By the second half of the century the free-fall manufacturing industry was booming in the Earth-Moon system. In the early years the raw materials required for the manufacture of solar power satellites and the other products of the orbital factories were shipped up-well from Terra and Luna. As thoughts turned towards building truly colossal structures in Cis-Lunar Space, it became clear that launching raw materials from the lunar railguns would be prohibitively expensive. Some metals were already being shipped from Mars, but this too would be uneconomic for building orbital cities. The transnationals were forced to look beyond Cis-Luna and Mars to the asteroids for a cheaper source of minerals.
The first asteroids to be mined were Earth-crossing bodies nudged by nuclear rockets into Earth orbit. The orbital corporations rapidly developed effective techniques for mining and smelting metals in freefall. The number of asteroids available for economically feasible transfer into Earth orbit was very small however, and the main belt contained much more differentiated (and hence much more lucrative) materials. Driven by this promise, the corporations dispatched a series of mining robots and automated refineries to the main belt. Each of the mining drones was equipped with a mass-driver to return processed materials to Terra and Mars.
During the 2070s it became necessary to send human crews to the Belt to keep the mining operations running smoothly. By the end of that decade, hundreds of people were working among the asteroids. In 2085 Mitsubishi, Cyrax, Soyuz-Mikoyan and UNSA jointly set up a permanently manned outpost on Ceres to serve as a base for further exploration and mining. The first crews assigned to the Belt worked for five-year terms, attracted to the dangerous work by the prospects of high pay. Gradually more and more of these people stayed, while minority groups moved out and set up their own mining operations and habitats.
The unchanging economics of orbital mechanics made it much cheaper to ship cargoes out to the Belt from Mars rather than from Earth. A three-way trade soon emerged within the inner system. Earth exported to Mars the low-bulk high technology goods that still could not be manufactured by Martian industries. The Martians exported machinery, habitats and supplies to the outposts of the Belt. The Belters completed the triangle by shipping processed materials and small asteroids to Cis-Luna.
The extension of the human reach into the middle regions of Sol System also provided the vehicles to enable expeditions to venture to the worlds of the outer system. A prime target for the transnationals was Europa, a moon known to host complex biochemical systems clustered around deep sea vents. The fierce competition between Earth's biotechnology companies was founded on headlong innovation, and novel families of compounds were valuable commodities. In 2092, Transgene, attracted by this rich prize, established an outpost suspended beneath the Europan global icesheet.
Belt: 1 | 2 | 3 | Now
The future of Ad Astra