Humans could move to this floating colony in the asteroid belt over the next 15 years, astrophysicist says


Now more than ever, space agencies and star-eyed billionaires are determined to find a new home for humanity beyond Earth’s orbit. March is an obvious candidate, given its relatively close proximity, 24-hour day / night cycle, and CO2– rich atmosphere. However, there is a space school of thought that suggests colonizing the surface of another planet – any planet – is harder than it’s worth.

Now a new article posted Jan 6 in the Preprint Database arXiv offers a creative counter-proposal: Abandon the red planet and build a gargantuan floating habitat around the dwarf planet Ceres, instead of.

In the article, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, astrophysicist Pekka Janhunen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki describes his vision of a “mega-satellite” of thousands of cylindrical spacecraft, all interconnected. them inside a disc-shaped frame that constantly orbits Ceres – the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Each of these cylindrical habitats could accommodate up to 50,000 people, support an artificial atmosphere and generate Earth-like gravity through the centrifugal force of its own rotation, Janhunen wrote. (This general idea, first proposed in the 1970s, is known as O’Neill cylinder).

Related: Populating a Martian base will be dangerously sexy

But why Ceres? Its average distance of Earth is comparable to that of Mars, Janhunen wrote, which makes travel relatively easy – but the dwarf planet also has a big elemental advantage. Ceres is rich in nitrogen, which would be crucial in developing the atmosphere of the orbiting colony, Janhunen said (Earth’s atmosphere contains around 79% nitrogen). could use space elevators to transfer raw materials from the planet directly to their orbiting habitats.

This orbital lifestyle would also resolve one of the biggest caveats Janhunen sees in the idea of ​​a Martian surface colony: the health impacts of low gravity.

“My concern is that children on a Martian colony do not develop into healthy adults (in terms of muscle and bone) due to the Martian gravity being too low,” Janhunen told Live Science in an e- mail. “Therefore, I sought [an] alternative that would offer [Earth-like] gravity but also an interconnected world. “

Even so, Janhunen’s proposal comes with its own caveats that could hinder the success of a Ceres colony, an outside researcher pointed out.

This NASA illustration shows what the inside of an O’Neill cylinder might look like. Each habitat would have an artificial atmosphere, Earth-like gravity, and a mixture of urban and agricultural space. (Image credit: Rick Guidice courtesy of NASA)

Welcome to the world of records

According to Janhunen’s proposal, each cylinder of the Ceres mega-satellite would produce its own gravity by rotation; each cylindrical habitat would be approximately 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) long, have a radius of 0.6 miles (1 km), and perform one full rotation every 66 seconds to generate the centrifugal force needed to simulate Earth’s gravity.

A single cylinder could comfortably hold around 57,000 people, Janhunen said, and would be held in place alongside its neighboring cylinders by powerful magnets, like those used in magnetic levitation.

Janhunen’s mega-satellite would consist of a disc of interconnected habitat cylinders (center), flanked on both sides by massive mirrors to direct sunlight toward the colony. (Image credit: Pekka Janhunen)

This interconnection underscores the other big advantage of mega-satellite life, Janhunen said: New habitat cylinders could be added indefinitely to the edges of the colony, allowing for almost unlimited expansion.

“The surface of Mars is smaller than that of Earth and, therefore, it cannot support significant population and economic expansion,” Janhunen told Live Science. A Ceres colony, on the other hand, “can grow from one to millions of habitats.”

See the light

Beyond the cylinders and their massive disc frame, the main features of the colony will be two huge glass mirrors, tilted 45 degrees to the disc to reflect just enough natural sunlight in each habitat. A portion of each cylinder will be devoted to growing crops and trees, planted in a 1.5-meter-thick bed of soil derived from raw materials from Ceres, Janhunen wrote. Natural sunlight should keep them growing. (The “urban” part of each cylinder, meanwhile, would rely on artificial light to simulate an Earth-like day / night cycle. Janhunen does not specify where the colony’s oxygen is coming from.)

Related: 10 interesting places in the solar system we’d love to visit

This society of floating cylindrical utopias may seem a bit far-fetched, but it has its supporters. In 2019, Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon and founder of private space company Blue Origin) spoke at an event in Washington, DC on the merits of building “O’Neill settlements” similar to the one Janhunen describes here. Bezos was skeptical that such a colony would exist in our lifetime, asking the audience, “How are we going to build O’Neill settlements? I don’t know and no one in this room knows.”

However, Janhunen is more optimistic. In an email to Live Science, he said the first human settlers may begin to come to Ceres within the next 15 years.

The future is bright when you live in a cylinder of habitat millions of miles from Earth. (Image credit: Don Davis courtesy of NASA)

Next year on Ceres?

Manasvi Lingam, assistant professor of astrobiology at the Florida Institute of Technology who studies the habitability of the planet, said Ceres’ proposal presents a “plausible alternative” to colonizing the surface of Mars or the Moon, but lacks still key considerations.

“I would say there are three main caveats,” Lingam, who was not involved in the article, told Live Science. “The first is a question of other essential elements, other than nitrogen.”

A key element that is not mentioned in the document is phosphorus, Lingam said. The human body depends on phosphorus to create DNA, RNA and ATP (a vital form of energy storage in cells). All organisms on Earth – including all the plants that settlers might hope to grow in their floating habitats – need it in one way or another, but Janhunen’s proposal does not indicate where or how this essential element. would be obtained.

The second caveat is technology, Lingam said. Collecting nitrogen and other raw materials from Ceres would require mining the planet’s surface and extracting these crucial elements from the rocks themselves. This operation would probably not be possible without a fleet of autonomous mining vehicles ready to be deployed on Ceres, as well as satellites to guide them to the most viable nutrient-rich deposits. The idea is plausible, Lingam said, but technologically we’re not there yet; most recently (January 15), a NASA robot on Mars was declared dead after failing to burrow just 5 meters (16 feet) into the Martian surface, ending a two-year mission.

These technological limitations point to Lingam’s third caveat, which is the proposed timeline. Janhunen’s proposal suggests that the mega-satellite’s first orbiting habitat cluster could be completed 22 years after mining began on Ceres. But this estimate assumes that the colony’s available power supply grows exponentially each year, starting immediately and never stopping due to technological or logistical issues. This estimate “is not inconceivable,” Lingam said, but should not be taken for granted.

“This 22-year timescale might be the lower bound under optimal conditions, but I would say the actual timescale could be much longer,” Lingam said.

Originally posted on Live Science.

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