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Setting: a mining colony on a distant world, exporting rare-earth minerals. As in many space opera stories, the world is a shirtsleeve environment with a reasonably pleasant biosphere.

Tech level: I am making the assumption, admittedly unrealistic but commonplace because it is useful for science fiction purposes, that we have a handwavium engine that can reach planets where you can walk around in shirtsleeves, while the rest of our technology is mostly similar to today e.g. no desktop nanofactories or suchlike. But flights are still quite expensive, so minimizing the required number is still an important consideration.

As I understand it, when mining rare-earth minerals, the biggest problem is that the concentration in even the best ores is quite low, so it takes a lot of effort to refine the ore to get the stuff you want.

This creates a dilemma for our colony: if they export raw ore, many cargo flights will be spent hauling stuff that is mostly worthless rock. But if they do the refining on site, presumably this will need a lot of equipment and personnel, so many cargo flights will need to be spent up front bringing these in, before the first dollar of export revenue can be earned.

So my question is: roughly how many tons of equipment and how many workers does it take to set up an on-site refining facility for rare earth minerals?

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  • $\begingroup$ What exactly do you mean by rare earth materials? $\endgroup$ – Soan Jan 8 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ no way to answer this without knowing many other things like the type of planet, scale of the mining, ect. But if you are after rare earth metals asteroids are a better source anyway. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 8 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ The amount of equipment you need on-site depends hugely upon how quickly you can get replacement parts. If the supply ship takes three hours to reach Wal-Mart and McDonalds, then you can run pretty bare-bones. If the supply ship takes three years, then you need a lot more infrastructure on-site. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jan 8 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ That's up to YOU, not us. How many workers do you want to pay sitting around for days or weeks waiting upon the replacement self-sealing stem-bolt? Or do you want to import thousands of tons of equipment and power plant and dozens of workers to have the machine shop on-site? $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jan 8 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ This is actually quite a complicated question. You need miners (machine operators), admins, food & janitorial, repair & maintenance, police & emergency... and that's if you're not allowing families. It might help to research mining communities here on earth and see what those towns are like. Since you're off-planet, your needs will likely be worse. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 8 at 22:23
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Start small scale and build.

You're right about today's industrial scale mining operations requiring massive amounts of infrastructure to support, not to mention the energy cost. We invest in it because of the net benefit in access to material resources, but mining is not something that (today) a small investor can get into by him or herself. In order to be efficient and return your investment, it needs to be large scale right off the bat.

Your world however introduces a new dynamic to that. Your massive tip truck MAY cost around 50m, but shipping it to the new world now makes it cost $500m, and that doesn't cover the cost of parts, fuel, maintenance personnel, etc. In other words;

1) Either you invest 10x what it would cost to develop a large scale operation on Earth, or
2) You invest the same amount, knowing that your investment will take longer to realise benefits.

So, you put together a small team of miners, complete with enough infrastructure and plant to built a small mine, and a small smelter. The single biggest issue here is energy and food, but I'm going to assume here that when you say shirtsleeves planet, you're implying that there's life there, including food or the capacity to farm it in that soil.

So; you send over as many solar panels, batteries, wind turbines as you can to power all this. You get your mines (and your farms) established, and you smelt what you get out of the ground. That gives you metals, but you don't send them back to Earth. You reinvest them in more mining equipment, more smelters, more energy systems. In the meantime, your farmers and miners are having kids, which means more workers. Your industry grows, making more use of the more materials you harvest, etc.

In the meantime, Earth has still been depleting its mineral resources, driving up prices. R&D in space travel continues, bringing down the price (even slightly).

Eventually you reach a tipping point. Your planet is producing more materials than it needs, Earth has stronger demand than ever and shipping costs come down to a point where it's worth it to ship the minerals to an Earth market. In the meantime, your colonists want some of the finery and sophistication only possible from Earth, and a trade agreement is reached. Your planet is effectively a free state willing and able to trade with Earth.

The catch? Your initial investment may take centuries to pay off. In that time, the colony could die off from unforeseen circumstances on the planet, Earth could wipe itself out in a war, Once the colony is on its feet it might not want anything to do with Earth - any one of hundreds of possibilities may manifest which could wash away your investment. Even if they don't, it's your grand-kids (or later generations) which get the benefit of your foresight, not you.

But, if you want to start small, this is the way to do it.

How small is small? Think a mining town, and a steel town rolled into one. You need farmers, carpenters/builders, miners, refiners, chemists, prospectors, doctors, engineers, heavy equipment operators, road builders, entertainers (which probably includes brewers) - everything you need in a regional town and the surrounding environs that is capable of making an area self sufficient.

This is an estimate, but I'd imagine you'd want to start off with no fewer than 50k people (staged obviously; you want your builders and farmers out there before the miners) and all the supporting seed and live stock, starting food supplies, building materials, energy production plant, etc.

But with that, you can build a self sufficient community that reinvests in itself and grows to a point where it's capable of trading with Earth several generations later.

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    $\begingroup$ It's possible that such a scenario would be best suited to a co-operative, rather than a small handful or even a singular investor. The colonists themselves might front up with the initial investment out of a desire for a new life off-world, and the hope that their descendants will reap the benefits of the investment generations down the line. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Jan 9 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ One of the first payloads delivered should be a small manufacturing facility like the US military used to construct parts for field repairs of their equipment. The entire thing fits in a standard 40 foot shipping container, and can manufacture almost any part that they have the materials for. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jan 9 at 4:56
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To minimize the equipment required, you may need to improvise some machines for multiple tasks and personal to perform multiple roles.

One good option is utilize the ship you got there in. It housed your crew to get there, so it can continue to do so for some time later. Using materials in situ to expand housing space will come later. The ship would also have a medical bay, a galley ect to accommodate the crew. It also has a power plant to power the initial equipment.

The equipment used to mine can also be used to till the earth for the first farms. The hydroponics on the ship helps, but you will need more food soon. The cargo bay that held the heavy machinery need for mining can now be the area in which the foundry, chemistry lab, NDT lab ect. These can be modules that are stored in the sides on the bay which expand out once the equipment is removed.

The amount of equipment and crew is dependent on how big this ship is, a 100m, 1000m, is there a behemoth capital ship in orbit to support the colony? Bigger the ship, the more materials you can ship on one go.

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You just need to send one smart self replicating nano robot.

This nanobot can convert light from the sun into energy and can reshape any atom or molecule into anything it wants. It has an AI that helps it make the optimal decisions during it's mission.

So the first thing it will do is to make copies of itself. A lot of copies.

Then it will start building the infrastructure and the mining colony by using whatever material the plant's surface is made of. Since it can alter the atomic structure of anything, it doesn't matter what the planet is made of.

To speed up the process you can send a bunch of nanobots and an antimatter energy source.

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    $\begingroup$ Mining: Universal Paperclips edition $\endgroup$ – moonheart08 Jan 9 at 14:09

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