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Alright so in my sci-fi a prominent corporation dominated by the Borlak species (Mantis-like Hexapods). The Borlak make their money by mining "dead systems", solar systems without any habitable planets or any planets worth terraforming or colonizing. Which they, after taking the best materials for themselves, charter out to other corporations or prospectors.

However the Borlak now want to tap into the stars of these dead systems. I know stars are made of mainly hydrogen and helium, but I was wondering is their any resource/element able to justify the hassle of mining stars?

Note: I know they could just build a dyson sphere, but I want them to physically mine the star for something.

Tech level is: fusion is common. Antimatter is a thing, but very rare and heavily sanctioned. Construction of Dyson spheres is possible but still a monumental project.

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  • $\begingroup$ Helium-3 is gas that has the potential to be used as a fuel in future nuclear fusion power plants. There is very little helium-3 available on Earth. $\endgroup$ – Backup Plan Oct 25 '19 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ Knowing a bit more about the setting and its level of technology would be useful for answering this question. Primarily things like interstellar travel times, types of drives and the typical size of a spaceship/fleet. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 25 '19 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps Borlak society very strongly values birthday balloons. Lots and lots of them. Making helium a valuable enough resource. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Oct 25 '19 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruther I'll try and put tech level in notes $\endgroup$ – Celestial Dragon Emperor Oct 25 '19 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ Mining active stars or dead star? $\endgroup$ – John Oct 26 '19 at 1:34
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I don't think traditional mining would be possible at all.

Consider that all known elements are created by stars - the bigger the star, the bigger the element they can create. These elements are not created in a solid state, this happens after the element has cooled, but in the core of a star the elements are what can best be described as a gas or liquid.

And this would be the same for any element you tried to use on the surface of or inside any star - the metals and alloys would melt and become unusable as mining implements.

So mining a star would be impossible.


What would you mine a star for?

Well considering the technology level of your Borlaks, they would probably find rarer elements to be more expensive and valuable. Hydrogen and Helium are plentiful in space. Any space faring race capable of dabbling with anti-matter and scouring entire planets for resources would be able to collect these elements in vast quantities with ease.

But Hydrogen and Helium are the smallest elements. The larger the element, the rarer it becomes - Uranium for instance, one of the largest elements, can only be created in the very largest of Red Giants, making it one of the rarer elements in the universe - so there may be some financial gain in harvesting larger elements from Red Giant Stars, instead of having to wait the (potentially) millions of years before these gigantic stars go supernova.


So now that we have established not only that mining wouldn't work, but there would be good reason to "mine" elements from stars, what are the options of the Borlak race?

I would suggest siphoning the star. Literally sucking part of the star away into space, so the elements from the star are colder and can be harvested in a cooler environment. By sucking up the contents of a star the Borlaks could get at the bits they needed without having to operate within the extreme temperatures of a star.

The only problem is the immense gravity of a Red Giant. The gravitational pull of a star that big would be far greater than any "space-vacuum" the Borlak's could develop.

However, there are things out there with a greater gravitational pull than Red Giants...

Black Hole sucking up a Red Giant Star

If the Red Giant star is close to a Black Hole, the Black Hole will do the siphoning for you. All the Borlaks have to do is ensure that they don't fall into the event horizon and they should be able to collect parts of the Red Giant Star as it is ripped away and plunges into the Black Hole.


Of course, this wouldn't be easy. The Red Giant star would have to be very close to a Black Hole for this to happen, making life very difficult for the Borlaks - falling into the event horizon would be a huge risk, and once they do there would be no escape.

Also, this wouldn't be plausible for just any star - only Red Giants would make the elements you wanted.

And this wouldn't be plausible for any Red Giant star either - you would need to find one that is right next to a Black Hole.

But with the right conditions, and with enough care and sufficient technology to pull it off, it may be possible to harvest what you want from a star in this fashion.


Of course, if the Borlaks were even more advanced than this, they could be carrying around their own portable Black hole with them to help them siphon off Red Giants - however if they were advanced enough to do this, they would probably be advanced enough to create the elements they wanted manually, without having to mine them at all.

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    $\begingroup$ They could just move the star closer to a black hole. If they can build Dyson Spheres, they can move stars, especially those with the luminosity / stellar wind strength of a supergiant. $\endgroup$ – CAE Jones Oct 25 '19 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ If they can haul stars then make more kilonovas. Search for the term in this week’s news. We just confirmed strontium and other big elements up to uranium are created when two neutron stars collide. Bang them together and call that “mining”. $\endgroup$ – SRM Oct 25 '19 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ The matter in stars is gas or plasma, not liquid. (So yes, your point about solids not surviving direct contact is even more true). I'm not sure it's true that an alloy will have a lower melting point than any pure element, though, which you seem to assume. That's not obvious. Also, you're assuming that any mining implement would have to physically touch the stellar matter and come to thermal equilibrium. In practice you'd want a heat pump + radiator to cool it and conduct heat away fast enough (cooling down stellar matter it touched). And/or magnetic confinement. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Oct 26 '19 at 5:44
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with the black hole approach is that the accretion disk will heat the matter even more up, instead of letting it cool down. $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 27 '19 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ Most of this answer seems incorrect, or at the least a little bit confused. Red giants are typically only a couple solar masses (indeed, the Sun will become one in a few billion years, and its mass will be slightly less than it is now). Their surface gravities are notably low - we can determine this by looking at the shapes of spectral lines - and they will never lead to supernovae. They're not going to produce any heavy elements - and as far as I'm aware, no stars produce uranium via fusion, let alone low-mass stars like red giants. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 28 '19 at 13:52
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No, there's no such element that would justify this sort of attempt.

We have data on the composition of the Sun's photosphere, one of its outermost layers. By mass, the solar photosphere is 98.3% hydrogen and helium. Oxygen and carbon compose another 1%, followed by even smaller quantities of iron, neon, nitrogen, silicon, magnesium, and sulfur - all elements found in Sun-like stars in these amounts. None of them are particularly precious or hard to find on Earth; they're certainly not worth the hassle of trying to scoop away part of a star's atmosphere.

Chemically peculiar stars

I can imagine that a chemically peculiar star might attract some attention. In these stars, diffusion, magnetic fields and other processes dredge up heavier elements from deeper in the star and bring them to the surface. Different subclasses of peculiar stars are characterized by the presence of different elements in their photospheres:

Though still composed of hydrogen and helium in similar fractions to the Sun, these heavy elements are substantially overabundant compared to the solar photosphere, and provide potentially interesting targets for exploration.

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  • $\begingroup$ What's an Fm star? Wikipedia only says Am. Although I'm sure if there is an Am star some scientist decided to make a Fm star as a pun. $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Oct 26 '19 at 1:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Zwuwdz I believe that in this case it has to do with the star's spectral type (i.e. on the OBAFGKM sequence). $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 26 '19 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ I thought all the Am-Fm stars were killed when video came along.. $\endgroup$ – Caius Jard Oct 27 '19 at 8:33
  • $\begingroup$ @CaiusJard In my mind and in my car! $\endgroup$ – JakeGould Oct 27 '19 at 15:20
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The process of mining stars in science fiction is often referred to as Star Lifting

The biggest concern here is that most stars don't make anything higher on the periodic table than iron. In other words, all you will be finding in most cases is a bunch of really common elements.

The good news is that you will be finding A LOT of really common elements. Apart from the hydrogen and helium which make up ~98% of our own star's mass, it also contains about ~2.984*10^28 kg of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, and ~9.945*10^27 kg of other stuff like iron, nickel, silicon, etc. That is enough mass to make several Niven style ring worlds, or a single close orbit dyson sphere.

This gives you two routes you can go with:

OPTION A: Build a dyson structure, using all of that carbon, iron, silicon, etc that is already in the star. Then the star will provide all the energy you will need for the next step.

OPTION B: Build a smaller orbital facility, and rely on scooping up hydrogen/helium from the star to use as a fusion reactor fuel source in the next step.

Whichever route you go with, this leads to the same goal of making a star matter refinery. You civilization could then harness the power of the star or gathered nuclear fuels and use it to process whatever elements they need via negative net energy fusion processes, higgs field splitting lasers, and particle colliders.

In short, an advanced civilization does not need to mine materials so much as they need to mine the power they need to make their materials. Once your star factory is in place, it can begin shipping anything it wants: Uranium, Gold, Lithium, Antimatter, etc: all made from the basic elements you scoop up.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Since you bring up dyson spheres, one thing to keep in mind about taking all the heavy element out of a dead star is that you can actually turn it back into a main sequence star, and use that wealth of common elements inside the star to make a dyson structure." Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 25 '19 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 That is a pretty complicated subject. I've added a link to a previous question that addresses much of the hard science questions you may have on the subject. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Oct 25 '19 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ I know it's complicated - I also answered that question! :-) It's just that it doesn't seem to be relevant; the OP here isn't talking about stellar remnants, so I'm not sure why you'd need to reignite fusion in a star. "Dead system" seems to refer to the planets, not the star itself. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 25 '19 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ I read the original question as dead stars. Looks like the OP clarified some things since I started writing this answer; so, I will adjust accordingly. Thanks for pointing that out. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Oct 25 '19 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I really like the answer as is. Combine it with HDEs post it should work out really nicely. Now I imagine the Borak as guys who make massive industrial factories for various goods. Maybe they contract out the spheres for making specific elements for people? $\endgroup$ – Celestial Dragon Emperor Oct 25 '19 at 18:42
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There is one reason you'd want to starlift just about any solar-mass or larger star, but it is an absurdly long-term investment. That being that you can prolong the life expectancy of a star by removing mass, especially the heavier elements. For example, if we want the sun to stick around without boiling the Earth in a billion years, we could, in theory, remove as much matter, especially metal, as possible, both lengthening its age and cooling it.

So it isn't the chemical element that you're mining for profit; it's time. This is profitable only if you're thinking on time scales in the trillions of years or longer, and saving up all that otherwise wasted energy for after the natural solar-mass-and-larger stars burn out.

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If the hypothesis that the extremely weird elemental abundances of Przybylski's Star are due to the presence of long-lived superheavy elements in the island of stability is correct, maybe that would be cause to mine it. I'd be surprised if dredging a star hotter than the Sun would be the easiest way to obtain such elements though. Even among the rapidly-oscillating Ap stars (of which Przybylski's Star is the prototype) this is quite a strange object, so your civilisation might not have many stars to work with.

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Remember that all elements heavier than hydrogen came from fusion happening in star cores. Stars 1.3 more massive than the sun may produce carbon, nitrogen and oxygen; I don't know about other elements but I recall most of them come from novae.

So if your fictional race is mining for elements, in space, their better bet is to skip stars and go for fresh nebula around remnants of novae. That's far from efficient though. Nebula are immorally thin. Where and when they condense into rocky planets, that's when you have ores in a concentration that is maybe worth mining.

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It would not be possible to mine a star the gravitational pull is too great and the temperature is too high for anything that we know of or might have available in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps some exotic technology that we are unaware of might do the trick but then the question depends on what assumptions you make about this exotic technology. Even if such technology were available it would be much easier to obtain the materials from else where in the solar system.

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    $\begingroup$ The question is about what they would mine, not if it is possible. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Oct 25 '19 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ The question has a Science-Based tag - so I think it is important to consider that there are no solid elements that could survive the extreme temperatures of a star, which would make mining a star scientifically impossible $\endgroup$ – Jimmery Oct 25 '19 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Molecules are instantly destroyed inside of a star, but elements are not. They are just mostly in the plasma state of matter. Removed from a star, they will cool and assume a more normal state of matter as they do when a star goes supernova. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Oct 25 '19 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Slarty yes, what elements, if any elements. If there are none it shouldnt be for technological reasons as suggested by the question they are well able to do so. Hell these people can build dysonSPHERES, not dysonswarms, SPHERES. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Oct 25 '19 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Slarty again the question seems very centered around the element and not the technology. I mentioned the Dysonsphere because we also need exotic technologies to make that work, and likely more exotic than extracting materials from a sun. If someone asks about gravity inside a working dysonsphere the answer isnt "that requires exotic tech so impossible", you give an answer about that gravity. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Oct 25 '19 at 21:21
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Financial/company/profit are concepts in our current world which is based on the culture history and the current technology. In your world these concepts may not be important any more, suppose maybe someday most human being agree that always wanting more/"more is better" is the root problem---the dyson ball is an extreme example of this route.

Technology always make impossible possible, and make expansive cheap, and it will always find a best way based on the current environment. Heavy elements may make some product like some molecule more easy to design since the design space is larger, but we can design molecule with the same function witout the heavy elements in the future. For example we can design a protein that functions like Hemoglobin but doesn't contains even Fe which is not even heavy. Hemoglobin is designed by nature by chance to choice Fe, but we can design it with the purpose to remove Fe dependance someday. So maybe mining in other planets will never be cost effective.

Stop to want more is the only solution. The most important in this is to stop to want human race to sustain longer and longer. We appear, we consume, we try to sustain on earth when there is less to consume, we mess up (like nuclear war/fatal virus), we are finally wiped away by solar system changes (already mess up or not).

Even you travel to and mine all the planet in the Universe, it is still not enough, you will try to find Multiverse, etc. If there is no multiverse , then the job of more is finnally finished. And even more in each planet we will repeat the "We are here, we consume, we mess up(optinal), we are wiped away". But what is the whole point? Clonize and mine all planets in the Universe? Is that different substancially than only live on one planet and get wiped away?

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Assuming very powerful antigravity you might be able to profitably mine a neutron star. Much of the heavy elements in the universe come from them but the only way it gets out is in neutron star collisions.

In terms of energy this is probably more expensive than building them up with fusion, but much less processing is needed.

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