Filed under: colonizing space, science fiction, Speculation, Worldbuilding | Tags: mining on alien worlds, space colonization
Just a brief, science-fiction question. The background is that I realized I didn’t know much about, but I suspect it turns out to be terribly, terribly important for designing colonies on other planets:
When you colonize a planet, what do you mine first?Here’s some background to help you think about it.
First off, let’s ignore mining little asteroids and leaving habitable planets alone for environmentalist street cred. That won’t work very well. Planets are useful, because the combination of gravity, plate tectonics, water, and even life means that some incredibly useful elements and molecules get concentrated in useful places. Think springs of fresh water, for instance. If you’re dealing with a small asteroid, it hasn’t done any gravitational sorting, let alone plate tectonics, so it’s basically a bunch of atoms in some high entropy combination. The atoms, even the molecules are there, but you’ve got to spend a huge amount of energy concentrating and synthesizing the stuff you need. It’s probably less useful than a modern landfill when it comes to minability.
If you’re limited in the resources you have, it makes sense to find a planet. Even Mars is better than a small asteroid, but the less work you have to do with making (or filtering) air, shielding from radiation, having gravity, etc., all means you’ve got more energy and materials left for growing your colony.
That said, you’ve landed your spaceship(s) on a planet, you’ve claimed your landing area for the Terran Biosphere, and now you’ve got to not just keep everyone and everything from dying of starvation or some worse fate, you’ve got to get it growing, have some babies, grow your crops and other symbionts, and get your new baby biosphere big enough that a bad day won’t wipe it out.
Assuming you’ve got a source of cleanable water nearby, and something like a fusion plant on your spaceship for some amount of electrical power, what do you go for next? Iron? Lithium? Petroleum? Methane? Rare Earths? Copper? Silicon? Aluminum? Something else? Which of these would be easy to spot from orbit, and which do you need to have a lot of prospectors looking for (I suspect concentrated deposits of rare earths are in the latter category…).
The reason this kind of discussion matters is because of history. There are some inherently stupid things (like California water law or African Americans being second class and exploited for labor) that were enshrined early on during settlement, and even though they’ve become burdensome, they’re an essential part of how the states and the US were formed. As you can see in the current political season, it’s proving to be really, really hard to change them, even though we’d all be better off if they were fixed. Because of this, I think the early decisions made during colonization ultimately determine how the colony develops, perhaps even its long-term fate.
On a functional level, fusion power is great, but you need batteries to store that energy. That means you need to find battery materials, such as lithium and probably rare earths, and that’s difficult. Alternatively, you could go for petroleum (assuming the planet’s biosphere makes this kind of stuff) because the early wells have a very high energy return on energy invested (think gushers), and the stuff isn’t just good for fuel, you can also use it for petrochemicals and plastics. Ditto with methane. The problem is that if you base your colonial energy structure on petroleum, you put yourself in the same climate change trap we’re in now, which may limit the lifespan of your colony.
Anyway, what resources would you go for first, which ones are easy, and which are hard?
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