In search of the classic Hollywood-style asteroid belt

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If you’re like me, you may have enhanced your friends’ enjoyment of space adventure movies by explaining at length and in fascinating detail why the crowded asteroid belt backgrounds that appear in so many of these movies are implausible and inaccurate! The asteroids in our solar system are far from overcrowded.

Are there any situations in which these visuals would not be misleading? Can we imagine places where we might expect what appears to be impending Kessler syndrome on a solar scale?

At first glance, Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids look like they might. For gravitational reasons, Jupiter has collected two impressive sets of asteroids in its Lagrangian points L4 (forward) and L5 (back). Between them, the two populations of asteroids (one named – mainly – for the Trojans, and the other named – mainly – for the Greeks [even-handed treatment of both sides of the Trojan War]) can have nearly half a million asteroids 2 km + in diameter, more than a million objects 1 km +, and a greater number of smaller bodies. A cloud in a limited area containing millions of bodies does indeed look very promising!

Unfortunately, the term “point” is somewhat misleading. The L4 and L5 communities are distributed over approximately 2.5 AU along the orbit of Jupiter. suggests that the 1 km separation between rocks could be comparable to the Earth-Moon distance. This is great news for people hoping to found vast clouds of space habitats (not only are the rocks relatively close, but also) but less than great news for fans of crowded asteroid belts. A mile-long rocky sky separated by hundreds of thousands of miles is not the crowded sight popular with skiffy fans.

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A little further from our sun, the rings of Saturn seem to offer exactly what we want. The rings are made up of a very large number of bodies, most of them ranging between marble and the size of a shed (in total, the mass is about the same as a small moon). The proximity of Saturn prevents them from aggregating into one body; basic orbital mechanics constrain them to a surprisingly thin plane (10 to 10,000 meters). If you were in the rings, your field of vision would be crammed with small bodies of appreciable angular diameter.

Unfortunately, their apparent size would be due to their close proximity, so it’s probably a good thing that most ring particles in a given region are likely to have more or less the same orbit. If it didn’t, the experience could be like swimming pools full of gravel shooting you at supersonic speeds. As it is, maybe it’s more like being in a cement mixer full of dice.

Moving above or below the ring plane will deprive you of the immediate effect of being surrounded by a myriad of objects, but replace it with a stunning view of the rings seen just above or just before, as long as it will take your ring to cross the orbit to cross the rings.

Another option is to find a very young star system, still rich in planetesimals, where the giant worlds have neither absorbed nor thrown them out of the system. Not only would such a system have a more chaotic, more populated collection of small bodies, but protostars and very young stars offer all kinds of potentially exciting behaviors that you don’t see in boring middle-aged suns like ours.

(That would seem to require a time machine or some really good spacecraft. But maybe all we need is enough patience to wait until the next time the solar system passes through a star nursery. A few million or billion. years … no prob.)

Perhaps the simplest solution is to postulate a successful spatial industrialization combined with a lack of environmental regulations. Earth appears likely to be the primary market for goods for the foreseeable future. Therefore, why not transport megatons of semi-processed raw materials to the Earth-Moon system for use in facilities close to Earth? And forcing companies to take whatever measures are necessary to prevent increasingly dense clouds of debris in the said system from becoming an onerous burden on hard-working business people? With just a little effort and a lot of myopia, we might have been able to have an entertainingly crowded sky in our own backyard. (And ultimately Kessler Syndrome that would provide a spectacular light show unique to those of us lucky enough to live on the surface of the planet.)

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific and lasting literary critic Nominated for the Darwin Award James Davis Nicoll is of “dubious notability”. His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young people read old SFF(where he is assisted by the editor Karen lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He’s a four-time finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer and is surprisingly flammable.


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