Sharp Blue: The first Ad Astra teaser


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Somebody recently asked me what’s become of my project to finish Ad Astra. Unfortunately, it’s not happening as quickly as I’d hoped, because (for various reasons) I’ve found myself with not as much high quality free time as I’d expected. Nevertheless, I am still working on it, slowly but surely. About two thirds of the first book (Ad Astra: History) is now written to first draft standard. When it’s done, it’s my intention to make about 5-10% of the material available as a freely downloadable “trailer”. Before then, I’ll release shorter sections as “teasers”. Here’s the first one, which gets right to the heart of what Ad Astra is all about (and is something of a fictional companion piece to my ongoing non-fiction series on space development, which so far includes “The Economics of Space Transportation” and “The Economics of Interface Transportation”):

The commercial development of space in the early 21st century was limited by the high cost of interface transport from Earth. Low orbit and the Clarke belt were full of satellites for communications and Earth observation which offered a high revenue per unit mass lifted from the surface. In the 2030s, they were joined by the Glaser-Sarkisyan solar power technology demonstrator, which was highly subsidised by the European and Japanese governments and which only supplied a token amount of power to Earth. True solar power stations, orbital hotels and other proposed space industries remained mirages, forever hovering just beyond the frontiers of commercial viability. Space development had become caught in an economic trap: further progress required much lower launch costs and much larger payloads, but relatively small decreases in launch cost produced little increase in demand. To cross the gulf separating the early century’s inelastic demand regime from the elastic demand of true space industrialisation required a vast investment in new, cheaper and more reliable launch vehicles that neither goverments nor corporations were willing to bankroll. Even projections of astronomical long-term profits from space proved too small an incentive to mobilise the tens of billions of euromarks that development of spaceplanes required.

Just as the exploration of Mars became affordable through the use of native Martian resources for fuel leverage, so space industrialisation was transformed by the use of resources found in space. The first such resources to be exploited were the reserves of water in dead near-Earth comet nuclei. In 2046, LightDrive, a spin-off from British Exodynamics, became the first space mining corporation to make a profit. The company had started out as a developer of solar thermal rockets, but soon restructured itself around mining water ice from near-Earth comets, transporting it under solar thermal power and hydrolysing it in Earth-orbit to sell cryogenic hydrogen to European Space Agency. Hydrogen was the perfect product to produce in space — as a low density liquid it was extremely expensive to ship from the surface. By the mid-2050s, cometary ice fuelled a transport infrastructure that stretched across Earth-orbital space to the surface of the Moon and beyond. Where LightDrive led, other corporations followed. Deep Sky Mining Corporation, a privately held American company, made its founders multibillionaires by mining surface deposits of platinum, iridium, osmium and other rare metals from several near-Earth asteroids during the 2050s. Then, in 2054 Mitsubishi landed an automated amorphous silicon solar cell factory on the asteroid Kieslowski and by the end of the decade had started supplying solar panels to the Glaser-Sarkisyan complex. The mining corporations soon developed effective techniques for smelting asteroidal metals in free-fall. After many false dawns, the Space Age had finally arrived.

During the second half of the century, free-fall manufacturing boomed in what was now being called “Cis-Lunar Space”. The boom was fuelled not just by the influx of materials from near-Earth asteroids, but by the new Martian markets, the growth of facilities on Luna and the easier access from Earth provided by the Spacebus Industries Skylon-200 and other fifth generation launch vehicles. Some smaller near-Earth asteroids and comets were nudged into Earth orbit using disposable gaseous-core nuclear thermal rockets. Solar power stations proliferated. During the late 2060s and early 2070s, thoughts naturally turned to the construction of truly colossal structures in space. To this end, Exxon-Mitsui, Cyrax and Nexant began to construct railguns on Lunar to launch payloads of regolith. More importantly, mirror-fusion drives had made affordable cargo transfers from beyond the orbit of Mars possible, and Soyuz-Mikoyan and Mitsubishi began to look to the more abundant and more differentiated resources of the main asteroid belt.

Driven by the promise of lucrative new frontiers to exploit, the corporations dispatched a series of mining robots and automated refineries to the main belt. Processed materials were returned to Earth and Mars by fusion-powered shuttles. As the operations became more sophisticated and complex, it became necessary to send human crews to the Belt to keep things running smoothly. By the end of the 2070s, 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 and long periods of isolation by the prospects of high pay. Gradually more and more of these people stayed, smaller corporations set up profitable mines, and eventually even non-commercial groups could afford to set up their own habitats among the asteroids. The prospectors and miners were soon followed by support industries and then manufacturing industries. By the end of the century, the asteroid belt was beginning to replace Mars as Sol System’s “Wild West”.

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. Explorers finally began to explore the Jovian and Saturnian moons in earnest, and then reached beyond even those distant worlds to Uranus and Neptune. A prime target for the transnationals was Jupiter’s moon Europa, where robotic probes had discovered complex biochemical systems clustered around deep sea vents. The fierce competition between Earth’s biotechnology companies was founded on constant innovation, and novel families of compounds were valuable commodities. In 2092, Transgene, attracted by this rich prize, established a small outpost suspended beneath the Europan global icesheet, and for the first time scientists began to explore the abyssal depths of an alien ocean.

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