tycoons of the Asteroid Belt 
In 1995, TimJim Games released 2038: Tycoons of the Asteroid Belt about players establishing their own asteroid export empire in outer space. This is hex-board strategy seems to be well-thought out and complete with money, always a nice touch. Players explore and claim asteroids, compete for asteroids, and deal with limited fuel for scouring operations. I personally had never heard of this game until this blogpost, but it seems like a solid game that got lost in the 1990's.

Miners vs. Space Pirates from the The Space Game RTS
Here is an game devoted to find and defending your claim on asteroids in a strategy video game. The foes vary from space pirates to other miners, and if you lose too many asteroids or their mining bases, you lose due to lack of resources to expand your holdings or defending you claim.

Miners vs. Aliens in Space Station: Frontier Video Game
In the tablet-based game, you play as a heroic leader of a deep space asteroid mining operations. All is well, until aliens attempt to take the space rocks from themselves! Using the resources found in the rocks, you upgrade your space station against the evil aliens!

The United Mining Company from The Gap Cycle Books by Stephen Donaldson
The Gap Cycle Book series ran through the 1990's, and I read all of them, being amazed at the harshness of this universe. The human government that rules over her colonies and outposts is the United Mining Company (UMC). Its power arose from securing the richest off-world mining sites and via this power over resources, became the government of Terra. Think of Apple or Google creating Skynet and telling the US Gov't they got from here on out. Local conflicts being miners and mining sites are handled via a space police force of the UMC. In the book, asteroid belts are a common location for conflict and outposts.

The Belt Wars from the Babylon 5 Universe

When humanity began to push out, asteroids were an important reason for getting humans out there. These asteroid mining operations soon became a key economic import to Earth, and that spawned wars in the belts. These Belt Wars were the first space wars fought by humans and the founding reason for EarthForce and the Earth Alliance. This detail was not mentioned in the iconic 1990's sci-fi series, but it was in the sourcebook for the Earth Alliance printed by Mongoose Games for their B5 RPG. Of course, during the bloody Earth/Minbari War, John Sheridan used nuclear mines to destroy the Minbari flagship The Black Star, one of the few victories for EarthForce during the war.

Asteroid Competition in the Kuiper Belt from Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card

You know, I liked the whole concept of Ender's Game okay...but Orson Scott Card needs to move on and write something else. Anyway, one of the first stories about the Formic War begins in Kuiper asteroid belt. A family of space rock miners is deep in the Kuiper Belt to prevent any competition between them and other miners. The story, before ant-aliens show up, has these free miners competing with corporate miners over claims on asteroids. While an interesting site for first contact between the humans and Formics, the books have not been so interesting. These series was not really written by OSC and reviewers have wondered how much involvement he had with the finished text.

The Battle over the Tylium Asteroid from BSG Episode: "The Hand of God"

One of the critical elements needed in the BSG universe is Tylium. This ore is used to power the ships of the Ragtag Fleet and the Cylons. With the amount of FTL jumps the Fleet made during "33", the Fleet is nearly out Tylium. Raptors are sent out to scout for Tylium rich asteroids. Tylium ore is native to asteroids and given its rarity, when the Fleet discoveries a rich ore Tylium asteroid with a heavy Cylon presence on it, what remains of Galactica flight team readies for battle. This is one of the better examples of two sides fighting over asteroid resources.

The Asteroid Wars Series by Ben Bova
In these series of novels, the asteroid belts become the savior of an Earth that is in near collapse. Ben Bova wrote four novels in the Asteroid War series that detail the events of the mining and control of asteroids. These books were published from 2001 to 2007 and tell the central story of one of the richest men on Earth, Dan Randolph, setting up an asteroid mining company, Astro, to help the Earth...and get more rich. However, his company attempts to drive out smaller asteroid miners, leading to conflict between mining companies. These Belt Wars alter the solar system, the destiny of the companies, along with all of humanity.

GDW's Belter: Mining the Asteroids 2076
In the 1970's, Game Designers' Workshop, who made Traveller and Twilight 2000, came out with an asteroid combat game where players battle for supremacy while attempting to create mining empire. There are trading stations, money, combat, and dangerous conditions out there in the black. One of the more interesting elements is that one player is the Peacekeeping force that suppresses revolts and conflicts that endanger the prices of certain items back home on Earth. Since Belter 2076 release GDW, it fell out of print, and even after GDW was bought by Far-Future Enterprises, Belter was not resurrected.  

The Battle over the Icarus Mining Facility on Bunuel in the Kuiper Belt
In one of the best military science fiction television series of all time, Space: Above and Beyond, we see an example of a battle over asteroids. In the 3rd episode of the series, "The Dark Side of the Sun", the 58th squad of the USMC are deployed to the Icarus Mining Facility on the asteroid of Bunuel in the Kuiper Belt. This Helium 3 mining operation was a critical war resource for the UN forces, and the 58th are there to secure the He3. However, the AIs that rebelled on Earth that lead to the bloody AI Wars are working for the Chigs, and are their to pirate the He3 ore and selling to the Chigs. This becomes a ground game for the Marines of the 58th in the mining facility and one of the best episodes of the series.

Humans being Dicks from Asteroids the video game
Asteroids was one of the most successful video games of all time, and was an important part of the overall story of the rise of video games in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  It was a simple game, you shoot the floating menacing space rocks with your pew-pew laser blaster, while battling UFOs that float by firing randomly. There is not much of a plot here, but I remember an original plot for back in the 1980's. One story I read that fit the actions on-screen was that you, the player, was a elite space fighter raiders set into alien-held asteroid fields, your job was destroy the asteroids that the alien depending on, denying them the resources. Any alien patrol craft that shows up, you destroy. Yep, Asteroids the video game is all about humans being dicks.

Next Time on FWS...
Laws are made to control them, companies spend millions designing them and lobbying for them to even exist, and civilians obsess over them. No, we are not talking just about firearms, but more to the thing that feeds the gun with bullets: the magazine. In the next blog article in the continuing Armory series, FWS friend, Yoel, will be the primary writer on this important aspect of firearms and one of the most underdeveloped in fictional firearms.  Watch for more independent contributors to FWS over the next few months. If you would like to write for FWS on a topic of military sci-fi that you interested in...than drop me an email and propose an topic.


  1. Maybe the asteroids miners bases will look like future version of Wild West? Hard science Firefly universe?

  2. There's a game called "high frontier" which is designed by a rocket scientist. While not strictly about asteroids, they are the most common and easiest to exploit/colonize/industrialize. It's very much real life physics based, but does allow for combat occuring. There's also laws that prohibit 'claim jumping' and 'water theft' and 'colonist press gangs' but in certain situations anarchy can happen and it's open game for everyone. Worth a look.

  3. And in a weird concordance, Martin at 'Fire Broadside!" blog (where I first learned about high frontier) just posted on a new game called 'peri-orbis' all about asteroid mining. http://firebroadside.blogspot.ca/2015/05/periorbis-asteroid-mining-board-game.html

  4. I think it likely that there will be conflict over asteroid resources. Of course, it may only be cyber warfare, as some people think that space war would be too expensive for anyone to undertake it. There is also the option that the asteroids could be the cause of proxy wars back on Earth, just as so many wars over the past century not for the sake of winning but to gain a political advantage in a different theatre.

    1. It's also possible that some terrorists will try to redirect asteroid into collision course with Earth.
      And sorry for my English, huh

  5. Small correction: Game Designers Workshop (GDW) produced Belter and Traveller. The similarly named but unrelated Games Workshop (GW) brought us Warhammer and 40K.

  6. dont forget about ork "roks" from warhammer 40k. its absolutely insane and probably isnt scientifically possible, but its one of the funnest parts of the fluff of the setting.

  7. This is from a often reader of FWS that was having issues with the system:
    "Just to add a thought, your mention of aliens trying to mine the
    astroid belt sounds interesting but I think that the suggestion of
    them being there already seems incredibly unlikely. Consider that any
    alien civilisation mining our asteroid belt is doing so because they
    have run out of asteroids to mine in their home system, this means
    that one of the most important parts of their mining operation would
    be regular transfers of mined material back to their home system.
    These transfers of minerals would need to be done by a vehicle moving
    fast enough to be atleast at the escape velocity for our solar system,
    and because the asteroids are in stable orbits anything mined on them
    needs accelerating considerably to reach escape velocity. Specifically
    v=sqrt(GM/R) for orbit and v=sqrt(2GM/R) for escape, this means for
    asteroids in an 2.977AU orbit any alien mining vessel needs to make a
    7.4km/s burn to get onto an escape trajectory, and if they want to
    reach any star further than 10 light years away within 10000 years
    they'll need to make a burn of some 300km/s, the 7.4km/s burn would be
    hard to hide from earth's current observatories for any reasonably
    large payload, the 300km/s burn would be likely be visible to amateur
    astronomers. Currently we have telescopes tracking all the big
    asteroids in the belt, now the alien vessel might not be anything like
    that size, but when it fired up it's engines it would be bound to be
    caught in shot and investigated by fascinated astronomers. If aliens
    were operating a mining operation in the belt right now, we would know
    about it. The idea though that mankind has just set up a mining
    operation in the belt, and then aliens come along wanting it for
    themselves, that's more plausible and could make for a good start to a
    story, and could let the author ask deep questions about "who's
    asteroids are they anyway?"