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Let's say there are billions of asteroids in the galaxy, varying in size from baseballs to hunks of rock almost big enough to be dwarf planets. If someone wanted to set up a habitable location on one of the larger ones (house-sized or bigger), what kind of device and/or materials would be needed to give one of these asteroids a breathable synthetic atmosphere?

Here are some things to note:

  • These asteroids will be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from small pawn shops to gigantic shopping malls to apartment complexes to maximum security prisons.
  • Faster-than-light travel is used in this universe, allowing people and supplies to be moved across the galaxy in weeks rather than millions of years.
  • Atmosphere must be similar to Earth. Earth-like gravity can be left up to handwavium.
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    $\begingroup$ "Domes" is the first answer that comes to mind. Is that a valid answer in and of itself, or is that your assumption and you are wondering what device or materials to use in such dome construction? $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 29 '18 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron I was kind of wondering what materials would go into any possible solution (i.e. domes). $\endgroup$ – The Weasel Sagas Oct 29 '18 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ domes are for the rich. poor will use habitation modules converted from shipping containers. Actual windows will be a sign of middle-class. Also, you will never get earth-like gravity on a natural body that is much smaller than earth. But is OK., low gravity makes it easier to move stuff around, and some people actually prefer it. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 29 '18 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ "Gravity must be similar to Earth" is a much bigger issue than the atmosphere; solve that one and you more-or-less get the atmosphere for free. $\endgroup$ – Roger Oct 29 '18 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ The Expanse Series and its corresponding tv show have a great example of how humans have colonized the asteroid belt, and how gravity and ecosystems were created on Eros and Ceres. A (very spoilers heavy) link of how Ceres station functions can be found here but in general, the second novel Caliban's War has a lot of good asteroid-based world building $\endgroup$ – Hans Z Oct 29 '18 at 23:39
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You need to build a very robust greenhouse all around the asteroid, practically wrapping it (or the area you want to provide with atmosphere) into the structure.

If it is limited to hosting humans, you can make the greenhouse just a couple of meters high above the surface, provide adequate protection against micrometeorites and space radiation (a couple of meters of air won't stop any energetic radiation coming from space, like instead our earthly atmosphere does) and ensure that there is something providing air circulation (with very low gravity also convective motion will be limited, and you don't want to suffocate just because you were not moving and a bubble of CO2 formed around your head) and regeneration.

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  1. Hollow out asteroid.
  2. Pump asteroid interior full of your favorite breathables until at your favorite pressure.

This could be done with our own tech and it is a good idea. Asteroids are already up there. They are fine radiation shielding. You could hollow them out with focused sunlight, letting the molten metal spill into space or have people with explosives and hammers do it 1800s style. It is not a particularly novel idea. https://www.earth.com/news/hollow-asteroids-generation-ships/

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    $\begingroup$ Presumably one could spin the hollowed-out asteroid to simulate gravity towards certain sections of the walls as well $\endgroup$ – ben Oct 29 '18 at 21:06
  • $\begingroup$ In Iain M Banks Culture series, asteroids have often been repurposed into habitats in this way, usually by "offshoot" communities that don't want to live on one of the "official" Culture habitats, which are colossal ringworlds. $\endgroup$ – Max Williams Oct 30 '18 at 11:14
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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

FTL implies a high tech level. It is not a big stretch to assume that possessing FTL technology also means you have gravity control. With gravity control, you can retain atmosphere even on a small asteroid.

So, whatever unobtanium you use use for FTL can also be the key to gravity control and atmospheric engineering. Or you may simply assume that you also have gravity control via an unrelated technology and possibly a separate unobtanium.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know, but a very small gravity well with enough force to retain an atmosphere sounds too much like a miniature black hole to me. Even if it would not do crunch I would not want to live on an asteroid where my feet would feel much heavier than my head. $\endgroup$ – Maarten Bodewes Oct 29 '18 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @MaartenBodewes -- with true gravity control, I would expect to allow 1 G at the surface of the asteroid, and the maybe switch to high-G at perhaps 100 meters to do the real job of retaining the atmosphere. No problems with personal gravity stress $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Oct 30 '18 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ In that case you might as well go a step further and build a gravity shield to keep the gasses inside :) $\endgroup$ – Maarten Bodewes Oct 30 '18 at 18:26
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Expanding on some of the comments: if you are bestowing Earth-like gravity on these asteroids anyway, then your problem is more or less solved. Just dump an appropriate amount of Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon, Carbon Dioxide, etc. into your weirdly heavy asteroid and the gravity will retain the atmosphere. If there is a strong radiation environment (e.g. from a nearby star) you will want to consider having a magnetic field or other radiation shielding, as an atmosphere won't cut it for high-energy particles.

If you want this to be remotely science-based you should probably focus on the "handwavium" that provides the gravity you are looking for. Not that you have to fully flesh it out, but it could be made to believably solve most of the issues in creating the setting you want. In addition, if you are considering an asteroid belt or field where there are various small settlements/facilities, you should consider the increased gravitational force between the asteroids. If a decent amount of the asteroids in the solar system's asteroid belt all of a sudden became Earth-like in mass, the belt would probably accrete into one large body (and have major interaction with Jupiter, possibly colliding).

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What about a big, big balloon with one or more pipes going towards the asteroid for the space ships to land.

There is a fleet of bots circling around to quickly fix the balloon (which is relatively low pressure as most gasses are still near the surface). The balloon is so thin that small meteorites simply pass through it. But the surface lights up when it happens, bringing a beautiful flashy show if there are many. The bots pick up on that to fix the balloon.

There could be a huge nuclear fusion powered magnet on the surface to ward off the sun beams if necessary - if just to piss off the people that get headaches from power lines. The power of this magnet is also used for the fleet of bots and to keep the balloon in place along the magnetic lines.

The balloon is semi-transparent, so it can block out some near-visual radiation as well. Or it even a giant sun collector or mirror which could be shaped as a sail.

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Trying to go "realistic" Using asteroid as a counterweight, you could create artificial gravity. The breathable atmophere is in the habitation module.

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