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How Might Asteroids be Colonized?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Since the mid-20th century, space enthusiasts and visionaries have looked to the asteroids as possible colonization sites. There are an estimated ten billion asteroids greater than 100 meters in diameter, and their combined surface area is much greater than that of the Earth. The largest asteroid, Ceres, has a surface area comparable to that of central Europe. The 32 largest asteroids are each 200 km or greater in diameter. There are an additional 100 billion asteroids between 10 and 100 meters in diameter. Many of these contain millions or billions of dollars worth of valuable resources.

It was Isaac Asimov who first suggested hollowing out asteroids prior to settling them. Unlike certain celestial bodies, for instance, Luna, some asteroids contain substantial carbon and volatiles such as water, both of which are necessary to sustain life. A hollowed-out asteroid would have an natural shield (the surface) to block out dangerous cosmic rays and micrometeorites, and if it could be spun around fast enough, the inner surface would have artificial gravity in regions perpendicular to the axis of rotation.

Some people have suggested hollowing out asteroids for colonization.
Some people have suggested hollowing out asteroids for colonization.

Although internal supports would be necessary to prevent an asteroid from collapsing under its own gravity, being of relatively low mass, even if one of these supports failed, it would not necessary kill everyone inside. With several artificial shield layers backing up the asteroid surface, there would be little reason to worry about a breach or unpredicted collapse.

Several studies have proposed using small spacecraft to 'hop' from asteroids that pass both the Earth and Mars to small moons like Phobos as a way to cheaply move between the planets.
Several studies have proposed using small spacecraft to 'hop' from asteroids that pass both the Earth and Mars to small moons like Phobos as a way to cheaply move between the planets.

Asteroids contain a huge amount of valuable materials, especially platinum group metals, which could fetch high prices if shipped down to Earth and sold here. This could become the basis for an inner solar system economy. Many of the most valuable metals on Earth long ago sank to its core, but on asteroids, these materials are readily available. As our global civilization continues to develop, many of the key resources could come from the asteroids rather than Earth itself.

Nuclear fission rockets such as those tested under Project NERVA in the 1960s would enable a manned spacecraft to reach the Asteroid Belt in a matter of weeks.
Nuclear fission rockets such as those tested under Project NERVA in the 1960s would enable a manned spacecraft to reach the Asteroid Belt in a matter of weeks.

As our population on Earth continues to grow at a rate of about 2% per year, eventually the planet will become too crowded to sustain everybody. The solution – colonize the inner solar system, particularly the asteroids. Perhaps the single greatest reason to colonize asteroids is their relatively low gravity – the amount of energy required to launch a package outside the gravity well of Earth is intimidatingly large, but on many asteroids, it is insignificant.

For more information, check out one of the most popular books on the subject, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from Comets and Asteroids.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

Drentel

We don't talk about this as much today as we did during the Cold War, but asteroids would also make good escape destinations in the case of nuclear war. And with the potential for nuclear weapons becoming available to terrorists and other countries, maybe the risk is actually greater than it was during the cold war.

The chances of a significant number of people surviving an all out nuclear war are pretty slim as I understand it. And even the survivors, if there were any, would be left with a terrible world to live in.

Sporkasia

@Feryll - You make a good point about using asteroids as possible outlets for avoiding overcrowding on earth if we could find a way to make them safe for people to live on. However, think of the other problems that might be made less tragic if we could simply pack up and move to the nearest asteroid.

Whether or not you believe that global warming is a real event and we are making our world more dangerous, wouldn't it be good to have a backup plan just in case? When things get too hot, too smoggy or when the seas are rising too high we can jet over to one of those asteroids and leave out worries behind.

Feryll

I have always heard about us colonizing other planets, like Mars for example, but the idea of humans living on asteroids is new to me. What I like about the possibilities of living on asteroids is that we would never have to be concerned with overpopulating the earth. We could simply ship all of the excess humans off to one of the many asteroids out there in space and never worry about filling them all up with people because there are so many of them.

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    • Some people have suggested hollowing out asteroids for colonization.
      By: vencav
      Some people have suggested hollowing out asteroids for colonization.
    • Several studies have proposed using small spacecraft to 'hop' from asteroids that pass both the Earth and Mars to small moons like Phobos as a way to cheaply move between the planets.
      Several studies have proposed using small spacecraft to 'hop' from asteroids that pass both the Earth and Mars to small moons like Phobos as a way to cheaply move between the planets.
    • Nuclear fission rockets such as those tested under Project NERVA in the 1960s would enable a manned spacecraft to reach the Asteroid Belt in a matter of weeks.
      Nuclear fission rockets such as those tested under Project NERVA in the 1960s would enable a manned spacecraft to reach the Asteroid Belt in a matter of weeks.
    • Formerly identified as a large asteroid, Ceres is now called a dwarf planet.
      Formerly identified as a large asteroid, Ceres is now called a dwarf planet.