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The Scenerio

In the very near future a NASA probe returns to Earth with a soil sample from an asteroid containing a strange substance able to catalyze cold fusion reactions. The economic value of this substance makes space exploration for more of this element promising.Soon, returns are soo high, that mining becomes a profitable business, resulting is dozens of Governments and Corporations pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into an exploration fund to search for more of the element.

Within a few years, the human population living in space explodes into the tens of thousands. While many of the colonies are mostly self-sufficient they were made with the expectation that they could be resupplied every few years. That said, the technology that went into them is not significantly more advanced than what is available today. The only major things that sets them apart from modern space stations is that they have the ability to mine and refine ore from asteroids down into their constituent parts, and the fusion catalyst gives them a nearly limitless supply of power as long as they can get access to hydrogen.

Then one day, without warning, the Earth is destroyed in such a way that it is no longer a viable source of any resources. Description of how I plan for the Earth to be destroyed is available for discussion here Apocalypse by Atomic Catalyst

The Question

Using only technology that could realistically be incorporated into space stations today (plus the 2 exceptions), could mankind use what is found in asteroids to survive indefinitely in space or would certain things simply be too difficult to supply, repair, or replace without Earth to continue the survival of the species?

Conclusion

Based on feedback, I see a there is infact a big hole in the basic principle of how long it would even take for this "near future" to happen; so, I'm gonna conclude my original model here as not worth passing the reality-check phase of development until I can get some key details worked out. Before I even begin to further speculate on this topic, I think I need to answer the more fundamental topic of What is the minimum timeframe required to colonize the asteroid belt?

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    $\begingroup$ Seveneves by Neal Stephenson? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 17 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ Looks like a fun read, but two key differences come to mind. Seveneves gave mankind 2 years to prepare, but in this scenario, man only has what he would have if he did not plan for Earth to be gone. The other is that underground in this scenario is not an option. I'll revise my question to make this more clear. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jan 17 at 3:08
  • $\begingroup$ There is a bit of a conflict with your premise and technology level. Modern space stations are not self sufficient (there is almost nothing high tech that is) so if there are colonies that are self-sufficient, then they would need a higher technology level to recycle everything anyway (and a huge population in the several 10s of thousands in the first place). $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Jan 17 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee, Thanks. I worded that a bit poorly. I've clarified that I mean not just what is on existing stations, but what we could theoretically build with modern technology if the space budget was opened way up. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jan 17 at 4:19
  • $\begingroup$ Your disaster sounds very much like a weapon from the Dark Reign games. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 17 at 11:46
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No

This question is similar to a previous one:

Post-Apocalyptic Earth. Escape from Warehouse Moon

If people are going to space to mine stuff and bring it to Earth, they will probably take food from Earth with them because it's cheaper to make food here than in space. The oxygen here is free, for example, and cattle can [redacted] on the ground without compromising life support. So no space station would be farming-ready.

If you wanted to jury rig them for farming, you'd face a huge challenge. Space stations are lacking in two things that would be required for prolonged human survival:

  • Arable land
  • Cattle

Notice that if you wish to plant stuff and raise cattle, you need to add life support for those plants and animals.

Even to feed just a few thousand people with hydroponic farming, you'd need a space station larger than anything we've ever seen even in sci-fi.

We've had a question on how much infrastructure would be needed per perdon in a generation spaceship before:

Ideal size for a relativistic generation ship?

The best answer so far says, and I quote, emphasis mine:

(...) Thus, a cruise ship has about 26 tons displacement per person on board with quite a bit of crowding and only a week or so's supply of food, but also with fuel and engine space in addition to areas intended to be occupied (we will need to account for fuel and engine space separately in this case because the fuel and engine requirements of an interstellar ship are very different from those of a cruise ship).

(...) It takes roughly 10,600 square miles of arable land with crops growing on them to feed the population of Seattle (with a population of about 652,000), while the city itself has less than 84 square miles of land area and not all of that is arable land (i.e. land that it is possible to grow crops upon). This is about 10 acres per person. And, any interstellar trip is going to need to grow most of its own food (with artificial light because starlight is too dim). Even if you could be significantly more efficient than terrestrial farming on Earth which isn't optimized for land being extremely scarce, by an order of magnitude, you'd probably need at least an acre per person of space for food production.

State of the art terrestrial farming techniques and a vegan diet leave you at about 2 acres per person. The most optimistic estimates I've seen are as little as 1/4 to 1/8th acres per person, but some of the assumptions that go into that aren't well proven or demonstrated in practice. So, an estimate of 1 acre per person is fairly reasonable middle ground.

(...) So, in round numbers you'd be talking 23,000 tons per head of living space and food production space and nuclear power production for ship life support operations from which to feed and house them assuming an order of magnitude improvement in food production per square foot relative to Earth would be possible (e.g. by reducing less efficient animal food relative to more efficient plant food proportionately).

I suggest going there for further reading and sources.

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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm... So this being the case, you'd need a farming station roughly the size of a Knock Nevis heavy oil tanker to supply about 500-2000 people... yeah, I kinda agree modern tech just isn't going to put that much mass into space. So, self-sustaining bases are pretty unrealistic without a longer time-table and a few additional innovations in space launch technology. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jan 17 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ There is no need for arable land much less cattle. Lifting food supplies from Earth is extremely expensive, vastly driving up the cost of Earth food, which likely renders it more expensive than locally grown foodstuffs. Farms also function as waste processing - scrubbing CO2 and recovering nutrients from sewage with only needing a small power supply for grow-light LEDs. As far as the area needed, this is minimal as you can easily stack layers of growing space in a compartment, and not significant and construction materials can be sourced locally. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jan 18 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi ah yes, that explains why there are farmers in the ISS and no food is ever sent up there. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 18 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ Algaculture could end up being much more efficient than traditional farming, especially when considering the high costs (over 10000 per pound currently) of moving things into space. However, people in space would probably lack the infrastructure to make fuel, advanced machinery and electronics, etc, and would probably not be able to survive indefinitely. $\endgroup$ – Richard Smith Jan 18 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan Are you seriously claiming that the ISS is an accurate representation of what large scale permanent colonization would look like? It is a tiny facility for a handful of people which was only meant to last a couple decades (it is already past the initial planned lifespan). Long-term habitation for any significant number of people in the future will take a markedly different approach than is currently used for half a dozen people on short-term rotation in a temporary station. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jan 21 at 14:06
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No:

The scenario ("population in the 10s of thousands") indicates limited space-based industry. Early space-based industry would be based on reducing the amount of mass that must be launched from Earth. While handy for, say, reducing the cost of food production and ore refining, complex and lightweight precision gear will surely still be manufactured on Earth when it is blotted.

That means the lightweight, precision equipment required for accurate ship navigation, engine control, and reliable communication will be irreplaceable.

As these components begin to fail, ships and crews will miss rendezvous and be lost. Without their vital cargoes (like ordinary vitamin supplements and space suit parts), outposts will die off.

You need a much larger space-based or Luna-based population, supporting space-based semiconductor manufacturing, habitat production, engine rebuilding, space suit manufacturing, hospitals and schools, etc. Consider moving your timeline a few decades farther into the future to make it more reasonable.

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Long agony but with chances for success.

Drawbacks:

  • with cheap energy there is not much point in creating manufacturing infrastructure in space. Under such conditions one orders all electronic or medications from Earth. In the day of doom, there would be no production facilities in space, but just a few labs or repair workshops.
  • no chances for economics of scale

Assets:

  • self sufficient colonies, that with moderate maintenance could last for centuries

  • plenty of highly skilled engineers on board, who wouldn't go down without a fight

The thing is that it would be impossible to recreate global supply systems which produce for mass market. Everything would have to be produced in workshops with insane amount of work. On the other hand, Apollo 11 was flying with 2 MHz computer, so one does not require top computers for space travel.

Could one use high tech 3d design software to develop a primitive computer chip that would be produced with crude lithographic technology? Maybe. On the other hand after a few decades of jurry-rig maintenance such bases could be one step away from catastrophic failure.

One of things that mandkind would soon give up... would be space travel. It would make much more sense to clump all movable outposts together to save in future on transport. Yes, they need people together.

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Yes.

Things such as radiation protection, technology in space, growing food, and even artificial gravity (via a rotating reference frame) are solvable with today's technologies. There are of course improvements to be made but these are all doable, just not necessarily done.

So the problem comes down to supply lines, logistics, and infrastructure.

Essentially each of these space habitats are the consequence of a supporting infrastructure, and every piece of it still needs to exist post-earth in order for them to survive.

That infrastructure is feed by, and interlinked by supply lines. Imagine the process required to assemble a wooden chair. There is a carpenter, a logger, a forester, a machinist, smelter, miner, real-estate agent, law courts, contract law, lawyers, managers, share-holders, bankers, sales-people, clerical, ... and the carpenter hasn't even picked up a tool yet.

Finally someone needs to ensure that supplies are being supplied to the relevant habitats in a timely manner, which is the heart of logistics. Given that you have a lot of hydrogen and energy potential in the solar-system, transportation is doable though slow. If logistics were disrupted you might expect the more distant habitats to succumb and fail. Those that were relatively self-sufficient, or recently restocked would last the longest.

Presuming that enough of the system was already in space aboard the other habitats or in orbital factories, then the loss of Earth itself will at most cause some short term turmoil as the infrastructure reorganised itself. That turmoil might be a civil war, but there is a good chance that it would re-structure itself eventually.

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Maybe, if the stars (and asteroids) aligned.

They are mining stations. They might be small, but the asteroids they exploit could be quite large. So, lets make some assumptions: 1. The stations are mobile. Ideally, they could move from asteroid to asteroid to chase the resource they were mining, or, conversely, they have the means to bring arbitrarily large asteroids to them 2. Unlimited power 3. Low maintenance resource recycling supplies - the stations should be able to break down water in to air and fuel (hydrogen). 4. Air/water/waste recyclers are low maintenance (they do not rely on components from Earth to continue to operate)

With these in place, they need to find asteroids containing sufficient water and then asteroids that can be hollowed out and sealed against vacuum, as well as contain sufficient internal surface area. Since many asteroids are likely to be unstable accumulations of smaller bodies barely held together by weak gravity, this might be a significant challenge, but with unlimited energy, its mostly just a time constraint (finding and moving to it before supplies run out).

Since the recyclers can operate indefinitely, air and water is not your issue. Since you have unlimited energy, heat is not an issue. Since you are surrounded by endless space, non-recyclable waste disposal is not an issue. Only food is.

If you have the ability to hollow out an asteroid, seal it form vacuum, fill it with air (extracted from ice), and supply water (from ice) and fertilizer (from people), and impart rotation for gravity, then you are halfway to success. Now the real problems start.

Problems:

  1. Plants take time to grow, so your existing store of food has to persist until you can harvest a crop
  2. Do you have seeds? Likely, most of the food in your stores is processed. If you don't have raw fruits and vegetables, you likely don't have seeds
  3. Do you know how to farm? Hydroponics and land farming both require somewhat more knowledge than just burying a seed in soil and watering it every so often.
  4. Nutritional balance. Even if you have seeds and know how to farm, do you have the right seeds? A vegan diet is exceedingly tricky to pull off while maintaining proper nutrition. You'd need a fair variety of fruits and vegetables to make this work.

Solutions:

  1. No real solution. If you can't wait for the first harvest, it's game over
  2. No real solution. You can't grow what you don't have
  3. With luck and trial and error, plus maybe they happen to have a copy of Wikipedia handy, this can be overcome.
  4. No solution I can think of. Nutrition is a complex subject, and I'm no expert.

However, there are non-fruit and vegetable options that could help. Things like fungus and grasses grow quickly and easily (potentially solving 1 - 3) and certain kinds (so called superfoods) contain a large amount of nutrients, possibly helping solve 4. If it just so happens that one of the folks on the station was a smoothie freak and kept spirulina and such handy, then that could make the seemingly hopeless situation solvable.

A simpler solution might be to have a more permanent base on the moon or Mars (or a larger asteroid) that the smaller mining stations could attempt to evacuate to. This larger station might be a prototype or test for a fully self sustaining colony (I mean, come on, if Musk was still around at this point, you KNOW he would fund such a thing).

Long term, without the self-sustaining colony mentioned above, this will be rather un-enjoyable, and the lack of variety will likely have serious health effects as any number of micro nutrients are lacking. Without livestock (and there's very little reason to have live animals on a space station that doesn't grow its own food, much less the dozen or so mating pairs required to sustain a species), this will likely result in little more than delaying the inevitable.

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