Asteroids in fiction

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Asteroids and asteroid belts are a staple of science fiction stories. Asteroids play several potential roles in science fiction, most notably as places which human beings might colonize, as resources for extracting minerals, as a hazard encountered by spaceships traveling between two other points, and as a threat to life on Earth due to potential impacts.

Contents

Overview

When the theme of interplanetary colonization first entered science fiction, the Asteroid Belt was quite low on the list of desirable real estate, far behind such planets as Mars and Venus (often conceived as a kind of paradise planet, until probes in the 1960s revealed the appalling temperatures and conditions under its clouds). Thus, in many stories and books the Asteroid Belt, if not a positive hazard, is still a rarely visited backwater in a colonized Solar System. [1]

The prospects of colonizing the Solar System planets dimmed as they became known to be not very hospitable to life. However, the asteroids came to be imagined as a vast accumulation of mineral wealth, accessible in conditions of minimal gravity, and supplementing Earth's presumably dwindling resources—though the value of such minerals would have to be very high indeed to make such enterprises economically viable. Stories of asteroid mining multiplied after the late 1940s, accompanied by descriptions of a society living in caves or domes on asteroids, or (unscientifically) providing the asteroid with an atmosphere held in place by an "artificial gravity".

The idea of such isolated settlements, coupled with existing stereotypes of American mineral prospectors in the 19th century "Wild West", gave rise to the stock character of a "Belter" or "Rock Rat" – a rugged and independent-minded individual, resentful of state or corporate authority. [2] Among such works is Ben Bova's Asteroid Wars series.

Another way in which asteroids could be considered a source of danger is by depicting them as a hazard to navigation, especially threatening to ships traveling from Earth to the outer parts of the Solar System and thus needing to pass the Asteroid Belt (or make a time- and fuel-consuming detour around it). In this context, asteroids serve the same role in space travel stories as reefs and underwater rocks in the older genre of seafaring adventure stories. [3] And like such hazards, asteroids could also be used by bold outlaws to avoid pursuit. Representations of the Asteroid Belt in film tend to make it unrealistically cluttered with dangerous rocks, so dense that adventurous measures must be taken to avoid an impact, giving dramatic visual images which the true nearly empty space would not provide. One of the best-known examples of this is the Hoth system in The Empire Strikes Back .

In reality asteroids, even in the asteroid belt, are spaced extremely far apart. Proto-planets in the process of formation and planetary rings may look like that, but the Sun's asteroid belt does not. (The asteroid belt in the HD 69830 system may, however.) The asteroids are spread over such a high volume that it would be highly improbable even to pass close to a random asteroid. For example, the numerous space probes sent to the outer solar system, just across the main asteroid belt, have never had any problems, and asteroid rendezvous missions have elaborate targeting procedures. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is unusual in that it does portray realistically the ship's "encounter" with a lone asteroid pair.

A common depiction of asteroids and comets in fiction is as a threat, whose impact on Earth could result with incalculable damage and loss of life. [4] [5] This has a basis in scientific hypotheses regarding such impacts in the distant past as responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs and other past catastrophes —though, as they seem to occur within tens of millions of years of each other, there is no special reason (other than creating a dramatic story line) to expect a new such impact at any close millennium.

In earlier works, asteroids provided grist for theories as to their origin – specifically, the theory that the asteroids are remnants of an exploded planet. This naturally leads to SF plot-lines dealing with the possibility that the planet had been inhabited, and if so – that the inhabitants caused its destruction themselves, by war or gross environmental mismanagement. A further extension is from the past of the existing asteroids to the possible future destruction of Earth or other planets and their rendering into new asteroids. [6] [7]

Early examples

The earliest explicit references to asteroids date from the late nineteenth century:

An illustration from Jules Verne
's novel Off On a Comet (French: Hector Servadac
, 1877) drawn by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux
. 'Off on a Comet' by Paul Philippoteaux 001.jpg
An illustration from Jules Verne 's novel Off On a Comet (French : Hector Servadac, 1877) drawn by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux.

Real asteroids in fiction

Although the asteroids are commonly dealt with en masse, a few belt asteroids have become known well enough to be mentioned in fictional treatments.

Ceres

Dwarf planet Ceres is the largest and first discovered planetoid of the main-belt asteroids.

Eros

After Ceres, Asteroid 433 Eros is perhaps the most-commonly mentioned asteroid, probably because it is one of the largest near-Earth asteroids.

Icarus

Asteroid 1566 Icarus, best known for its close approach to Earth and the Sun, has been the subject of multiple fictional works, such as:

Juno

Asteroid 3 Juno is one of the largest belt asteroids, the second-most-massive stony S-type.

Pallas

Asteroid 2 Pallas is the third-largest belt asteroid.

Vesta

Asteroid 4 Vesta is the second largest of the asteroids.

Other asteroids

Common themes

Collisions with planets

A common depiction of asteroids (and less often, of comets) in fiction is as a threat, whose impact on Earth could result with incalculable damage and loss of life. This scenario is based on such past events as the impact event responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. Such events are, however, sufficiently rare that there is no special reason to expect such an impact in the near future.

Colonization

When the theme of interplanetary colonization first entered SF, the Asteroid Belt was quite low on the list of desirable real estate, far behind such planets as Mars and Venus (often conceived as a kind of paradise planet, until probes in the 1960s revealed uninhabitable temperatures with a deadly carbon dioxide and sulfur atmosphere under its clouds). Thus, in many stories and books the Asteroid Belt, if not a positive hazard, is still a rarely visited backwater in a colonized Solar System.

Fifth planet

Before colonization of the asteroids became an attractive possibility, a main interest in them was theories as to their origin – specifically, the theory that the asteroids are remnants of an exploded planet. This naturally leads to SF plot lines dealing with the possibility that the planet had been inhabited, and if so – that the inhabitants caused its destruction themselves, by war or gross environmental mismanagement. A further extension is from the past of the existing asteroids to the possible future destruction of Earth or other planets and their rendering into new asteroids.

For a list of "fifth planets" in fiction, see Fictional planets of the Solar System

Mineral extraction

The prospects of colonizing the Solar System planets became more dim with increasing discoveries about conditions on them. Conversely, the potential value of the asteroids increased, as a vast accumulation of mineral wealth, accessible in conditions of minimal gravity, and supplementing Earth's dwindling resources. Stories of asteroid mining became more and more numerous since the late 1940s, with the next logical step being depictions of a society on terraformed asteroids — in some cases dug under the surface, in others having dome colonies and in still others provided with an atmosphere which is kept in place by an artificial gravity.

An image developed and was carried from writer to writer, of "Belters" or "Rock Rats" as rugged and independent-minded individuals, resentful of all authority (in some books and stories of the military and political power of Earth-bound nation states, in others of the corporate power of huge companies). As such, this subgenre proved naturally attractive to writers with Libertarian tendencies. Moreover, depictions of the Asteroid Belt as The New Frontier clearly draw (sometimes explicitly) on the considerable literature of the Nineteenth-Century Frontier and the Wild West. And since (in nearly all stories) the asteroids are completely lifeless until the arrival of the humans, it is a New Frontier completely free of the moral taint of the brutal dispossession of the Native Americans in the original.

Another way in which asteroids could be considered a source of danger is by depicting them as a hazard to navigation, especially threatening to ships travelling from Earth to the outer parts of the Solar System and thus needing to pass the Asteroid Belt (or make a time- and fuel-consuming detour around it). Asteroids in this context provide to space travel stories a space equivalent of reefs and underwater rocks in the older genre of seafaring adventures stories. And like reefs and rocks in the ocean, asteroids as navigation hazards can also be used by bold outlaws to avoid pursuit.

Representations of the Asteroid Belt in film tend to make it unrealistically cluttered with dangerous rocks. In reality, even in the asteroid belt, asteroids are spaced extremely far apart (even so, they can still be a risk to ships travelling at high speeds).

New asteroid belts

A theme related to that of the Fifth Planet is the generation of a new asteroid belt, via the demolition of a planet, sometimes the Earth. The energy required to reduce a planet such as Earth to loose rubble is truly enormous: about 2×1032 J, equivalent to the Sun's entire luminous energy output for about a week![ citation needed ]

Spacecraft

As weapons

Extrasolar asteroids

Some works of fiction take place on, or in, asteroid-like bodies or fields outside the Solar System:

Games involving asteroids

Related Research Articles

Asteroid Minor planet that is not a comet

Asteroids are minor planets, especially of the inner Solar System. Larger asteroids have also been called planetoids. These terms have historically been applied to any astronomical object orbiting the Sun that did not resolve into a disc in a telescope and was not observed to have characteristics of an active comet such as a tail. As minor planets in the outer Solar System were discovered that were found to have volatile-rich surfaces similar to comets, these came to be distinguished from the objects found in the main asteroid belt. In this article, the term "asteroid" refers to the minor planets of the inner Solar System, including those co-orbital with Jupiter.

433 Eros near-Earth asteroid

Eros, minor planet designation: 433 Eros, provisional designation 1898 DQ, is a stony and elongated asteroid of the Amor group and the first discovered and second-largest near-Earth object with a mean-diameter of approximately 16.8 kilometers. Visited by the NEAR Shoemaker space probe in 1998, it became the first asteroid ever studied from orbit.

4 Vesta second largest asteroid of the main asteroid belt

Vesta is one of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, with a mean diameter of 525 kilometres (326 mi). It was discovered by the German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers on 29 March 1807 and is named after Vesta, the virgin goddess of home and hearth from Roman mythology.

2 Pallas Large asteroid of the main asteroid belt

Pallas is the second asteroid to have been discovered, after 1 Ceres. It is one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System, and is a likely remnant protoplanet. With an estimated 7% of the mass of the asteroid belt, it is the third-most-massive asteroid, being three quarters the mass of 4 Vesta and one quarter the mass of Ceres. It is about 510 kilometers (320 mi) in diameter, slightly smaller than Vesta.

Asteroid belt The circumstellar disk (accumulation of matter) in an orbit between those of Mars and Jupiter

The asteroid belt is a torus-shaped region in the Solar System, located roughly between the orbits of the planets Jupiter and Mars, that is occupied by a great many solid, irregularly shaped bodies, of many sizes but much smaller than planets, called asteroids or minor planets. This asteroid belt is also called the main asteroid belt or main belt to distinguish it from other asteroid populations in the Solar System such as near-Earth asteroids and trojan asteroids.

Protoplanet 2nd phase of a formation of a planet

A protoplanet is a large planetary embryo that originated within a protoplanetary disc and has undergone internal melting to produce a differentiated interior. Protoplanets are thought to form out of kilometer-sized planetesimals that gravitationally perturb each other's orbits and collide, gradually coalescing into the dominant planets.

Jack Williamson American science fiction writer

John Stewart Williamson, who wrote as Jack Williamson, was an American science fiction writer, often called the "Dean of Science Fiction".. He is also credited with one of the first uses of the term "Genetic Engineering". Early in his career he sometimes used the pseudonyms Will Stewart and Nils O. Sonderlund.

<i>Dawn</i> (spacecraft) Ninth mission of the Discovery program; orbital reconnaissance of the main belt asteroids 4 Vesta and 1 Ceres

Dawn is a retired space probe launched by NASA in September 2007 with the mission of studying two of the three known protoplanets of the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres. It was retired on 1 November 2018 and it is currently in an uncontrolled orbit around its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies, the first spacecraft to visit either Vesta or Ceres, and the first to orbit a dwarf planet, arriving at Ceres in March 2015, a few months before New Horizons flew by Pluto in July 2015.

Planet V is a hypothetical fifth terrestrial planet posited by NASA scientists John Chambers and Jack J. Lissauer to have once existed between Mars and the asteroid belt. In their hypothesis the Late Heavy Bombardment of the Hadean era began after perturbations from the other terrestrial planets caused Planet V's orbit to cross into the asteroid belt. Chambers and Lissauer presented the results of initial tests of this hypothesis during the 33rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held from March 11 through 15, 2002.

Buck Rogers XXVC game setting

Buck Rogers XXVC is a game setting created by TSR, Inc. in the late 1980s. Products based on this setting include novels, graphic novels, a role-playing game (RPG), board game, and video games. The setting was active from 1988 until 1995.

Mercury in fiction depictions of Mercury in fictional stories

The planet Mercury has often been used as a setting in science fiction. Recurring themes include the dangers of being exposed to solar radiation and the possibility of escaping excessive radiation by staying within the planet's slow-moving terminator. Another recurring theme is autocratic governments, perhaps because of an association of Mercury with hot-temperedness.

Jupiter in fiction depictions of Jupiter in fictional stories

The planet Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, is a popular backdrop for science fiction stories and films. Early works of science fiction used Jupiter itself as a location for stories, but modern science has shown that the planet has no solid surface one could land on and that its atmosphere, temperature, high gravity and intense radiation is hostile to human life. As a result, the Jovian system as a whole, including both the space around Jupiter and its very extensive system of moons, is a more common setting for science fiction.

Ceres (dwarf planet) Dwarf planet and largest asteroid of the main asteroid belt

Ceres is the largest object in the main asteroid belt that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. With a diameter of 945 km (587 mi), Ceres is both the largest of the asteroids and the only unambiguous dwarf planet inside Neptune's orbit. It is the 25th-largest body in the Solar System within the orbit of Neptune.

Jupiters moons in fiction depictions of Jupiters natural satellites in fictional stories

Jupiter's extensive system of natural satellites – in particular the four large Galilean moons – has been a common science fiction setting.

The fictional portrayal of the Solar System has often included planets, moons, and other celestial objects which do not actually exist in reality. Some of these objects were, at one time, seriously considered as hypothetical planets which were either thought to have been observed, or were hypothesized to be orbiting the Sun in order to explain certain celestial phenomena. Often such objects continued to be used in literature long after the hypotheses upon which they were based had been abandoned.

Saturns moons in fiction depictions of Saturns natural satellites in fictional stories

Several of Saturn's natural satellites have figured prominently in works of science fiction.

The planetary systems of stars other than the Sun and the Solar System are a staple element in many works of the science fiction genre.

Phaeton was the hypothetical planet theorized by the Titius–Bode law to have existed between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the destruction of which supposedly led to the formation of the asteroid belt. The hypothetical planet was named for Phaethon, the son of the sun god Helios in Greek mythology, who attempted to drive his father's solar chariot for a day with disastrous results and was ultimately destroyed by Zeus.

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