THE ASTEROID BELT
Millions of chunks of rock and metal float silently, endlessly, through the deep emptiness of interplanetary space. The largest of them, Ceres, is barely a thousand kilometers wide. Most of them are much smaller, ranging from irregular chunks a few kilometers long down to the size of pebbles. They contain more metals and minerals, more natural resources, than the entire Earth can provide.
They are the bonanza, the El Dorado, the Comstock Lode, the gold and silver and iron and everything-else mines of the twenty-first century. There are hundreds of millions of billions of tons of high grade ores in the asteroids. They hold enough real wealth to make each man, woman, and child of the entire human race into a millionaire. And then some.
The first asteroid was discovered shortly after midnight on January 1, 1801, by a Sicilian monk who happened to be an astronomer. While others were celebrating the new century, Giuseppi Piazzi was naming the tiny point of light he saw in his telescope Ceres after the pagan goddess of Sicily. Perhaps an unusual attitude for a pious monk, but Piazzi was a Sicilian, after all.
By the advent of the twenty-first century, more than fifteen thousand asteroids had been discovered by earthbound astronomers. As the human race began to expand its habitat to the Moon and to explore Mars, millions more were found.
Technically, they are planetoids, little planets, chunks of rock and metal floating in the dark void of space, leftovers from the creation of the Sun and planets some four and a half billion years ago. Piazzi correctly referred to them as planetoids, but in 1802 William Herschel (who had earlier discovered the giant planet Uranus) called them asteroids, because in the telescope their pinpoints of light looked like stars rather than the disks of planets. Piazzi was correct, but Herschel was far more famous and influential. We call them asteroids to this day.
Several hundred of the asteroids are in orbits that near the Earth, but most of them by far circle around the Sun in a broad swath in deep space between the orbits of Mars and giant Jupiter. This Asteroid Belt is centered more than six hundred million kilometers from Earth, four times farther from the Sun than our homeworld.
Although this region is called the Asteroid Belt, the asteroids are not strewn so thickly that they represent a hazard to space navigation. Far from it. The so-called Belt is a region of vast emptiness, dark and lonely and very far from human civilization.
Until the invention of the Duncan fusion drive the Asteroid Belt was too far from the Earth/Moon system to be of economic value. Once fusion propulsion became practical, however, the Belt became the region where prospectors and miners could make fortunes for themselves, or die in the effort.
Many of them died. More than a few were killed.
Copyright © 2002 by Ben Bova