Colonizing Ceres

Let’s talk about a certain dwarf planet. No, not Pluto. We’ll save that for Pluto month. Right now, we’re talking about Ceres.

Jy10 Jealous Ceres

Totally legit Hubble image of Ceres with Pluto visible in the background.

Someday, perhaps someday soon, humanity will start spreading across the Solar System. When we do, the dwarf planet Ceres could become an important part of our interplanetary infrastructure.

Ceres has been in the news a lot lately (almost as much as Pluto). During a recent visit by the Dawn spacecraft, we discovered some surprising features:

  • A single, lonely mountain in the midst of an otherwise flat landscape.
  • An unidentified white substance (water ice?) in the basins of several craters.
  • Plumes of water vapor escaping into space, hinting at possible subsurface oceans.

Even if Ceres doesn’t have vast oceans of liquid water beneath its surface, evidence suggests it at least has plenty of water ice. Water in any form is an incredibly valuable resource for space travelers, and not only for the obvious reasons.

Water can be used for:

  • Drinking (obviously).
  • Washing (obviously).
  • Oxygen: through electrolysis, water can be separated into oxygen and hydrogen, providing a spaceship’s crew with breathable air.
  • Rocket fuel: hydrogen and oxygen, cryogenically stored in liquid forms, make excellent rocket fuel.
  • Radiation shielding: water is surprisingly good at blocking solar and cosmic radiation. Well positioned water tanks on a spaceship’s exterior could do a lot to protect the crew.

A colony (or at least an outpost) on Ceres could serve as a convenient refueling depot for spacecraft heading out beyond the asteroid belt or for valiant explorers returning to the inner Solar System. A watering hole in space, if you will.

At the very least, it could make a fun setting for a Sci-Fi story.

7 Responses to Colonizing Ceres

  1. One of the problems with Ceres is the surface gravity is only 0.03g, which seems like anyone on the surface would basically have to anchor themselves down to avoid accidentally launching themselves large distances. (Pluto isn’t a whole lot better, at 0.06g.)

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    • James Pailly says:

      True enough. I initially thought that would be an advantage for space travelers who are only stopping there to refuel, although now that I’m thinking about it landings could be tricky on such a low gravity world.

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    • Most sci-fi has the colonists live inside the asteroids, solving that particular problem. To me, the real problem with the low gravity is that your inhabitants have to be permanent. Spend too much time there, and your bones and muscles will be too weak to go back to a planet. I also wonder how children born in such low gravity will develop physically. I wonder if they’ve tried raising mice or something from birth on a space station?

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      • Good point. In the Expanse, the Ceres colony is in the interior and the entire asteroid has been spun to give artificial gravity (about 1/3 g if I recall correctly). But a lot of the population is still adapted to that environment, tall and thin and unable to bear planetary gravity.

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      • I haven’t read expanse yet…

        If you spin a small habitat too fast, I think it could cause dizziness, but I’m not sure what the numbers are.

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      • Coriolis sickness. I suspect something as big as Ceres could be spun up pretty fast, assuming there’s a way to engineer that. But small spacecraft? Yeah, it’s a problem.

        One solution proposed by Robert Zubrin (and probably many others) is to tether the spacecraft to a spent fuel stage and have them spin around each other. The length of the tether keeps the circle large and minimizes Coriolis sickness. The problem is that simulations show that the tether will eventually break if you spin up too fast, so you’re still limited on how much artificial gravity you can provide.

        Expanse is pretty good if you’re looking for space opera adventure. A TV series adaptation is coming in December.

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