Friday, October 25, 2013

298: Gold Ballast

ENTRY 298: Gold Ballast

"Gold is no longer a store of value."
- Opening invocation to the AF 3, 3rd Annual Mass Economist Suicide Convention

The migration of transhumanity from Earth to space has necessitated a reconsideration of the values of many things. Metals that were scarce or difficult to mine from the surface of the Earth are astoundingly plentiful and easily available from asteroid mining - even a relatively small asteroid a few kilometers long with an average metal content of 3% by volume can contain more gold and platinum than has ever been harvested from the surface of the Earth. Of course, few miners are quite so thorough in their pursuit of mineral resources as to process an entire asteroid, aiming instead to pick out the most profitable metal nodes and agglomerations then moving on, but the simple fact remains: gold is fairly cheap, while hydrocarbon compounds and botanicals that cannot be easily mined or manufactured in abundance are precious. Wood is far more costly and rare than gold, though the latter retains sentimental and aesthetic value for jewelry, dental work, some electrical and electronic applications, and so on - but for most of the solar system, gold is most known as the preferred ballast material.

One of the technical requirements for any good spacecraft, satellite, or habitat is ballast - preferrably something dense and inert. While still a commercial good, the relative low cost of gold with relation to its volume makes it an ideal ballast material, and many minecraft contain simple forge equipment to separate gold from the ore slag and cast standardized weights to adjust the center of gravity on their loads. When they reach their destination, the gold masses that cannot be sold are often left behind to save mass on the return trip, and piles of gold spheres, discs, and slugs (often more than slightly radioactive) form common sights in scrapyards.

Of course, the most famous use of gold ballast is in the Starwell gravity tractor, which uses the gravitational field of a massive series of gold weights to adjust the orbit and approach of nearby asteroids without actually touching them. The gravity tractor - which currently consists of up to eighteen 1 kiloton gold slugs stacked together by carbon fiber rods and pushed by an antimatter drive - maneuvers near the target asteroid, and the gravitational forces between the two masses adjust the course of the asteroid. While a delicate operation, the gravity tractor is considered by many inhabitants of Starwell as a key component of asteroid defense and the continued long life of the habitat, and there has been some interest in licensing the design (particularly the targeting and gravimetric software and sensor package) from habitats on Mars, Titan, and Luna.

Using Gold Ballast

The future is not defined by our expectations. Prices in Eclipse Phase are not denoted in any of our national currencies, and there is little reasonable expectation that commercial brands of the current day will make it into space in a recognized form - so why should the rather primitive notion of gold as a shiny, imperishable metal being a cornerstone of economic thought survive into the future? Hell, most economists will tell you straight up that gold isn't that important today. So if you strip away the currency folklore and look at the basics of it, what is gold good for? Well, it's dense, malleable, and relatively abundant - all good qualifications for ballast, and a nice flavor piece to challenge the preconceptions of players that equate gold with money or wealth. This isn't to say that every story with gold has to be an economic fable, but the potential is there if you want to play with it.


  • The PCs arrive at a small brinker habitat on Mars known as Randtopia, which uses gold coinage for all internal exchanges, reserving credits and other currencies for trade with outsiders. Of course, the PC's are using a fifty-kilogram gold slug as ballast - which as far as the Randtopians are concerned, is a single coin with a greater mass than all the gold they have in circulation. When they learn of it, the government moves to impound the gold ballast before it destabilizes the local economy, but the Randtopians have already learned of it and the resulting speculation has a devastating effect on local prices and markets, not to mention the groups that wish to steal it. How the PCs deal with the situation is up to them, but even extracting themselves from Randtopia might be harder than it looks.
  • The Starwell gravity tractor has been stolen by space pirates. Worse, the pirates have made it into a weapon - accelerating up to speed and then releasing one of gold bricks creates a 1 kiloton missile with a lot of inertia. Starwell has been issued an ultimatum: one billion credits and ten kilotons of water-ice or their habitat vanishes in a cloud of gold dust. The PCs, who are not currently on Starwell, are asked to try and infiltrate the ship and activate the antimatter drive's self-destruct sequence.

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