Settling on the Moon or Mars may be all the buzz. But how about we all move to an icy dwarf planet in the middle of the Solar System? To Ceres. What would make this a good candidate for a space settlement? What kind of orbiting habitat could we build there? And what would it be like to settle on the surface of this icy world?
Welcome to Ceres, the only dwarf planet within the inner Solar System. With a radius of 476 km (296 mi), Ceres is 13 times smaller than Earth. But it’s the largest object located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And it looks just like our own Moon.
Here on Ceres, a day is only nine hours compared to 24 on Earth. And one year is 1,682 Earth days. In 2015, Ceres became the first dwarf planet to be visited by a space probe. And studies suggest there could be an ocean of water beneath the planet’s cold surface.
This dwarf planet is a cryovolcano. That means it spews out volatiles, elements that have a low boiling point. So, instead of lava, it erupts with water, ammonia, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. How could we use all the riches of Ceres to establish our new home there?
The biggest drawback of settling on the Moon or Mars is that they both have very little gravity. This could have adverse health effects for humans in the long term, such as bone and muscle mass loss. It’s for this reason that some scientists have proposed constructing a massive mega-satellite world orbiting Ceres.
This satellite habitat is known as an O’Neill Cylinder. Physicist Gerard K. O’Neill proposed it in 1974. And if we constructed enough of these O’Neill Cylinders around Ceres, we could create an extensive network of habitats to support billions of people.
One mega-satellite would consist of spinning cylindrical habitats attached to a disk-shaped satellite frame. Each habitat would have a radius of 1 km (0.6 mi) and a length of 10 km (6 mi). That’s one hundred times larger than the International Space Station. Each O’Neill Cylinder would be big enough to house about 28,000 people.
And all the materials we’d need to construct this behemoth? Well, they’d come straight from Ceres itself. And there is enough material on the dwarf planet to create a livable surface area 400 times larger than Earth. We could house 12,000 times the current population of the world in the orbit of an icy planet. Imagine living comfortably in a space station with that many people.
To extract all the resources from Ceres, we’d need to construct a space elevator. This elevator would run from the surface of the planet to the space habitat. But we couldn’t construct the space habitat too close to the surface of Ceres. That would be risky because of the effects of the tidal forces. If we built our habitat too close, Ceres could destroy it before we could bring people on.
Our station would need to be at a safe distance from the surface. And our space elevator would need to be very long, at least 1,024 km (636 mi). That’s almost three times the distance between Earth and the International Space Station. If our civilization lived in the orbit of Ceres, our habitats would require certain qualities for people to thrive.
We’d need to develop radiation shielding, a 24-hour cycle between day and night and gravity similar to home. We’d need to create a breathable atmosphere. Luckily, Ceres has nitrogen, a key component for that. One of the biggest challenges would be adequate sunlight. Ceres is three times further away from the Sun than the Earth is. So it receives much less light than we do.
Our space habitat would need two massive mirrors, which could bounce and redirect the sunlight. This would also prevent a direct unshielded view of space, which is important for limiting radiation.
There are many other things our habitats would need to keep us comfortable. Imagine natural landscapes such as fields or forests to take your mind off that you are far away from your home planet.
But life in this region of the Solar System would come with risks. Mainly damaging impacts from asteroids. We’d need an early detection system that would allow us to destroy incoming threats with a probe.
You could be thinking, why shouldn’t we settle on the surface of Ceres instead? Well, that wouldn’t be a very viable option. The gravity on this icy dwarf planet is only 3% of Earth’s. You’d be almost floating.
And the daytime surface temperature of Ceres is a frigid -38 °C (-36 °F). At night, temperatures drop to -143 °C (-225 °F). Ceres has a thin atmosphere too. Any habitats on its surface would likely need to be underground to protect against radiation. If you ask me, I’d take my chances on the mega-satellite.
At least you get an awesome view of space and don’t have to live in a bunker below the surface of a frozen world. I wonder how this compares to what a settlement on Mars would be like.
- “Ceres”. 2021. solarsystem.nasa.gov.
- “Terraforming the dwarf planet: Interconnected and growable Ceres megasatellite world”. 2021. arxiv.org.
- “Cryovolcanism On Satellites & Moons – Definition Of Cryovolcanism”. Rocheleau Jake. 2010. planetfacts.org.
- “NASA Spacecraft Gets A Look At One Of The Strangest Places In The Solar System”. Meghan Bartels. 2020. livescience.com.
- “Dwarf Planet Ceres Has Salty Water And Appears Geologically Active”. Sukee Benett. 2020. pbs.org.