These are some known potential sites for human colonies where there is some scrap of scientific evidence that they might actually be suitable.
In the "disadvantages" section for each location, you can take it as a given that there is no naturally occuring breathable atmosphere. I'm not going to bother adding it to each entry.
Jim Shifflett has an in-depth analysis here of a the pros and cons of a Mercury colony. He goes into much more detail than I do.
- Crust is probably rich in iron and magnesium silicates. Mercury possibly has the highest concentration of heavier elements in the solar system.
- There is some evidence that the polar areas have ice and other volatiles hidden in permanently shadowed craters. There certainly isn't any closer to the equator, the solar heat will vaporize it like snowflakes under an acetylene torch.
- The solar constant is a whopping 6.3 to 14.5 kW/m2, or an average of 6.5 times that of Terra. This makes for abundant solar power. Since Mercury's axial tilt is so low (0.01°) there is a possibility of polar peaks of eternal light.
- Solar Energy Beamed Power Stations
- Installations producing commercial quantities of antimatter
- Other power-hungry operations
- Mercury is the most expensive planet to soft-land on in the solar system (3,006 m/s delta V). All other planets either have lower gravity (for a lower energy cost) or possess an atmosphere usable for aerobraking (which gives you free delta V you don't have to pay for with rocket thrust).
- Mercury is deep within Sol's gravity well, which increases the delta-V cost to travel to and from.
- The solar heat can drive temperatures on the equator up to 700 K (427°C), hot enough to melt lead. The equatorial day-night temperature variation will be hard on equipment and habitats. Polar temperatures only get to 273 K (0°C) which is more reasonable for a habitat.
Be aware that there is a lot of science fiction written before scientists discovered that Mercury was NOT tidally locked to the sun with a permanent brightside and darkside. Pre-1965 mostly. The classic is Alan E. Nourse's short story Brightside Crossing, which is still a very entertaining read. Scientists discovered that Mercury actually rotations in a 2:3 resonance with Sol. Sorry, Alan.
There are a few post 1965 SF stories where the equator of Mercury is totally plated over with solar power cells, generally place by Von Neumann self-replicating machines. This is to provide incredible amounts of energy for some great undertaking, which generally turns out to be the large scale production of antimatter.
- Venus' gravity is 0.904 g. This is practically the same as Terra, and is certainly large enough to prevent bone decalcification and other hazards of low gravity.
- Venus is conveniently located with respect to Terra. Hohmann launch windows occur every 584 days (compared to every 780 days for Mars). Hohmann transfer time is about 5 months (compared to 6 months for Mars).
- Venus' atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. This can be used to grow food. CO2 is also heavier than the nitrogen-oxygen breathing mix humans use, which means an nitrogen-oxygen filled balloon will float in Venus' atmo.
- The temperature at the equator is actually higher than at Mercury, 723 K (450°C). Higher than the melting point of lead and much higher than the temperatures used in hospitals to sterilize surgical instruments. This is due to the greenhouse effect, mentioned in 1950's school children's astronomy texts decades before the invention of the term "global warming".
- The atmospheric pressure at the surface is about 92 times that of Terra. This is about the same as the pressure under Terra's ocean at the depth of a kilometer. Humans exposed to this will implode. The Soviet Venera 5 and Venera 6 probes only got down to 18 km above the surface before they imploded.
- Venus' atmosphere contains clouds of sulfur dioxide and droplets of sulfuric acid. Which will dissolve metals at positions above copper in the reactivity series (iron, aluminium, titanium, etc.).
- The winds at cloud level are about 300 km/h.
- If the colony is a floating cloud city, trying to mine the surface for resources will be a nightmare.
Some scientists (most notably Geoffrey A. Landis of NASA's Glenn Research Center) have suggested colonizing Venus by using aerostat habitats and floating cities. In Venus' carbon dioxide atmosphere, a balloon full of a human breathable 21:79 oxygen/nitrogen mix will float. Actually it will have over 60% of the lifting power that pure helium has on Terra.
If a breathable mix balloon could loft a city to an altitude of 50 kilometers above the surface, it would find the environment to be the most Terran-like in the entire solar system. The pressure is about 1 bar (the same as at Terra's surface), temperature in the range of 0°C to 50°C, and about the same protection against cosmic rays.
Since the pressure inside and outside the balloon are about the same, any rips or tears will only slowly diffuse the gases (instead of causing the entire balloon to instantly pop). This will give plenty of time for repairs.
At cloud levels the wind blows about 95 m/s (about 300 km/h). It circles the planet in about four Terran days. A colony floating in this wind would experience a Venusian day of about four Terran days in duration. This is a vast improvement on the Venusian day on the planet's surface, which is about 243 Terran days long.
Thinking more grandly, others have suggested terraforming Venus. These include various proposals to drastically lower the atmospheric pressure and increase the levels of oxygen.
Terra-Luna L1 is a good location for a way station/cargo transhipment point. From L1 the delta-V to travel to either Terra or Luna is modest. It is also a good site for an orbital propellant depot, perhaps supplied from Lunar polar ice.
Terra-Luna L2 is a good location for a communication satellite covering Luna's far side.
It is also good for transits to other planets outside of the Terra-Luna system. This is because L2 is practically at Terra escape velocity already. L2 is sometimes called the "gateway to the Solar System".
It is also an ideal location to initiate an Oberth maneuver to get some free delta-V when traveling to another planet. To do an Oberth, the ship performs a parabolic dive from L2 into a close pass by Terra, and does the burn at the closest approach. Typically an Oberth maneuver around Terra can augment the delta V by a factor of 2 to 7. A typical Mars departure requires a delta V of 4.3 km/s, doing an Oberth the ship can get 4.3 km/s by only doing 1 km/s worth of burn!
Propellant depots will also have a longer life at L2 compared to having them located in LEO. L2 has lower micrometeor levels, lower thermal stress (reducing cryogenic propellant boil off), and lower amounts of corrosive atomic oxygen.
Gerard O'Neill's original plan for a space colony had them located at L5. As a matter of fact, his O'Neill cylinder habitats are commonly called "L5 Colonies." Either L4 or L5 is a good spot since they are stable. In science fiction, often one spot or the other is claimed by rival superpowers (e.g., USA and Russia, or the various nations of Gundam).
The Kordylewski clouds may or may not occupy the Terra-Luna L4 and L5 points.
All of the Lagrange points provide gateways into the Interplanetary Transport Network.
- Mining the Lunar Ice might be the key to the inner planets.
- Lunar Mineral Mining
- On the one hand the regolith contains valuable Helium 3, useful for fusion reactors using the 3He+D reaction. On the other hand the He3 found on the surface of Luna is so sparse that it is not worth mining unless you are absolutely desperate. 15 to 50 ppb is pathetically low grade ore.
- Lava Tubes are ready-made underground caves providing shielding from cosmic radiation. Otherwise digging the caverns for an underground city would be somewhat a chore.
- Thorium deposits, with the highest concentration at Lalande Crater. That is one reason why that crater is the location of choice for the first lunar colony according to the Virtual Lunar Colony Project.
- Plentiful supplies of the raw material for Aluminum-Oxygen and other ISRU-Oxygen rocket fuel. Just add electricity or solar heat to separate the oxygen from the metal.
- Titanium from Lunar Ilmenite ore. On Luna a "High titanium basalt" is one with more than 6% titanium by weight, it can go up to 8%. Other than Terra there are no other known sources.
- Located conveniently close to Terra. Short Hohmann transit times (about 3 days) and Hohmann launch windows are frequent (every 29.5 days).
There are details about lunar mining here.
- Asteroid Ice Mining.
- Asteroid Mineral Mining.
- Asteroid Space Plastic using carbonaceous asteroids as feedstock.
- Phosphorus (Life's Bottleneck) in carbonaceous asteroids.
- Relatively easy to get to from Terra, compared to the asteroid belt.
- Plentiful supplies of the raw material for Aluminum-Oxygen and other ISRU-Oxygen rocket fuel. Just add electricity or solar heat to separate the oxygen from the metal.
- They require relatively low delta-V to perturb their course into a civilzation-destroying collision with Terra. The Spaceguard will be keeping a very close watch on these. Especially 99942 Apophis.
Sol-Terra L1 never has its view blocked by Sol or Terra. This makes it a good site for solar observatories as an early warning storm monitor for deadly proton storms and other solar disturbances.
Sol-Terra L3 would be a great place for a early warning storm monitor. It could spot large active sunspot regions before Sol's rotation aimed them at Terra. It would also function as the L1 early warning for any spacecraft that happened to be on the opposite hemisphere with respect to Terra. L1 and L3 as a team could provide warnings for the entire solar system.
In old pulp science fiction, Sol-Terra L3 was a popular location for "counter-Earth", a sinister planet hidden from Terran astronomers by Sol (e.g., Gor, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, or the home of the High Evolutionary). But now satellites and gravitational studies have revealed that there is no planet there. Which is a good thing since L3 is a gravitationally unstable position.
Asteroid 2010 TK7 occupies the Sol-Terra L4 point.
- Deimos is the smaller of the two moons of Mars. In terms of delta-V cost, Deimos is the closest hydrated body to LEO. Since water is one of the most valuable in situ resources, this makes Deimos valuable. There is water ice on Phobos as well, but it is buried more deeply. On Deimos the ice is within 100 meters of the surface at the equator, and within 20 metrers at the poles.
Rob Davidoff and I worked up an entire future history centered around Deimos, called Cape Dread
- Martian Mining
- The Mars-5 space probe did detect uranium and thorium on Mars.
- The Martian atmosphere does contain about 2.5 percent valuable nitrogen.
- Mars does have valuable water.
- For Hohmann trajectories originating from or heading to Terra/cis-Lunar space, Mars has the longest delay between Hohman launch windows (2 years, 1.6 months) of any of the planets in the solar system.
- The atmosphere of Mars is about 99% vacuum, but it is thick enough to make pesky dust storms (lasting weeks at a time) that can cut down solar cell power to zero, and coat the solar cells with dust that has to be removed somehow.
- Surface gravity is 3.7 m/s2 (38% Terra), which might be too low for health.
- Resource-wise, Luna seems richer than Mars, while also having a lower escape delta-V cost.
- Asteroid Ice Mining.
- Asteroid Mineral Mining, especially 16 Psyche.
- Plentiful supplies of the raw material for Aluminum-Oxygen and other ISRU-Oxygen rocket fuel. Just add electricity or solar heat to separate the oxygen from the metal.
- Asteroid Space Plastic using carbonaceous asteroids as feedstock.
- Phosphorus (Life's Bottleneck) in carbonaceous asteroids.
- Asteroid Belt Athens.
Pilgrims with itchy feet and travelin' bones will head for the high frontier; wherever they find it, they'll push it back. These trail blazers, on their way to conquer new lands, will come to the Martian moons in an ever-growing stream. Like the boomers going to Saint Joe, Mo., these space settlers will outfit themselves at the 'rail-head' on Deimos. They will convert their hard-won grubstakes into tools and provisions, and strike out for the new territories. Most will head for the myriad micro-worlds of the asteroid belt. Other hardy souls will venture further afield, to the Trojan asteroids, and even the moons of Jupiter.
Many of these outbound immigrants will be moved by the simple desire to flee the cloying multitudes of the inner worlds. Others will be impelled by that unfailing motivator of mankind: greed. Settlement of the solar system will be greatly encouraged by the adoption of a Millennial Mining Law. The administrative code underpinning the Law can be complex in its particulars, but the essence of the Law itself should be utter simplicity: "First in time is first in right."
If you are the first person to reach a satellite, and stake and register your claim with the Solar Mining Office, it's yours! It is unlikely that an individual could mount a solo expedition to the asteroid belt; so you would probably have to sell shares in your venture to get the capital. At any rate, you and your partners are now the proud owners of a celestial mother lode.
Lets say you've staked your claim to an average carbonaceous chondrite in the outer asteroid belt. What's it worth? Much interesting speculation about asteroid mining has centered on those of the metallic variety.490 When one visits asteroids at the museum, it certainly appears that the nickel-iron types would be worth the most. After all, metals form the back-bone of industrial infrastructure, and their extraction and refinement is at the root of civilization. That is true enough today, but in the New Millennium, metals will be a side show. The real money is in water, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and the other light elements that make up the substance of animate matter. There will be claims staked on metallic asteroids to be sure, but in the first great "land rush", the savvy entrepreneurs will be after carbonaceous chondrites.
If you managed to be the first claimant on a typical smallish asteroid—10 km. in diameter—you would possess a trillion tons of the most valuable resources in the solar system. If, after paying for extraction and transportation costs, consumers in the realms of Asgard and Avallon paid an average of only one dollar per kilogram for light elements, your asteroid would be worth over one hundred trillion dollars.
There are millions of asteroids that are more than a few kilometers in diameter, and billions and billions of smaller ones. Eventually, they will all be claimed, mined, and settled. As the human race grows to maturity, filling up the solar system, the market for asteroid organics will expand continually. Any asteroid prospector can stake his claim with full confidence that eventually there will be a demand for his minerals. It may take time. But asteroid settlers will be some of the only people in the solar system who can live with near perfect self-sufficiency. They can afford to wait.
Like all pioneers, the first settlers in the asteroid belt must be hardy souls with iron wills and rawhide constitutions. They must be capable of facing isolation and deprivation; they must be able to fend for themselves; and most importantly they should be endowed with infinite faith in the future. Like Europeans headed for the California gold fields in 1849, new immigrants to the asteroid belt will flood in from the Old World. They will book their passage on the trans-oceanic vessels of their time—orbital habitats cycling between Earth and Mars. When the pioneers arrive on Deimos, they will equip themselves for their perilous expedition to the new frontier. The planetary civilization on Mars will be able to provide all the technology needed to successfully homestead an asteroid.
In all likelihood, these space pilgrims will join up in "wagon trains" for the trip out. Each band of hardy trail blazers will form their own society, agreeing among themselves on its structure and systems of self-governance.
Each family buys a launch pod and a cargo pod, both tanked up with enough fuel for rendezvous maneuvers. In addition to housekeeping basics, each adult carries the obligatory space suit— the only major piece of equipment brought from Earth. The group pools its resources to buy the essentials: a small ecosphere habitat (with CELSS), a semi-autonomous robotic miner, a pair of multi-purpose utility vehicles, a universal fabricator, and some power bubbles with thermionic generators.
The colonists arrange financing for their expedition long before leaving Earth. All the adults in the group have special skills, and like most people in the Third Millennium, they customarily work as telecommuters. In the group there are engineers, designers, writers, counselors, researchers, and consultants. All of these people work by logging on to interactive telecommunications networks. Most of their jobs are insensitive to short time delays, so they can work without regard to their location in the solar system. The data professionals in such groups have all been selected as much for their ability to work through telepresence as anything else. As telecommuters, they can continue to work in their careers despite being on their way to the asteroid belt.
This has important economic ramifications for the colonists. First, they do not face a cut off in earnings during the two years or so it takes them to reach their destination. Second, it means that they can continue to work and generate revenue after their arrival, even though otherwise isolated on a barren asteroid. This ability to participate in the general economy while physically isolated, is one of the most important factors enabling our rapid expansion into space.
Financial institutions in the Earth-Moon system have very little interest in bankrolling colonists headed for the asteroid belt; too remote, too risky. There is, however, a ready source of funding. The first big colonial push out to the asteroids targeted the giant asteroid Vesta. Vesta orbits close to Mars and is a big asteroid with a unique and valuable composition. The original Vestans flourished, building their tiny world into a major economic force in the outer solar system. Very quickly, the Vestans realized that the highest returns could be made by financing other colonists who desired to settle the wide frontier of the asteroid belt. Psychological barriers and remoteness from the inner worlds, plus very real risks, kept home-world banks out of the game. This allowed the Vestans to charge very high interest rates for colonization loans.
The inVestament bankers understood that loans made to colonists were doubly lucrative. First, the colonists invariably consist of highly motivated groups of mature professionals. (This Darwinian selection is self-enforcing; groups not meeting the rigorous standards are simply not approved for loans.) These hardcore groups inevitably hit the ground running, and very quickly transform their new habitats into productive resource mines. The telecommuting professionals give the groups an economic underpinning which allows them to carry heavy interest burdens. New productivity from asteroid resources enables them to pay back their loans very quickly. The asteroid bankers are consequently able to turn their capital over rapidly, so the investment pool doubles in size every five to ten years. Second, each new group of colonists adds a jolt of synergy to the whole economy of the region, bringing with them demands for goods and services which can be supplied by yet other colonists.
This double-barreled effect—rapid capital turn-over plus exploding demand—creates a very powerful positive feedback loop in the economy. As the Vestans make more and more money on their loans, the investment pool grows, making it possible to make more loans, generating greater profits, in turn increasing the investment pool available for loans, etc. The result is runaway growth of real wealth.
The settlers find it fairly easy, therefore, to borrow substantial amounts of money with no more collateral than their resumes. Colonists typically head out to the edge of the new frontier with an ample stock of capital equipment and a generous line of credit at the FIBV (First Interplanetary Bank of Vesta).
Space Family Robinson
(Let's join a group of these pioneers, and go along to see what it's like to settle a virgin asteroid.)
Long before their expedition even started out, the Robinson group had targeted their bit of celestial real estate. They selected a destination only after detailed consultations with the solar mining office. They chose an asteroid of moderate size—10 km. in diameter—orbiting in the middle of the belt. This particular asteroid is already owned by its original claimant who is in residence there. The leaders of the expedition have been in radio negotiations with the old prospector and have come to terms. The new colonists have agreed to pay the owner an up-front cash bonus and a royalty of 8% on all exports.
There are still many millions of unclaimed asteroids; but this is a group of families and they don't want to face the extra risks of an unknown planetoid. The Solar mining office has conducted extensive surveys and has detailed spectroscopic information on almost every asteroid larger than a few kilometers in diameter. Little else is known about the unclaimed asteroids. By contrast, this asteroid—Sykes 1011—has been pretty thoroughly evaluated. In order to hold his claim, Sykes has been "proving up" his asteroid ever since he first staked it fifteen years before. He has done extensive exploratory drilling, made detailed assays of his cores, taken seismic readings, and otherwise scrutinized his private little world.
The old prospector's diligence has paid off. The rich data base has served its purpose and has attracted a well-heeled group of settlers, Sykes, who has lived for a decade and a half in almost complete isolation, now anticipates a rich pay day. He is going to be amply recompensed for his years of unrequited labor. The prospector's risky investment will pay rich dividends for the rest of his life.
The colonists—named for the largest family, the Robinsons— have been willing to pay a premium price for Sykes' asteroid. His certified assays show that S1011 has an especially high water content of 18%, and unusually high concentrations of tantalum, and cobalt. For extra bonus money and a higher royalty, Sykes has been willing to assign all future development rights to the Robinson group. The Robinsons have done detailed modeling of the economics of their risky venture; they have good reason to believe that they too will ultimately enjoy rich rewards.
The Robinsons launch from Deimos in a replay of their flight from Avallon. Families are catapulted off in their individual pods, and the wave riders skim across the top of Mars' thickening atmosphere, picking up a slingshot boost from the red planet's gravity well. The pods shoot off at precisely calculated trajectories to rendezvous with an orbital habitat cycling between Mars and the main asteroid belt. Unmanned cargo pods, bearing precious equipment follow. After a few days in cramped discomfort on the wave riders, the colonists rendezvous with a cycling habitat. They dock their riders and move into temporary but homey quarters in the outbound ecosphere. There they live comfortably for the 15 to 20 months it takes to reach the asteroid belt. During that time, educations, and careers carry on, without much interruption.
After the cycling habitat reaches an optimal point in its orbit, the colonists will jump off to their destination asteroid. The entire journey has been carefully timed to minimize the duration and energy requirements of this final leg. Everything has gone according to the schedule—arranged years in advance. Delays at any stage of their odyssey could have stranded the travelers at some intermediate point for years. As it is, the colonists are in a perfect position to rendezvous with their chosen planetoid. The Robinsons again board their wave riders and make the short hop to Sykes 1011, arriving at the asteroid with only a few kilograms of propellant left.
Touching down on their new world is more like docking with a giant ship than landing on a planet. The gravity is less than a thousandth of that on Earth. The little convoy sets -down in the midst of a scene of splendid desolation. The horizons of the little world crowd close, unbroken by anything but Syke's radio strobe and a hand-made banner with "Wellcum Robinsuns" spelled out in strips of gold foil.
Like the pioneers of another age—who on arrival in their new Canaans, unhitched the oxen from the wagon and immediately yoked them to the plow—this new breed of settlers also sets promptly to work. The Robinson's group leader, Dr. Zachariah Smith, meets with Sykes—a grizzled old varmint who looks four centuries out of place. Sykes has spent 15 years on the asteroid, living in an empty propellant tank buried under the regolith. He has been utterly alone except for the company of a holographic dog named Rimmer. From the musky smell inside the old prospector's digs, Dr. Smith judges that Sykes hasn't been out of his space suit in the past decade. True to form, Sykes conducts the entire closing over the upturned bottom of a supply canister, never-removing anything but his helmet. 'How in the world,' Dr. Smith wonders, looking at the old character's stained beard, 'can any one chew tobacco gum inside a space helmet?'
With legal formalities out of the way, the first order of business is to launch power bubbles. The group has brought three thermionic generators, each with enough capacity to provide all of the colony's power needs. Fuel is pooled for one of the wave riders, and the generators are towed into close polar orbits around the asteroid. This takes just a small amount of propellant as orbital velocity is only a few meters per second. Once the generators are in stable orbits outside the asteroid's shadow, the bubble reflectors are inflated around them. Properly focused and adjusted, the generators begin to crank out power. The electricity is converted to a narrow beam of microwaves and is transmitted directly to receiving antennas strung along the asteroid's equator.
Useful Materials Produced by Robotic Miner Every Day Element kg/day Oxygen 1,152 Silicon 576 Water 518 Iron 430 Magnesium 403 Carbon 57 Calcium 52 Sulfur 52 Nickel 32 Aluminum 45 Sodium 23 Chromium 12 Cobalt 5 Manganese 5 Nitrogen 5 Titanium 4 Phosphorus 3 Potassium 2 Copper 0.3
With a good supply of power now at their disposal, the colonists begin to transform their Lilliputian planet. They set up and activate the mining station. The robotic augers immediately begin shunting loose regolith into the maw of the machine. Inside the miner, the soil is heated in a plasma arc furnace. As the temperature rises, steam hisses out of the hot ore, and the vapor is pulled off and condensed. When the first silver trickle of liquid water begins to dribble into the transparent collection tanks, a cheer bursts from the jubilant colonists. At this point they know they have succeeded. Their years of sacrifice and hard work have paid off. They have water. Where there is water there is life. Now they know they can survive on this orbital slag heap. They have everything they need to sustain life and build a new world.
The robotic miner is not a large machine; its throughput is only a couple of kilograms per minute. Watching powdered regolith pass through the holding bin is like watching sand trickle through a big hour glass. Even so, the machine produces over 500 kilograms of distilled water and half a ton of oxygen per day. In a highly efficient process, the crushed asteroid ore is melted and most of its usable elements extracted. The molten rock preheats the incoming ore stream and is then extruded from the miner in the form of cooled bricks, slabs, and other structural components.
The colonists garner everything they need from the asteroid. At this stage of development, the principal commodities required by the colony: power, oxygen, and water, are available in abundance.
The next pressing project is to erect a temporary habitat. The temporary structure is just a large fabric bubble with a cable net thrown over the top. The colonists hastily level the bottom of a small crater with their utility vehicles. The bubble is inflated and regolith is shoveled in to cover the whole thing three meters deep. Though palatial by Sykes' standards, it will be rough living for many months, until a proper ecosphere can be built. The colonists move into their temporary domicile, pitching their family tents inside the Spartan space. The temporary habitat is not roomy, and is harshly lit by yellow tritium bulbs. It provides a shirt-sleeve environment nonetheless. On the face of this hostile bit of real estate, adrift in the void, even this rough bubble is a welcoming haven.
Establishing a self-sustaining ecocycle to produce food and recycle wastes is now the colonist's top priority. Coils of algae tubing are deployed and an ecocycle centered on a super critical water oxidizer is organized. At this point, the colonists are dug in for the long haul.
Now they can turn their attention to raising the colony's standard of living. The first step in that direction is the construction of a proper ecosphere. The surface of the asteroid, closely resembles that of the Martian moon Deimos. It is pocked with craters of various sizes, up to a kilometer in diameter. A crater 200 meters in diameter is chosen, and work begins to transform it into a permanent ecosphere. The robotic miner forms a ring of fused regolith around the crater rim while the utility tractors terrace the inner slopes. While forming the foundation ring, the miner extrudes bulk materials and some simple finished goods like reinforcing cable and anchoring bolts.
Refined silicon and other elements are fed into the uni-fab (universal fabricator) which produces the silicone bubble membrane. The uni-fab is a remarkable piece of machinery and represents one of the colony's most expensive and valuable capital assets. The uni-fab is capable of producing virtually any material or machine component. All it requires is a supply of the appropriate raw materials and detailed design instructions for its computer.
The fabricator uses MBE (Molecular Beam Epitaxy) technology to produce parts and materials. MBE is extremely simple in concept: a beam of charged atoms is sprayed onto a substrate, not unlike painting a car. Successive layers of atoms are beamed on until the desired thickness is built up. The composition of the molecular beam can be varied at will, as can the shape and thickness of the final products. With the right materials and instructions, the uni-fab can produce anything, from ball bearings to saran wrap.
The only materials the uni-fab can't produce are living tissues. You could feed in the appropriate instructions and materials needed to form a frog, but all you would get is frog soup.
The uni-fab can, however, easily manufacture just about anything else. It could readily produce all the parts of a camera, for example. You would still have to assemble the components, but all the lenses, fittings, and tiny screws could be manufactured by the uni-fab. Depending on its design, it could be a very fine camera. All the parts would be made with a finish and precision accurate to a couple of angstroms—the width of a single atom. The uni-fab enables the colonists to be self-sufficient in virtually all manufactured products, from toys to computer chips.
While the uni-fab produces the ecosphere's dome material, work progresses on crater preparation. When the inner terraces and anchoring ring are completed, the bubble membrane is installed, and inflation of the ecosphere begins.
An ecosphere 200 meters in diameter will require about half a million kilograms of oxygen. It will take the robotic miner a little over a year to produce this much air. As the ecosphere is inflated, the crater is terraformed to provide a life-rich habitat. Trees, grass, and flowers are planted in profusion. An open stream meanders across the terraces and slowly cascades down the slopes to a small pond. A fountain sprays water in dramatic slow-motion arcs. The soft splashing of water gently falling through the micro gravity will fill the interior with the unmistakable sounds of Earth. Slowly, the robotic miner will produce enough water to form a water shield for the crater dome. When complete, the shield will allow the colonists to pitch pavilions in the gardens and live in the open, among the eight acres of grass and trees under the dome.
The Robinsons will construct the first ecosphere for somewhat the same reasons that Sykes did his core drilling—to attract new settlers. With the ecosphere completed, the otherwise barren little asteroid now beckons with the welcoming green glow of a miniature Eden.
New colonists, looking for opportunities, but less willing than Sykes or the Robinsons to face risk and hardship, will be attracted to the new habitat. This first permanent ecosphere is easily large enough for dozens of families. Several groups of immigrants join the growing colony. This third wave of settlers does not face the harsh wilderness that greeted old Sykes and the Robinsons.
These newcomers can move right in to a comfortable habitat, resuming their lives without much of an interruption. Since the hazards and discomforts are low, individual families, even single people, will be able to immigrate to the new colony.
Despite this lack of hardship, the new colonists will enjoy a large share of the asteroid's abundant wealth. The new comers will pay cash bonuses to the Robinson group. They will literally be buying a 'piece of the rock'. In return, they are supplied with dwelling space, food, water, energy, and amenities. The new arrivals also get a stake in the colony. They earn a position in the corporate identity of the colony and a share of future royalties and profits.
As more and more colonists arrive, the earlier waves grow wealthier. Sykes becomes rich as Midas, but he never does move out of his rickety fuel cylinder. The Robinson group took a big gamble and hit the jackpot. The Robinson's and the other founding families become enormously wealthy, building their own private compounds in some of the asteroid's choicest craters. For generations to come, the descendants of these pioneers will enjoy the status and bank accounts that go with "old money".
As the growing community accrues wealth, dramatic new projects can be undertaken. The first of these will be—as on most new worlds—the construction of a mass launcher. The launcher will be built almost entirely of local materials. For example, low-temperature superconducting electromagnets can be made of Alnico—an alloy of aluminum, nickel, iron, and cobalt. All these metals are available on the asteroid. Ultra-low temperatures can be maintained in the magnets by shielding them from radiant heat under a blanket of vacuum insulated regolith and by circulating liquid hydrogen at -252°C. Once the mass driver is complete, the asteroid colony can begin to export commodities profitably.
There will always be an insatiable demand for water and other light elements back in the Earth-Moon system, but importing hydrogen from the asteroids will not be cheap. It requires a change of velocity (Δv) of 11 kilometers per second (kps) to move payloads from the inner asteroid belt to the Earth's orbit. That is the same Av required to lift payloads off the Earth. This fact will put a premium on the cost of living in the vicinity of the Earth. Escaping this cost penalty will be one of the motivations fueling immigration to the asteroid belt. In the self-sufficient colonies of the asteroids, the cost of living will be attractively low. There will always be people willing to pay the premium to live near the Earth, however; so the thirst for hydrogen from the asteroid belt is apt to remain unquenchable.
The colonists on Sykes 1011—now renamed New Bern— produce elemental hydrogen which they liquefy and hurl into space in vacuum insulated canisters of chromium cobalt alloy. The canisters need not be propelled to 11 kps—a very energy intensive proposition. Instead, they are impelled at a few tenths of a kps onto an orbital path that rendezvouses with the large asteroid Ceres. On Ceres there is a large interplanetary mass driver with huge cargo capacity. Hydrogen, metals, and other commodities from all over the asteroid belt are consolidated into bulk shipments. Big cargo carriers are flung off on journeys to the inner planets that can take years. The colonists' shipments of hydrogen, vitallium and other commodities are automatically credited to their accounts on Vesta.
The economy of New Bern thrives. Underpinned by the work of telecommuters, and supplemented by commodity exports, the colony grows richer. The colonists invest heavily in semi-autonomous factories. Highly specialized products are manufactured for niche markets all over the Solar system. The colonies on New Bern specialize in precision medical instruments and implants. Their vitallium endoskeletons come to be highly prized by people going through trans-geriatric metamorphosis.
New ecospheres spring up. All the best crater sites on the asteroid are domed over. As new immigrants arrive and children are born, the population burgeons. There is no shortage of room on the asteroid. It seems a tiny world, but it is big enough to accommodate a large city. The surface area of the asteroid is 314 million square meters. That is enough room for a population of three million people. It's hard to fathom, but even this many colonists wouldn't be crowded. Each person would have as much room as the marine colonists on Aquarius, where almost 40% of the area is dedicated to park land and open space. The same ratios would apply on the surface of the asteroid. Half the surface area could be dedicated to gardens, lakes, playing fields, and other open spaces, and there would still be ample room for a large population. All the industry, and much of the colony's supporting infrastructure, is put underground. The surface is left free for living.
Eventually, the whole surface of the asteroid is enclosed inside an ecosphere. With a membrane surrounding the asteroid, the whole surface can be terraformed and inhabited. Lush plant life will cover the asteroid's surface. People will live in their pavilions, set among the trees and flowers blanketing the once barren landscape.
A water shield for an ecosphere 12 kilometers in diameter would weigh 2.25 billion tons. This would require just over two percent of the asteroid's water supply. Inside the bubble membrane will be an oxygen atmosphere amounting to 86 million tons—requiring only a tiny fraction of the asteroid's oxygen.
The ecosphere will provide a tremendous volume of livable space. At some places, the asteroid's 'sky' will be two or three kilometers high. Trees will be able to grow thousands of meters tall, dwarfing even the Never-trees in the craters of the Moon.497 In the minuscule gravity, flight will be almost effortless. As in Lothlorien, many people will live in the branches and hollow trunks of the gigantic trees. Swiss Family Robinson will have come full circle.
As mining progresses, the asteroid's interior will become honeycombed with caverns and tunnels. Robotic miners will cut through the rich carbonaceous ore of the planetesimal like termites boring through fruit cake. Even after the asteroid is fully enclosed in an ecosphere, mining will continue deep in the interior. Exports will be spit out through rigid magnetic launch tubes that penetrate the outer shield membrane. Over time, the interior of the asteroid will be hollowed out and terraformed.
A large fraction of the asteroid's bulk will be converted into the living substance of people, plants, and animals. Every kilogram of water or metal ever removed from New Bern will be found somewhere in the solar system: bound up in the radiation shield of some other colony, rustling in the leaves of a tree, or coursing through the veins of a child. Nothing will be wasted, but everything will be transformed.
Over time, New Bern will mature into a vibrant miniature world. It will possess a unique history and culture all its own. The process that creates New Bern will be played out all over the asteroid belt at various times. The transformation of the belt will begin in the inner zones closest to the Sun and will proceed apace until the remotest asteroids have been settled, encapsulated, and terraformed. As the human population grows, each planetesimal will become the center of an expanding community, nourished and sustained by its asteroid's resources. As Solaria blossoms and ripens, the entire asteroid belt will become thickly sprinkled with free-floating ecospheres and terraformed asteroids.
- Strategic Location could make it the main base for asteroid mining infrastructure.
- Strategic Location could make it a transport nexus to send mineral resources to Mars, Luna, and Terra.
- Large deposits of valuable water ice (possibly up to 200 million cubic kilometers of water) coupled with a very low escape velocity (514 m/s) make it a useful source water, hydrogen, and oxygen; as well as an orbital propellant depot. Ceres might have more fresh water than Terra (but Terra has far more brackish salt-water).
- Low gravity well makes delta V cost of coloniziation lower than all planets and most moons (including Luna).
- A colonized Ceres could assist with the colonization of the Jovian moons, or other outer solar system objects.
- Ceres' orbit has a greater semi-major axis than Mars, so it has much more frequent Hohmann launch windows to/from cislunar space (every 1 year, 3.3 months) than Mars does (every 2 years, 1.6 months). Of course the transit time is higher (cislunar-Ceres 1 y, 3.5 m; cislunar-Mars 8.5 m), and delta V cost is higher due to Ceres' orbital inclination (cislunar-Ceres 9,477 m/s; cislunar-Mars 5,748 m/s).
- Solar power available at Ceres aphelion is 150 W/m2 (1/9th power available at Terra, 1/4th power available at Mars). Which is very low but still workable.
- Surface gravity is 0.27 m/s2 (2.8% Terra), which is probably too low for health.
- Ceres has no magnetic field to ward off cosmic rays. Colony will require shielding and/or be buried underground.
- Jupiter's magnetic field can be used
- As a power source. 2.0 × 1013 watts potential between Jupiter and Io.
This can be harvested with electrodynamic tethers.
Alternatively, you mount microwave beamers on copper rods and launch them from Io at Jupiter. As the rods cut the magnetic lines of force they generate electricty. This is converted into microwave and beamed back to Io. Rod is destroyed when it hits Jupiter, but so what, they are cheap.
- For transportation
- For spallation of useful elements into needed isotopes
- As a power source. 2.0 × 1013 watts potential between Jupiter and Io.
- Harvesting Jupiter's Atmosphere
- Nitrogen for fertilizer from Jupiter's atmospheric ammonia.
- Callisto's Water Ice.
- Ganymede's Water Ice.
- Europa's Water Ice.
- Jupiter's radiation belt is about a million times more intense (and deadly) than Terra's Van Allen radiation belts. Europa, Io, and Ganymede are inside the radiation belt, Callisto is outside.
Here's a quick analysis for planning and realism purposes for manned exploration of Jupiter's Galilean satellites:
Io 36 13149 2 min 4 min 20 min 40 min 1.33h 2 h 2.67h 4 h 6.67h 33.33h Europa 5 1972 13.33 min 26.66 min 2.22h 4.44h 8.89h 13.33h 17.78h 26.67h 44.44h - Ganymede 0.08 29.22 15h 30h 6.25d 12.5d 25d 37.5d 50d 75d - - Callisto 0.0001 0.037 1.37y 2.74y - - - - - - - -
The single year limit is 50 mSv, while the maximum 5-year cumulative exposure is 100 mSv (or 20 mSv per year). LD stands for Lethal Dose, LD x/y means "x" percent of individuals die within "y" days. LD 50/30 thus means half of people exposed at this level of radiation would die within 30 days. Some values have been omitted as the time required to reach the lethal dose level exceeds the time for lower lethal dose rates to be achieved or, in the case of Callisto, because it would simply be unreachable with the low radiation rate observed.
A few observations point to the obvious:
Astronauts on Io would experience fierce radiation flux, reaching their maximum cumulative radiation dose accepted by various safety regulations for a period of 5 years in only 4 minutes outside on the surface!!! Europa isn't much better, with less than half an hour of exposure. Ganymede is also a fierce environment, despite radiation being much less intense than at Io. With minimal shielding, Callisto would provide a safe working environment no worse than a nuclear power plant or research facility.
For shielding purposes to limit exposure to below regulatory levels for 5-year periods, the number of halving thickness of shielding material stands as follows:
Satellite Number of
Io 20 3.6 m Europa 17 3.06 m Ganymede 11 1.98 m Callisto 1 18 cm
As ice is less dense than water, about 10% more would be required.
The Jupiter Trojan asteroids are composed of the Greek node at L4 and the Trojan node at L5. Surveys suggest that counting asteroids with a diameter of two kilometers or more, the Greek node contains 6.3 ± 1.0×104 and the Trojan node contains 3.4 ± 0.5×104. The largest trojan is 624 Hektor of the Greek node, with a average diameter of 203 ± 3.6 km.
The Hilda familiy are asteroids sort of in L3. They are actually in a 3:2 mean-motion resonance with Jupiter. There are about 1,100 known asteroids in the familiy, with the largest being 153 Hilda with a diameter of 171 km. 153 Hilda is a carbonaceous asteroid.
- Nitrogen for fertilizer from Saturn's atmospheric ammonia.
- Nitrogen for fertilizer from Titan's Atmosphere. The stratosphere is 98.4% nitrogen, the only dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere in the Solar System outside of Terra.
The atmosphere of Saturn is a rich source of Helium-3, valuable as fuel for fusion reactors using the 3He+D reaction. It can be harvested by atmospheric scooping.
Jupiter is closer to Terra and has 3He as well. But Jupiter's gravity is fierce! If the scoopships used solid core nuclear thermal rockets they'd need a whopping mass ration of 20 to escape back to orbit (43 km/s delta V). They wouldn't be able to carry enough 3He to be economical. Saturn on the other hand has a much lower gravity. NTR scoopships could manage with a mass ratio of 4 (26 km/s delta V), which is much more reasonable.
Tanker ships would need only 18 km/s delta V to travel from Saturn to Terra.
I worked up a sketchy future history centered around Saturn, called Ring Raiders.
- According to Robert Zubrin, terraforming Mars could require large crashing ice asteroids onto its surface. The farther out the asteroid's orbit is from the Sun, the less delta V is required to re-direct it to Mars impact. Saturn would do nicely. Most of the ring fragments are solid ice, and Saturn is quite far from the Sun. And you can be quite sure that the Spaceguard will closely monitor the operation.
- Titan Space Plastic using the hydrocarbon seas as feedstock.
- From an author's standpoint, civilization in Saturn's rings would resemble a classic Niven-like "Belter" asteroid civilization.
According to Jerry Pournelle in a gas giant's system of moons, Hohmann delta V requirements are quite reasonable. This contrasts with the excessive Hohmann requirements for, say, travel among the asteroids. Crude NERVAs using various ices as reaction mass work just fine. Indeed, in the outer moons, a backyard kerosene rocket will do. Most of the Saturnian moons are almost entirely composed of ices so there is plenty of reaction mass for a fleet of ships.
Hohmann transit times are relatively short, as are synodic periods of launch windows.
Gas giants are also pretty far away from Terra, to encourage wars of liberation and local autonomy or other entertaining events that ordinarily Terra would put a stop to.
While Jupiter is closer, it also has a nasty radiation belt. Saturn doesn't. Saturn's radiation belt is far weaker than Jupiter's blue glowing field of radioactive death, being more on par with Terra's Van Allen belt. This would mean that the various moons of Saturn could be independent nations, fighting each other over "whatever" without having to worry about interference from Terra.
- From an author's standpoint, Saturn and its moons have all sorts of anomalous weird features that can be inspirations for novels and short stories.
According to Pournelle in a gas giant's system of moons, Hohmann delta V requirements are quite reasonable. This contrasts with the excessive Hohmann requirements for, say, travel among the asteroids. Crude NERVAs using various ices as reaction mass work just fine. Indeed, in the outer moons, a backyard kerosene rocket will do. Most of the Saturnian moons are almost entirely composed of ices so there is plenty of reaction mass for a fleet of ships.
A backyard kersosene rocket (exhaust velocity 3,330 m/s) with a mass ratio of 2 will have about 2,300 m/s of deltaV, mass ratio of 3 will have 3,660 m/s, and a mass ratio of 4 will have 4,620 m/s. As you can see this could easily do almost half of the possible trips.
A NERVA rocket using water as reaction mass (exhaust velocity 4,042 m/s) with a mass ratio of 2 will have about 2,800 m/s of deltaV, mass ratio of 3 will have 4,440 m/s, and a mass ratio of 4 will have 5,600 m/s.
A NERVA rocket using hydrogen as reaction mass (exhaust velocity 8,093 m/s) with a mass ratio of 2 will have about 5,600 m/s of deltaV, mass ratio of 3 will have 8,890 m/s, and a mass ratio of 4 will have 11,200 m/s.
Hohmann transit times are relatively short, as are synodic periods of launch windows.
The table below was generated by Erik Max Francis' Hohmann orbit calculator. They are for one-way trips to various moons in the Saturn system.
- Start and destination moons are labeled along axes, it does not matter which axis you use for start or destination.
- In both sections, "y" means "years", "m" means "months", "d" means "days", and "h" means "hours"
- Values below the diagonal in blue: First value is delta V (meters per second) needed for a Hohmann transfer from orbit around one world to orbit around the other, landing on neither. Second value is the transit time for the transfer.
- Values above the diagonal in red: First value is delta V (m/s) needed for a Hohmann transfer between the worlds, including take-off and landing (If either is a gas giant, a 100 kilometer orbit is used instead of the planet's surface). Second value is the Synodic period (i.e., frequency of Hohmann launch windows).
- Diagonal values in gold are delta V (m/s) needed to take off from the surface of a world and go into circular orbit around it, or to land from a circular orbit.
Titan is the huge moon of Saturn with at atmosphere even denser than Terra. A person cannot breath it since it is 98.4% nitrogen, but that atmosphere makes it about an order of magnitude easier to establish a colony compared to, say, Mars. With respect to Mars the main drawback to Titan is the longer transit time for the colonist with the accompanying increased radiation exposure.
- Denser atmosphere than Terra (surface pressure 1.45 atm) makes Titan easier to colonize than Mars or any airless moon. High pressure makes construction easier, and the atmosphere provides plenty of radiation shielding from cosmic rays.
- Nitrogen for fertilizer from Titan's Atmosphere. The stratosphere is 98.4% nitrogen, the only dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere in the Solar System outside of Terra.
- Titan Space Plastic using the hydrocarbon seas as feedstock.
Examples of colonizing Titan in science fiction include Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, Bio of a Space Tyrant series by Piers Anthony, Titan by Stephen Baxter, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Saturn and Titan by Ben Bova.
The paper Energy Options for Future Humans on Titan has some interesting possiblities.
More promising is the fact that Titan's atmosphere is almost 0.2% hydrogen, and there are traces of acetylene. These can be extracted from the atmosphere using low energy methods. The hydrogenation of acetylene is a splendidly exothermic reaction that produces 376 kJ/mole of energy. If the acetylene is too scare, it is possible to produce the stuff by the pyrolysis (heat it up real hot, 1000°C) of the abundant atmospheric methane (1.4%). This takes energy, but less than the energy produced by hydrogen-acetylene reactions.
It is also possible to hydrogenatize nitrogen into ammonia. This only produces a paltry 92.4 kJ/mole of energy. On the other hand the atmosphere is 98.4% nitrogen so you ain't gonna run out of that. Both gases can be easily extracted from the atmosphere with low energy methods. And 92.4 kJ/mole of energy is far better than nothing.
The report gives an equation for hydropower power generation, given density of the fluid, gravitational acceleration, flow rate, height difference, and efficiency of the turbine. Assuming an efficiency of 0.85 and a height of 145 meters, a Terran hydropower system will produce 97 megawatts while a Titan methanopower system will produce about 9 megawatts. If the Terran system was fed by Lake Superior (with it never being replenished) it would produce 1×1019 Joules total energy over 3,450 years. If the Titan system was fed by Kraken Mare it would produce about 4.6×1019 J total energy over 242,580 years.
Titan's wind speeds are about 2 m/s at an altitude of 3 kilometers, and 20 m/s at an altitude of 40 kilometers. If you had your windpower plant on a blimp or a tethered balloon the plant would crank out hundreds of megawatts due to Titan's denser atmosphere.
At the top of Terra's atmosphere the average solar energy is about 1,400 J/m2-s, Titan gets 14 to 17 J/m2-s depending on its current distance to Sol. Titan's atmosphere transmits red and near infrared light but absorbs blue light, about 10% of the solar flux makes it to the surface (1.4 to 1.7 J/m2-s). Amorphous silicon or cadmium telluride photovoltaic cells are best for this spectrum, they have an efficiency of 13% to 20% but their performance at Titan temperatures is unknown (the report conservatively estimates it to be 10%). And for low to mid latitudes the sun will be up for 1/3rd of a Titan day (not counting seasonal variations or eclipses by Saturn. Not to mention cloud cover and ethane rain).
As an example the researchers assumed that the Titan colonists consume 1.4×1019 J/year (about the same as the United States). To meet this need with solar power would require 8×1012 square meters of panels, about 89% of the surface area of the US, but only 10% of Titan's total surface area.
- Harvesting Uranus' Atmosphere (including Helium 3).
- Nitrogen for fertilizer from Uranus' atmospheric ammonia.
After spreading throughout the warm. compact inner core of the Solar System, the human race will face the daunting challenge of crossing the deep ocean of space that lies between Sol and even the nearest neighboring stars. But just off shore, at the outer fringe of Sol’s gravitational reach, countless small icy islands are scattered in a vast spherical archipelago reaching almost halfway to the Sun’s nearest neighbors—the myriad comet nuclei of the Oort Cloud.
Human exploration and settlement of the Oort Cloud will create a new environment for a diverse array of social, economic, and biological experimentation, and that diversity may indicate the future course of the evolution of our species. The Oort Cloud will also be the proving ground for the technology of interstellar travel: these tiny, scattered islands on the periphery of the Solar System may be our first stepping stones to the stars.
Although the notion of human settlements on comet nuclei dates back to the eighteenth century, it was not until the latter part of this century that the concept began to receive serious attention. In 1972, physicist Freeman Dyson offered this challenging vision:It is generally considered that beyond the Sun’s family of planets there is absolute, emptiness extending for light-years until you come to another star. In fact it is likely that the space around the Solar System is populated by huge numbers of comets, small worlds a few miles in diameter, rich in water and other chemicals essential to life … comets, not planets, are the major potential habitat of life in space.
More recently, astronomers, biologists, sociologists, historians and design engineers have begun to subject the idea to rigorous—if somewhat speculative —scientific and engineering analysis. They have begun to explore the very real possibility of establishing human settlements in the distant reaches of the Oort Cloud, and what life might be like there.
The Oort Cloud is thought to form a vast, spherical collection of small icy bodies orbiting at enormous distances from the Sun. Although direct observational evidence is sketchy, there are sound theoretical reasons for postulating its existence.
It is generally believed that the comet nuclei in the Oort Cloud formed along with the inner Solar System about 4.6 billion years ago. In the most widely accepted theories, the Solar System originated in the gravitational collapse of an immense cloud of interstellar gas and dust. As it collapsed the cloud flattened out into the classic solar nebula, a broad, fairly thin disk of material slowly rotating about the infant Sun.
Within the nebula, the gas and dust particles began to condense and clump together into small aggregates that grew slowly into larger and larger bodies, forming planets, moons, asteroids—and comets.
Most comets are thought to have formed on the outer fringe of the solar nebula, at about the same distance from Sol as Uranus and Neptune (roughly 20 to 30 Astronomical Units). The bulk composition of these two planets is close to what would be expected if a similar mass of comet nuclei were collected together into a single, planet-sized body.
In another line of evidence, most comets seem to be significantly depleted in carbon relative to the average cosmic abundance of that element. This can be interpreted as an indication that comets formed in a region of the nebula warm enough to evaporate much of the methane (CH4) present and prevent it from condensing with the remaining gasses and dust. As expected, comets are also badly depleted in hydrogen, as are all the other bodies in the Solar System except for Jupiter. Saturn, and the Sun.
Most of these small bodies would be swept up into the growing planets, but the orbits of many others would be perturbed and altered by close encounters. An encounter with Jupiter or Saturn would most likely result in complete ejection from the Solar System into interstellar space. In the vicinity of less massive Uranus and Neptune, comet nuclei would also be perturbed into orbits far from the Sun—but not entirely beyond its gravitational reach.
Initially,the comets would orbit more or less in the same plane as the inner system, but over time the faint tug from passing stars would randomize their orbital inclinations, creating a vast, dispersed, spherical cloud of small icy bodies—the Oort Cloud, named for Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, who first postulated its existence and structure in the 1950s.
Estimates of the total number of comet nuclei in the Oort Cloud range from about l00 billion to several trillion—more than the total number of stars in the entire galaxy. Their total mass is difficult to estimate with any precision, but is probably at least equal to the mass of Earth, and may be much greater. It is thought that the original population of the Oort Cloud was about 2 trillion comets with a mass about 30 times that of Earth, but has since been depleted by escape into interstellar space and perturbation into orbits closer to the Sun, where the icy bodies evaporate after a time.
The majority of the comet nuclei in the Oort Cloud are probably distributed throughout a broad spherical shell between 40,000 and 60,000 A.U. from the Sun (although some astronomers place the density peak a bit closer, at around 25,000 A.U.). This is just shy of one light-year (64,000 A.U.). It is possible that a substantial number orbit much closer to the Sun, between 100 and 10,000 A.U., forming an inner Oort Cloud. Within about 10,000 A.U. of the Sun, the orbits of the comets would lie more or less in the plane of the ecliptic. Beyond that distance, the influence of passing stars is strong enough to produce the random spherical distribution of the outer Cloud. The outer periphery of the main Cloud is probably at about 100,000 A.U.—close to two light-years. The maximum dynamic limit is about 200,000 A.U., where the gravitational pull of the galactic core begins to overcome that of the Sun.
The typical separation between comet nuclei in the Oort Cloud is probably about 20 A.U.: very widely spaced indeed. In the main Cloud the orbital periods would range from one to ten million years.
Since the close encounters of Halley’s Comet by Soviet and European spacecraft in 1986, a clearer picture of the nature of comet nuclei has begun to emerge. They are estimated to range in size from 0.1 to 10 kilometers in diameter and in mass from 1013 to l019 grams—between 10 million and l0 trillion metric tons. Though small in comparison to the planets, comet nuclei still contain huge amounts of material.
Comets are thought to be made up of an extremely light, porous aggregation of the ices of various volatile elements and compounds, with a scattering of embedded dust and complex organic molecules. The ratio of dust to gas is estimated to range from 0.7 to 0.85 by mass.
The volatile component is thought to consist chiefly of water ice but also includes CO, CO2, methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3) and a variety of other compounds containing oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen. The ices are thought to include a high proportion of clathrates, in which other molecules are trapped inside the lattices of the frozen gases. The grains of dust and organic material may be remnants of the interstellar cloud or the condensing solar nebula. A break- down of the estimated abundances of the chief elemental and chemical constituents of a typical comet is presented in table 1.
Composition of Comet Nuclei: Estimated Abundances and Distributions
A. Elemental Abundances B. Mass & Volume Distribution of Principal Components Element Number (%) Mass (%) Component Mass (%) Volume (%) H 43.9 4.2 Silicates 21 8.6 C 6.7 7.7 Carbon (graphite) 6 3.4 N 2.7 3.8 Very Complex Organics 19 21.0 O 40.2 62.5 H2O 19 27.0 S 1.0 3.1 CO 10 13.0 Mg 1.9 4.5 Other 25 27.0 Si 1.8 4.9 Other Volatiles: CO2, CH4, N2, NH3, HCN, etc. Fe 1.6 8.8 Ni + Cr 0.1 0.6 Al — 0.4
The average density of cometary material is estimated to be about l to 1.5 g/cm3—close to that of water (1.0 g/cm3). This material is thought to be a porous matrix of solid grains and larger particles, with the gaps between them filled with ice. Comet nuclei are likely to be irregular in shape, uncompacted and undifferentiated: for a body under about 10 km diameter, the force of gravity is simply too weak to affect shape or structure to any significant degree. The aggregate would have a light. very fragile structure resembling that of windblown snow. Both structure and composition are expected to be fairly homogeneous throughout, although the surface layers (to a depth of perhaps 10 m) may undergo some alteration due to sublimation of ices, irradiation by cosmic rays and other radiation, and occasional sand-blasting from interstellar gas and dust.
This light fragile structure means that the resources present in the comet nuclei will be readily accessible to any human settlers. The porous mixture of dust and ice would offer little mechanical resistance, and the two components could easily be separated by the application of heat. Volatiles 'could be further refined through fractional distillation while the dust, which has a high content of iron and other ferrous metals, could easily be manipulated with magnetic fields. Little additional crushing or other mechanical processing of the dust would be necessary. and its fine, loose-grained structure would make it ideal for subsequent chemical processing and refining. Comet nuclei thus represent a vast reservoir of easily accessible materials: water, carbon dioxide. ammonia, methane. and a variety of metals and complex organics.
Although comets offer a huge reserve of easily accessible resources for any would-be settlers, they will be useless without a readily available supply of energy. Conditions at those distances from the Sun will be bleak: the Sun will not even be the brightest star in the deep black sky, and the temperature is a bare 10 K. Making the cold, barren ice islands of the comet nuclei habitable will be a formidable task, and energy consumption is likely to be very great. Yet energy will be the scarcest resource in the Oort Cloud.
The size of any comet-based communities will be closely constrained by two factors: the availability of energy sources and the rate of energy consumption. Access to a dependable, long-term energy source will be crucial to the establishment of a viable, self-sufficient settlement. Energy consumption levels will affect both the size and complexity of the economy, the standard of living, and longevity of the community as a whole.
What are some of the potential energy sources likely to be available?
Nuclear power—fission—is unlikely. Heavy elements such as uranium will be present in only minuscule amounts, certainly not enough to form the basis for a comfortable, long-term settlement. In addition, fission processes are “dirty” in the sense that they generate a relatively high flux of radioactivity that may be undesirable.
Another potential energy source is the controlled combustion of hydrogen and oxygen, which both occur in abundance in the vast amounts of water ice that makes up about one-fifth of each comet’s mass. The catch, of course, is that water must first be hydrolyzed, an energy-consuming process. Settlements closer to the Sun, say within 1,000 A.U., or those with sufficient surplus energy from other sources, may employ H2/O2 reaction cells for some purposes. Hydrogen combustion will probably serve as the major propellant for long-distance travel, but is unsuitable for basic power generation.
There is an alternate means of using hydrogen as an energy source—fusion. It seems reasonable to assume that the technology for fusion employing deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen that fuses relatively easily, will be available by the time settlement of the Oort Court begins. Estimates of the ratio of deuterium to simple hydrogen in interstellar gases vary from about 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000. Although rare, for an average-size comet this represents about 50,000 to 100,000 metric tons of deuterium.
This enormous store represents enough energy to support a population of millions for several centuries—but when the supply is gone, those millions will perish. It seems much more likely that Oort Cloud communities will choose to support much smaller populations for much greater lengths of time, husbanding their precious supply of deuterium for perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of years. They may also employ a more efficient alternative fusion pathway involving a mixture of deuterium. tritium (another hydrogen isotope), and helium to extend the lifetime of the available supply.
At some point humans may also learn how to initiate proton fusion and thereby assure a virtually unlimited supply of energy employing simple hydrogen, the most common element in the cosmos. But as yet, only the stars themselves have accomplished this on a large scale.
Finally, there is one alternative renewable source of energy available: starlight. The concept of harvesting starlight to support comet-based communities was first put forward by astrophysicist Eric Jones and anthropologist Ben Finney:In principle all one needs is a giant mirror to concentrate the thin photon stream. The mirrors would be truly gigantic … At half a parsec [about 1½ light- years] from a Sun-like star the minor would have to be about 1500 kilometers radius to collect a megawatt (roughly the size of the continental US). Practicality and common sense might well dictate a larger number of much smaller collectors.
Jones and Finney estimate a typical medium-sized comet could supply enough aluminum for mirror surfaces to collect about 300 megawatts (MW) from starlight. If additional metals were used. this capacity could be enhanced somewhat. Jones and Finney estimated per capita power consumption at 0.6 MW. about 30 times the current US rate of 20 to 25 KW per capita; thus the typical population of a comet-based community would be about 500.
The amount of aluminum and other reflective metals in a given comet will set a definite upper limit on the area of mirror surface that can be created, and thus on the population that can be supported by collecting starlight. Comet-based communities closer to the Sun in the inner Oort Cloud will therefore enjoy a higher photon flux and will have more energy available to them, and will be able to support larger populations.
Although the energy supply will be the most important limiting factor for any comet-based settlements, there are a host of other factors that will influence the nature of their economies. Most of these communities are likely to be small and isolated, with populations of only a few hundred. Such small economic systems are sure to face many limitations and constraints. Many types of tools, specialized pieces of equipment and expert skilled labor will all be in short supply. The economy will essentially be a closed system, especially for the more distant and isolated settlements. For many items and commodities, supply will not be related in any way to need or demand.
The members of these communities will of necessity be very dependent upon one another and are also likely to develop a strong conservation ethic; they will recycle as much as possible. Their relative isolation will encourage self-reliance and cooperation, as well as the pooling of skills, labor, and resources. Small, isolated, tightly closed economies are thus likely to be more communal in their outlook, particularly in regard to resources, power consumption, and the allocation of labor. Larger communities will probably have a wider variety of economic pattens.
Because populations are likely to be small, each individual will be of immense value to the community, representing a pool of knowledge, skills, and experiences as well as a heavy investment in training and education. It will be necessary for the settlers to become generalists: a small community will simply not have enough people to support a specialized expert in every field. Each person will have to develop a sound working knowledge in many overlapping fields, and consequently will have less time to devote to becoming expert in any one of them. Some specialties may have to be eliminated altogether in very small communities.
Many of these limitations and constraints can likely be alleviated or even eliminated with the aid of sophisticated technology. The exploration and settlement of the Oort Cloud, the establishment of viable communities in the cold deeps of space, will demand heavy reliance on many different forms of high-technology equipment. A combination of the right tools and skills to use them will be vital.
It seems unlikely that a small band of pioneers will be able to create a secure, comfortable niche in the Oort Cloud without the use of automated systems and artificial intelligence (AI). Such systems will eliminate the need for human intervention at many basic but routine levels of activity, freeing people to apply their skills where they are needed most. Computers and automated systems are skilled tools which can enhance and multiply human capabilities many-fold.
The human residents of the Oort Cloud will control and monitor the operation of a complex array of self-directed systems. Most of the basic comet-mining and materials processing operations will probably be automated. They will produce stockpiles of refined materials and, at the highest level of complexity, produce many types of finished products.
Artificially intelligent systems will also be essential to the viability of the communities, particularly for small settlements. They will rely heavily on expert systems—sophisticated computer programs that combine an extensive store of information with a powerful decision-making capability for interpreting complex data. They will operate at the level of a human expert that perhaps the community cannot support.
The human members of the community, with their generalized skills and experiences, will be capable of handling all the normal operations and events; the expert systems would serve to supplement and complete the basic suite of skills and abilities required to keep the community healthy.
Because of their dependence on AI systems, residents of the Oort communities will also need to be skilled in the manipulation and application of information. They will have access to the vast sum of human knowledge, but it will be useless to them without sophisticated information processing systems. They will have to become adept at working in cooperation with their AI systems to manage the masses of data available, to sift through it to extract what they need. The use of sophisticated computer-based systems will be a basic skill in every Oort Cloud community, and it seems likely that education will be based in large pan on AI systems.
All these factors will have a number of important effects on the shape of the settlement’s economy. The distribution of activity will be very different for any Earth-bound economic system.
The primary sector of the economy—the exploitation of natural resources—is likely to be small and almost completely automated. Human involvement will be minimal. The primary sector will consist of two basic activities: energy production and the harvesting of cometary resources. Once the appropriate systems are established, both will be relatively simply activities.
The secondary sector—the transformation of the natural resources—will include refining and processing the raw cometary feedstock, manufacturing. construction and assembly operations. agriculture and food production, and recycling. Again, many of these activities will be highly automated. but closer human supervision will be necessary to tailor these activities to the current needs of the community.
It is the tertiary sector of the economy, support services. that will engage the majority of human skill and attention. It will include operation of the utility and life support systems, maintenance and repair operations, transportation, health care, information processing, storage and retrieval. education and administration, business and commerce.
The settlers will have to choose between many different possible paths for development. Will they allow the community to grow, or should they impose controls on themselves to maintain a small population? Will they want their community to last many years at a low rate of consumption, or will they want to trade communal longevity for a higher rate of resource consumption? The outcome of these decisions will depend primarily on two factors: the available supply of resources and the standard of living that the community desires and will defend.
The average standard of living is likely to be quite comfortable, within the limits of the communities capabilities. Because of its extreme fragility, the surface of the comet itself will be unsuitable for permanent dwellings; the habitats will probably be free-flying. Physically, they may resemble the Bernal Spheres and O’Neill Cylinders already envisioned for space-based communities in the inner Solar System. The most significant difference will be the lack of large window surfaces, since there will be no need to admit sunlight for illumination, which will allow for an increase in the usable surface area inside the habitats.
Communities lacking a large supply of deuterium or those choosing to conserve their supply would locate their habitats at the center of huge arrays of mirrors for the collection of starlight. A variety of social and economic factors suggest the members of such a community, which would number about 500, would be dispersed throughout the array in bands of about 25 persons—a dozen adult men and women and their children.
Each band would tend a mirror farm stretching across perhaps 30,000 km of space, overseeing a complex network of robots and other automated systems responsible for the routine operation and maintenance of the mirror farm. In the event of an emergency requiring human intervention. the settlers would need to be able to reach even the edge of the array quickly, and so will gather the mirrors in tightly packed arrangements.
The individual mirror farms of the separate bands would then be clustered into a vast array supporting the community’s entire population, spread out over l50,000 to 200,000 km of space: an immense surface area of ultra-thin metal film centered around the invisible point of the comet nucleus. gathering the faint light of the stars. Communication between bands within the community could easily be maintained by radio and laser.
Despite the limitations of the environment, Oort Cloud communities that choose to grow and develop large economies will have many options. One of the most obvious ways to enhance their resource base will be to create clusters of comet nuclei. Clustering would require the commitment of significant amounts of time, energy and resources, but the potential rewards will ensure that some communities will begin to move additional comets into more convenient orbits.
Given the average separations and relative orbital velocities of comet nuclei in the Cloud. it would take between five and ten years to bring a new comet into a cluster. The energy required represents only about 3% to 5% of the available deuterium supply; clustering will be relatively economical once the necessary resources are committed to the project. Clustering will probably be common, if only because large comets will be rare.
Clustering would allow relatively large populations to exist, especially in the inner Oort Cloud, where the photon flux from the Sun will be fairly high and consequent energy production levels will be capable of supporting much larger communities. Jones and Finney have estimated that the largest practical population for a cluster will be about 100,000, when the energy consumed in transport between the dispersed habitats of the cluster begins to strain the reserves of the community. Social factors may also limit the size of large cluster-based communities.
In addition to clustering, there will be other means by which the settlements can enhance their economies. Their isolation in the depths of space will be a relative thing; they will be in constant communication with neighboring communities. The average separation between comets in the Cloud is thought to be a few light-hours; between settlements it will be perhaps a light-day. News, messages and other information will flow back and forth across the empty space between them.
Some settlements, particularly the larger ones, may engage in some sort of trade, both with the inner system and among themselves. Initially, many communities will need to import those items that they cannot make for themselves. As they develop, they may consider more complex forms of trade; it is certain the decision to expend the time, energy and resources in long-distance commerce will be a complex cost/benefit calculation.
Items for trade might include specialized technology, bioengineered species specifically tailored for conditions in the Oort Cloud, computer and AI programs, and information itself. Perhaps some communities will specialize within a larger dispersed cluster or bloc of trading communities.
Because of the constraints and limitation imposed by the environment, one primary social concern of the Oort Cloud communities will be the careful regulation of the health and size of their populations.
Until the settlement has developed the skills and resource base to support growth, some form of control will be necessary to limit the size of the population. In very small, isolated populations, even the timing of reproduction may need to be regulated, in order to maintain an appropriate distribution of age and sex.
Unless communities adopt fairly stringent measures, the population will inevitably grow. The members of the settlement will then have to choose between a higher rate of resource consumption, making a commitment to enhancing their resource base, or to assisting their excess population in establishing daughter settlements around other comet nuclei.
Both static and growing communities will also need to be concerned with the genetic health of their populations. Within the small, relatively isolated gene pools of the Oort Cloud settlements, population genetics will become a factor that will affect both everyday life and the long-term viability of the community.
Very early on, when a new community is being planned or established, a major concern will be the “founder effect”—the skewing of the genetic composition of a population because its founding members are very few. The danger exists that the founding members of a community may share too high a proportion of deleterious genes that will soon become reinforced in subsequent interbreeding. This problem could be largely eliminated by careful screening during the planning and recruitment stages for a new settlement. New colonists would in part be chosen to maximize genetic variation in the new population, providing a sound base for healthy future growth.
Founding populations can be very low—perhaps as low as l0 or 20 individuals—if the original breeders are genetically diverse and share few common deleterious genes. The negative effects of early inbreeding can also be avoided by social customs or other regulations that prevent bad crosses, particularly among close relatives.
The potential negative effects of inbreeding will remain, however, as the settlement's population grows and becomes more uniform, but will be of major concern only to very small, isolated groups. Both natural and artificial selection will come into play before inbreeding could cause serious damage to the health of the community. In nature. inbreeding often results in a high level of spontaneous abortions and early deaths; natural selection operates to remove the bad crosses from the breeding population. In healthy communities. matings would be structured either by intent or by social custom to minimize the negative effects of inbreeding. It is also important to remember that genetic uniformity need not be a problem provided that any deleterious genes are eliminated from the founding population and that any new negative traits arising by mutation are culled or otherwise prevented from breeding. Genetic engineering techniques may also be employed to maintain a healthy gene pool.
The human consequences of such requirements for the maintenance of the community's genetic health will be great. The social tensions generated by the practice of eugenics and genetic engineering may also be difficult to manage. However, there are other options for communities that wish to avoid negative inbreeding, including out-breeding with other settlements.
Out-breeding has the obvious positive effect of increasing genetic variability. But its practice also sen/es as a mechanism for complex social interaction as well.
Prior to the terrestrial agricultural revolution, people tended to live within small hunting and gathering bands of about 20 to 30 men, women. and children. It has been noted by various social anthropologists that groups of this size still seem to be the most congenial to humans worldwide in both their private and professional lives. This preference is no doubt part of our physical and social evolutionary heritage.
But humans also tended to form larger social units, gathering into clans or tribes numbering about 500 or so. Normally dispersed as individual bands, the tribes maintained social cohesion through intermarriage. Indeed, the size of such groups is just about the minimum number needed to maintain a healthy diversity within the common gene pool and to avoid inbreeding.
It is possible to anticipate, then, that the dispersed communities of the Oort Cloud may form similar social links. A single community tending an extensive mirror farm as described earlier could form a viable, self-contained breeding population by marriage exchanges between bands. In addition to preserving the genetic health of the community, such exchanges would serve to link the bands into a large, cohesive social unit. Just as dispersed tribes on Earth gathered periodically for important social and religious observances, so too might the dispersed bands of a comet-based settlement gather their entire population on occasion.
Out-breeding would also allow individuals whose reproduction might otherwise be restricted or forbidden to find an alternative, providing an outlet for any tensions that might arise. And if such a place could not be found within the tribe, there is also the possibility of exchanges with other communities around other nearby comets. Such exchanges would be more expensive in terms of time and energy, but would serve to cement social ties between settlements.
The necessity for monitoring gene flow within a given population, along with all the other shaping influences of the deep space environment, will have profound social consequences for the Oort Cloud communities.
Habitat residents will be able to set temperature, humidity, day length, the weather, atmospheric pressure, even the level of gravity according to their collective preference and the limitations of human physiology. They may even choose to live in zero gravity. Life style and social values, the entire “world view" of the Oort Cloud settlers will be very different from those of any terrestrial culture.
Without diurnal or seasonal variations, their sense of time will differ. Their perceptions and use of space may also differ, and the ways in which private and public volumes are used and arranged thereby altered. In a tightly closed artificial environment, attitudes toward clothing and nudity are likely to change radically, as is the concept of privacy.
In personal relationships, love, sex and mating will all be quite separate. Family structures are likely to be very different when marriage or cohabitation preferences may differ from permissible genetic crosses. Breeding will be much more of a social decision than it is on Earth. Given a basic band-and-tribe social structure, extended families are likely to be common. Communal or collective family arrangements may also be common.
Social, political and administrative systems will also change, and new ones will arise. They will be shaped not only by the age-old needs and limitations of human social interaction, but also by wholly new factors unique to the deep space environment. Settlers in the Oort Cloud will face the exciting challenge of creating workable societies from whole cloth.
As always, the basic social conflict within these communities will be between the needs and constraints of society as a whole and the personal freedom of individuals. Members of these small, isolated communities will be faced with a variety of constraints.
Restrictions on breeding practices may be imposed by the community in order to maintain a balanced, genetically healthy population. In very small settlements,'even the timing of births may be regulated in order to preserve a balanced distribution of male and female, young, middle-aged and elderly. Communities aiming for a low or static population growth rate may impose strict absolute limits on breeding until the resource base has been developed to support larger numbers.
Similarly, young people born and raised in an Oort Cloud settlement may face fairly tight constraints in their choice of career or vocation. As in all economies, the needs or demands of the community will determine the types of work available; career choices may often be a matter of timing and happenstance. In small communities, where age and gender distributions may have to be carefully controlled, career choices will be limited for the limited number of youths available for apprenticeship: they will be pressured to take the positions that need to be filled as they come of age.
New settlements with undeveloped capabilities, and smaller settlements with few resources or a limited energy supply may also impose some restraints; small. isolated communities will probably be conservative in approving unnecessary expenditures of scarce resources, thus limiting the range of possible private and professional activity.
Social values are likely to have an enormous shaping influence on the types of social systems that develop in the distant Oort Cloud communities. These settlements, perhaps comprised of highly interrelated clans, are likely to place a high value on cooperation, consensus decision making, and compromise. In the hostile and unrelenting deep space environment, where cooperation and mutual interdependence will be crucial to survival, they will feel a strong need to maintain social harmony.
Members of such tightly knit communities will face a variety of social pressures: they will be part of a symbiotic network of duties and obligations. There will be ties to family and to tribe or clan, in addition to the community as a whole. Complex interrelationships will arise when emotional and sexual relations must be separated from breeding, as well as when family and friends emigrate to other habitats and communities. As in Earthbound societies, education, in addition to training each person for the complex task of deep space survival, will probably also serve as a primary means of inculcating the community’s social values.
But there are other factors to counterbalance these pressures and constraints, to allow for the preservation of individual freedoms. In a community where every individual represents a heavy investment in education and training, and a valuable pool of badly needed skills and experience, rigid social controls such as ostracism, imprisonment, or capital punishment seem unlikely; a large range of social behavior will have to be tolerated. Coercion would be difficult at best, especially in very small communities with few resources or personnel to spare for “police actions”; nonconformists and dissidents must be allowed to find or to create an acceptable niche within the community. Larger settlements, in which any one individual plays a less vital role, may develop more rigid social structures.
The Oort Cloud communities will need to develop social and political mechanisms to ensure the freedom to express diversity and individual choice, to avoid oppressive measures aimed at enforcing unnecessary conformity to arbitrary community standards, and to eliminate or at least alleviate the negative consequences of community decisions.
It is likely a wide-variety of social systems will develop among the Oort Cloud settlements. In some, social pressures may win out. and a rigid, authoritarian social structure created. But the need for consensus and close cooperation among community residents may help prevent the development of oppressive. highly stratified societies, at least among the smaller settlements. Similarly, the necessities of cooperation and mutual dependence will temper any tendency toward extreme individualism. Individuals will be expected to take responsibility for their actions and their role in the community; both wild individualism and blind obedience to social convention would be frowned upon.
In such a social context, within a culture that values diversity, mutualism, and social harmony, current Western-style democracy may be considered inappropriate. Despite constitutional guarantees, majority rule often enforces homogeneity and suppresses minority viewpoints. Democratic systems, in which individuals are expected to “vote in their own interests," might also foster a divisiveness that small, isolated communities could ill afford.
The smaller band-and-tribe settlements may favor consensus decision making, in which minority and dissident viewpoints can be more easily accommodated. But such systems also have a drawback: because everyone must agree to the joint decision to reach a consensus, community members may feel pressured to “go along with the group." If the pressures became strong enough, they might foster a dangerous and oppressive homogeneity.
Another communal decision-making system that often appears among communities of closely-related, tribal peoples is the “hardship-on-no-one" arrangement. In such a system, the emphasis is not so much on the final decision reached as on the consequences of each option. Decisions are often based on finding the option that places the least burden on the least number of individuals, and working to alleviate even those negative results of communal decisions. For example, youths guided toward a career specialty the community deems important might be allowed to pursue secondary specialties of their own choosing.
A drawback to this system as well as for consensus decision-making systems is that they are often very time-consuming processes.
As on Earth. the Oort Cloud communities may choose to deal with some social pressures by displacing them spatially. Nonconformists and dissidents in one band may find a comfortable and rewarding social niche in another habitat within their native tribe. Although a single clustered community would have a pool of shared communal values, each habitat within the settlement might have its own individual system, offering enough diversity to accommodate and alleviate most social frictions. As a last resort. migration between settlements would provide a social safety valve.
It thus seems likely that a variety of social systems would arise among the Cloud settlements. They will have to respond to numerous needs and demands, seeking to find a balance between maintaining a stable, functional society and personal freedom for individuals.
The size of the community will be an important factor in its social development. The larger Oort Cloud settlements will probably offer a wider range of social forms. They may be able to accommodate more competition and divisiveness. Large communities, however. are also difficult to administer by consensus, and may employ a form of electronic democracy. Clustering, trade, and the development of the settlement’s resource base and capabilities would create opportunities for the creation of more diverse and complex societies. A mosaic of many different social forms, distributed throughout the settlement. seems possible.
But even the largest of the Oort Cloud communities will be quite small in comparison to the societies of billions that will develop in the inner Solar System. As the relatively compact inner core of the system is developed, it will become more tightly integrated socially and economically, more centralized, and its culture more homogeneous. Although it may take some centuries, it is likely that mass cultures with populations of billions will eventually develop.
The small, dispersed communities of the Oort Cloud will remain largely independent of the inner core governments and societies. Their potential for diversity may offer a refuge for dissident groups seeking to leave the mass societies of the inner Solar System.
Just as the relative isolation of the Oort Cloud settlements from the inner system and from each other will foster social divergence and cultural diversity, so, too, will it create the conditions necessary for biological divergence and evolutionary change. As we know from terrestrial experience, reproductive isolation fosters such change—as Charles Darwin observed when he visited the Galapagos Islands as a young man. Diversity also fosters adaptive radiation—the opening and exploitation of new niches in the environment.
Many factors are likely to encourage human evolutionary diversity in the Oort Cloud. Despite all efforts, the founder effect and random drift will cause some changes in the small isolated gene pools. Fortuitous beneficial mutations may be retained and encouraged to spread, and perhaps enhanced by artificial means. Eugenics and genetic engineering are likely to be well integrated into the social and economic life of the settlements, both as a means of maintaining a healthy gene pool and in the production of goods and trade items. Bioengineered products may be common.
Social values will also be very different, and the distant Oort Cloud communities will feel much less keenly the social. cultural and governmental pressures that might prevent biological experimentation among the inner system cultures. Their environment and lives will be very different; they may choose to remake themselves in their own image. to adapt themselves to the needs of living in deep space.
Estimates of the time required for natural selection to produce a new species of human being range upward toward a million years. However. in the small. isolated gene pools of the Oort Cloud settlements. perhaps encouraged by directed breeding practices and human genetic engineering. it would not take long for any chances to become widespread. Minor changes might take a few generations—perhaps a century —to become entrenched. Major structural or biochemical alterations would probably be attempted more slowly, on a scale of many hundreds or thousands of years. But it is clear that a new species of genus Homo could appear within about l0,000 years.
The exploration and settlement of the far reaches of the Oort Cloud will also have a profound effect on the course of human migration to other star systems. Simply reaching the Oort Cloud and establishing viable, long-term settlements there will spur the development of the technology required for interstellar flight. Although the propulsion systems needed for journeys of tens of hundreds of light-years will differ from those used to travel only one or two, the opening of the Oort Cloud will serve as the proving ground for such systems. as well as the development of closed artificial ecosystems. The social experiments of the Cloud communities may also play an important role in starship design.
Though many interstellar missions may be launched by the large and wealthy inner Solar System cultures. others may depart from construction sites or launch points in the far reaches of Sol's Oort Cloud. which stretches out to perhaps two light-years—a significant head start. Such ships may travel directly across the deep oceans of space to reach other stars, but others may visit way stations during their journey: comets drifting in interstellar space. Estimates of the total amount of material ejected from the Solar System during its formation and subsequent evolution range from as low as 5 to 25 times the mass of the Earth up to l00 or even l,000 Earth masses. Presumably, other stars would produce roughly similar numbers of rogue comets. Interstellar space should be strewn with small. isolated islands.
Distances between these drifting islands are difficult to estimate. They may be no more widely spaced that the comets of the Oort Cloud—about 20 A.U. Other estimates range up to hundreds of thousands of A.U. between these wandering interstellar comets.
Some of these interlopers are bound to be found within Sol’s own Oort Cloud, working their way free of the Sun’s grip, at perhaps one in every several thousand. Relative velocities between Solar and interstellar comets will be low, and it will be tempting for Oort Cloud residents to hitch a ride outward—perhaps farther out into the permanent Cloud, perhaps out into interstellar space. Drifting outward at about 10 km/s or about 2 A.U. per year, they will make slow progress indeed. In 50,000 years they will be halfway to the nearest stars. But by then they will be wholly adapted to life in interstellar space and will perhaps not be too concerned with visiting other star systems.
One could imagine the human species slowly spreading throughout the galaxy in this way, but it seems more likely humanity will move from star to star by fast ship, followed by slowly expanding waves of comet-based settlements meeting and overlapping in the voids between the settled stars.
Other, more daring Oort Cloud communities may choose to take their home comet with them. If the slow outward drift seems too slow to them, and fast ships too expensive, they may attempt to launch themselves out of the Solar System via a gravity-assist maneuver close to the Sun.
Large rocket engines burning hydrogen and oxygen, or perhaps a mass driver, could be used to dissipate the comet’s orbital velocity using only a fraction of the comet’s resources. During the long fall toward the Sun, the adventurers could use the rapidly increasing flux of solar energy to produce huge stores of hydrogen, to be consumed in fuel cells to provide power during the long interstellar cruise. The mirror farms or other solar power collectors would also serve to shield the comet nucleus from the Sun.
After curving around Sol, the comet would leave the system with a velocity of 100 to 150 km/s, or about 1 light-year every 2,000 years. Travel times between star systems would be on the order of 10,000 years—far shorter than that of drifting “wild” comets. During the interstellar journey the settlers would live as they had in the Oort Cloud, relying on their comet’s stock of deuterium or on hydrogen produced when close to the sun. In the target system, a small band of colonists would be dropped off aboard habitats constructed during the long cruise, before rounding the new star and heading off toward a new destination.
It thus seems likely that human expansion into the comet archipelago of the distant reaches of the Oort Cloud will only be the first step toward expansion to other star systems. Comet-based settlements will be humanity's stepping stones to the stars. across the far-flung islands in the deep ocean of interstellar space.
When it comes to interstellar colonizations, the distances are so long, the delta V requirements so astronomical, and the travel times are so prolonged that you'd better be blasted sure there is actually a planet there to colonize.
Excitingly the astronomical state of the art has advanced to the point where they can actually detect the presence of extrasolar planets. Currently the NASA Exoplanet Archive is listing 3,431 of the sightings as "confirmed."
The Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo continually studies the data, and has a small number classified as "Conservatively Potentially Habitable Exoplanets" and a larger number classified as "Optimistically Potentially Habitable Exoplanets". Please note that "habitable" means "it is not totally impossible to live there." It does NOT mean it is a tropical paradise, or even that it won't kill you if you step out of the spacecraft in your shirt-sleeves.
"Conservatively Potentially Habitable Exoplanets" means very likely to be of rocky composition (instead of being a worthless gas giant) and very likely to maintain surface liquid water (instead of being permanent ice or pure life steam). The definition of "rocky composition" is planet radius between 0.5 and 1.5 Earth radii and planet minimum mass between 0.1 and 5.0 Earth masses. The definition of "surface liquid water" is planet orbiting within the conservative habitable zone.
"Optimistically Potentially Habitable Exoplanets" has standards that are a bit more lax. This means the planet is less likely to have a rocky composition and less likely to maintain surface liquid water. The definition of "rocky composition" is planet radius between 1.5 and 2.5 Earth radii and planet minimum mass between 5.0 and 10.0 Earth Masses (i.e., a "super-earth") The definition of "surface liquid water is a planet orbiting within the optimistic habitable zone.
As of 2016 these are the conservatively and optimistically potentially habitable planets listed by the Planetary Habitability Laboratory:
Conservatively Potentially Habitable Exoplanets
|001. Proxima Cen b||M-Warm Terran||≥ 1.3||0.8 - 1.1 - 1.4||0.70||227||11.2||4||0.87|
|002. GJ 667 C c||M-Warm Terran||≥ 3.8||1.1 - 1.5 - 2.0||0.88||247||28.1||22||0.84|
|003. Kepler-442 b||K-Warm Terran||8.2 - 2.3 - 1.0||1.3||0.70||233||112.3||1115||0.84|
|004. GJ 667 C f*||M-Warm Terran||≥ 2.7||1.0 - 1.4 - 1.8||0.56||221||39.0||22||0.77|
|005. Wolf 1061 c||M-Warm Terran||≥ 4.3||1.1 - 1.6 - 2.0||0.60||223||17.9||14||0.76|
|006. Kepler-1229 b||M-Warm Terran||9.8 - 2.7 - 1.2||1.4||0.49||213||86.8||769||0.73|
|007. Kapteyn b*||M-Warm Terran||≥ 4.8||1.2 - 1.6 - 2.1||0.43||205||48.6||13||0.67|
|008. Kepler-62 f||K-Warm Terran||10.2 - 2.8 - 1.2||1.4||0.39||201||267.3||1200||0.67|
|009. Kepler-186 f||M-Warm Terran||4.7 - 1.5 - 0.6||1.2||0.29||188||129.9||561||0.61|
|010. GJ 667 C e*||M-Warm Terran||≥ 2.7||1.0 - 1.4 - 1.8||0.30||189||62.2||22||0.60|
Optimistically Potentially Habitable Exoplanets
|001. Kepler-438 b||M-Warm Terran||4.0 - 1.3 - 0.6||1.1||1.38||276||35.2||473||0.88|
|002. Kepler-296 e||M-Warm Terran||12.5 - 3.3 - 1.4||1.5||1.22||267||34.1||737||0.85|
|003. Kepler-62 e||K-Warm Superterran||18.7 - 4.5 - 1.9||1.6||1.10||261||122.4||1200||0.83|
|004. Kepler-452 b||G-Warm Superterran||19.8 - 4.7 - 1.9||1.6||1.11||261||384.8||1402||0.83|
|005. K2-72 e||M-Warm Terran||9.8 - 2.7 - 1.2||1.4||1.46||280||24.2||181||0.82|
|006. GJ 832 c||M-Warm Superterran||≥ 5.4||1.2 - 1.7 - 2.2||1.00||253||35.7||16||0.81|
|007. K2-3 d||M-Warm Terran||11.1||1.5||1.46||280||44.6||137||0.80|
|008. Kepler-1544 b||K-Warm Superterran||31.7 - 6.6 - 2.6||1.8||0.90||248||168.8||1138||0.80|
|009. Kepler-283 c||K-Warm Superterran||35.3 - 7.0 - 2.8||1.8||0.90||248||92.7||1741||0.79|
|010. tau Cet e*||G-Warm Terran||≥ 4.3||1.1 - 1.6 - 2.0||1.51||282||168.1||12||0.78|
|011. Kepler-1410 b||K-Warm Superterran||31.7 - 6.6 - 2.6||1.8||1.34||274||60.9||1196||0.78|
|012. GJ 180 c*||M-Warm Superterran||≥ 6.4||1.3 - 1.8 - 2.3||0.79||239||24.3||38||0.77|
|013. Kepler-1638 b||G-Warm Superterran||42.7 - 7.9 - 3.1||1.9||1.39||276||259.3||2866||0.76|
|014. Kepler-440 b||K-Warm Superterran||41.2 - 7.7 - 3.1||1.9||1.43||273||101.1||851||0.75|
|015. GJ 180 b*||M-Warm Superterran||≥ 8.3||1.3 - 1.9 - 2.4||1.23||268||17.4||38||0.75|
|016. Kepler-705 b||M-Warm Superterran||? - 12.7 - 4.8||2.1||0.83||243||56.1||818||0.74|
|017. HD 40307 g*||K-Warm Superterran||≥ 7.1||1.3 - 1.8 - 2.3||0.68||227||197.8||42||0.74|
|018. GJ 163 c||M-Warm Superterran||≥ 7.3||1.3 - 1.8 - 2.4||0.66||230||25.6||49||0.73|
|019. Kepler-61 b||K-Warm Superterran||? - 13.8 - 5.2||2.2||1.27||267||59.9||1063||0.73|
|020. K2-18 b||M-Warm Superterran||? - 16.5 - 6.0||2.2||0.92||250||32.9||111||0.73|
|021. Kepler-1606 b||G-Warm Superterran||? - 11.9 - 4.5||2.1||1.41||277||196.4||2869||0.73|
|022. Kepler-1090 b||G-Warm Superterran||? - 16.8 - 6.1||2.3||1.20||267||198.7||2289||0.72|
|023. Kepler-443 b||K-Warm Superterran||? - 19.5 - 7.0||2.3||0.89||247||177.7||2540||0.71|
|024. Kepler-22 b||G-Warm Superterran||? - 20.4 - 7.2||2.4||1.11||261||289.9||619||0.71|
|025. GJ 422 b*||M-Warm Superterran||≥ 9.9||1.4 - 2.0 - 2.6||0.68||231||26.2||41||0.71|
|026. K2-9 b||M-Warm Superterran||? - 16.8 - 6.1||2.2||1.38||276||18.4||359||0.71|
|027. Kepler-1552 b||K-Warm Superterran||? - 25.2 - 8.7||2.5||1.11||261||184.8||2015||0.70|
|028. GJ 3293 c*||M-Warm Superterran||≥ 8.6||1.4 - 1.9 - 2.5||0.60||223||48.1||59||0.70|
|029. Kepler-1540 b||K-Warm Superterran||? - 26.2 - 9.0||2.5||0.92||250||125.4||854||0.70|
|030. Kepler-298 d||K-Warm Superterran||? - 26.8 - 9.1||2.5||1.29||271||77.5||1545||0.68|
|031. Kepler-174 d||K-Warm Superterran||? - 14.8 - 5.5||2.2||0.43||206||247.4||1174||0.61|
|032. Kepler-296 f||M-Warm Superterran||28.7 - 6.1 - 2.5||1.8||0.34||194||63.3||737||0.60|
|033. GJ 682 c*||M-Warm Superterran||≥ 8.7||1.4 - 1.9 - 2.5||0.37||198||57.3||17||0.59|
|034. KOI-4427 b*||M-Warm Superterran||38.5 - 7.4 - 3.0||1.8||0.24||179||147.7||782||0.52|
- Name - Name of the planet. This links to the data of the planet at the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia or NASA Exoplanet Archive.
- Type - PHL's classification of planets that includes host star spectral type (F, G, K, M), habitable zone location (hot, warm, cold) and size (miniterran, subterran, terran, superterran, jovian, neptunian) (e.g. Earth = G-Warm Terran, Venus = G-Hot Terran, Mars = G-Warm Subterran).
- Mass - Minimum mass of the planet in Earth masses (Earth = 1.0 ME). Estimated for a pure iron, rocky, and water composition, respectively, when not available.
- Radius - Radius of planet in Earth radii (Earth = 1.0 RE). Estimated for a pure iron, rocky, and water composition, respectively, when not available.
- Flux - Average stellar flux of the planet in Earth fluxes (Earth = 1.0 SE).
- Teq - Equilibrium temperature in kelvins (K) assuming a 0.3 bond albedo (Earth = 255 K). Actual surface temperatures are expected to be larger than the equilibrium temperature depending on the atmosphere of the planets, which are currently unknown (e.g. Earth mean global surface temperature is about 288 K or 15°C).
- Period - Orbital period in days (Earth = 365 days).
- Distance - Distance from Earth in light years (ly).
- ESI - Earth Similarity Index, a measure of similarity to Earth that summarizes how similar are these planets to the stellar flux, mass, and radius of Earth (Earth = 1.0). Results are sorted by this number. Planets more similar to Earth are not necessarily more habitable, since the ESI does not consider all factors necessary for habitability.
I took the stars that were closer than 13 parsecs (42 light-years) and played with the data. I tried to make some connection charts to show the direction of colonization. Note that there are about 900 known stars in this volume. I am trying to make a baby-step map with the path between the zillions of empty stars leading to the good ones. This is going to take a while so be patient.