(ORDO NEWS) — Over the next 15 years, humans can settle on giant balls floating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This insane statement was made by astrophysicist Pekka Janhunen, who claims that by 2026, millions of people will be able to live in the cosmic metropolis.
Is it worth building a mega satellite suitable for human habitation around the dwarf planet Ceres? This is possible, no matter how implausible it may sound.
Today, space agencies and dreamy billionaires are looking more than ever to find a new home for humanity beyond Earth’s orbit. The most obvious candidate is Mars because it is close to us, has a 24-hour daily cycle with day and night, and a CO2-rich atmosphere. But there is a line of scientific thought, the supporters of which argue that the colonization of the surface of another planet, and any planet, will bring more problems than benefits.
On January 6, a new work appeared in the arXiv archive of electronic publications of scientific articles and preprints, the authors of which came up with an unusual counter-proposal: to abandon thoughts of settling the Red Planet and instead build a giant habitat hovering around the dwarf planet Ceres.
In a work that has yet to be peer-reviewed, astrophysicist Pekka Janhunen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki outlines the concept of a “mega satellite” of thousands of cylindrical spacecraft. They are all connected and enclosed in a disk-shaped frame that constantly orbits Ceres, which is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Each of these cylindrical modules can accommodate over 50,000 people. An artificial atmosphere will be maintained there, and thanks to the centrifugal force arising in the process of rotation, a similar gravity will be created, Janhunen writes. (This concept, first proposed in the 1970s, is called the O’Neill cylinder.)
But why Ceres? Its average distance from Earth is comparable to the distance to Mars, and therefore it will be relatively easy to fly there. But this dwarf planet has another important advantage, writes Janhunen. Ceres has a lot of nitrogen, which is very important for creating the atmosphere of an orbiting settlement. (Earth’s atmosphere is roughly 79% nitrogen.) Instead of forming a colony on the surface of this tiny planet, which is 13 times smaller than Earth’s, settlers can use space elevators to transport raw materials from Ceres directly to their orbital settlement.
Life in orbit will help solve one of the most serious problems that will arise if Mars colonizes: the effects of reduced gravity on human health.
“I am concerned that children in the Martian settlement will not grow into healthy adults due to the too low gravity of the Red Planet,” wrote Janhunen, referring to their muscle mass and bones. “So I started looking for an alternative that provides gravity while at the same time creating an interconnected world.”
But Yanhunen’s proposal has its drawbacks that could hinder the successful existence of the Ceres colony, as another scientist described.
Welcome to the discworld
According to Janhunen’s concept, each cylinder of Ceres’ mega satellite will create its own gravity through rotation. Each cylindrical habitat will be 10 kilometers long with a radius of one kilometer. This cylinder will complete a revolution in 66 seconds to generate centrifugal force that simulates gravity.
About 57 thousand people can comfortably live in one such cylinder. According to Janhunen, the cylinders will be lined up and held in place by powerful magnets like those used in magnetic suspensions.
This connectivity will provide other significant benefits to living in a mega satellite, Janhunen said. Residential cylinders can be infinitely attached to the ends of the colony, allowing for unlimited expansion.
“The surface area of Mars is smaller than the Earth, and therefore there is not enough room for a large population and economic development,” Janhunen told Live Science. “And the colony of Ceres can be expanded from one cylindrical module to a million!”
On the sides of the cylinders, the massive disc frame will house two giant glass mirrors at a 45-degree angle to the disc. They will reflect a sufficient amount of natural sunlight, directing it to the habitable cylinders. Part of the territory of each cylinder will be allocated for growing grain and trees, which will be planted in a layer of soil 1.5 meters deep. The soil will be taken from Ceres. Natural sunlight will help them grow. (The “urban” part of the cylinder will be illuminated with artificial light in a “day-night” mode, like on Earth. Janhunen says nothing about where the settlers will get oxygen from.)
The idea of a society living in a cylindrical utopia soaring in orbit may sound strange, but it has supporters. In 2019, Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO and founder of the private space company Blue Origin), speaking at an event in Washington, DC, talked about the benefits of building “O’Neill colonies” like those which Janhunen describes. Bezos expressed doubt that such colonies would arise in our lifetime, asking the audience a question: “How are we going to build O’Neill’s colonies? I don’t know, and nobody in this room knows.”
However, Janhunen is more optimistic. In a letter to Live Science, he noted that the first settlers will be able to travel to Mars in the next 15 years.
Ceres next year?
Manasvi Lingam, an assistant professor of astrobiology at the Florida Institute of Technology, who studies the planet’s suitability for human habitation, said the proposal to colonize Ceres is a “reasonable alternative” to populating the surface of Mars or the Moon. But at the same time, it does not take into account many factors.
“I would say there are three important caveats here,” said Lingman, who was not involved in the study on the construction of a colony around Ceres. “The first is the question of other important elements besides nitrogen.”
The study says nothing about a key element like phosphorus, Lingman said. The human body creates DNA, RNA and adenosine triphosphate from phosphorus (this is the most important source of energy in cells). All terrestrial organisms, including plants that the colonists are to grow on orbiting platforms, need phosphorus in one way or another, but Janhunen in his proposal bypasses the question of where this essential element can be obtained from.
The second important caveat is technique and technology, Lingman said. To obtain nitrogen and other raw materials on Ceres, it will be necessary to mine them on its surface, extracting these important elements from the bowels. It will be impossible to mine without robotic mining equipment. But she will have to be delivered to Ceres. Plus, satellites will be needed to conduct remote reconnaissance and send equipment to areas of the richest deposits. According to Lingman, this is theoretically possible, but so far we do not have the appropriate technology and technology. Most recently (January 15), NASA announced the death of its rover, which was not able to burrow deep enough (five meters) into the surface of Mars. Thus ended his two-year mission.
These technical limitations lead us to Janhunen’s third clause. This is the proposed time frame. Janhunen believes that the first cluster of habitable orbital cylinders could be built 22 years after the start of mining at Ceres. But this assumes that the amount of energy available to the settlement will increase many times each year, starting right from this moment, and that there will be no disruptions in the process due to technological or logistic problems. “Such a prediction is not unthinkable,” Lingman said, “but we cannot take it for granted.”
“22 years may be the minimum period under optimal conditions, but I would say that much more time will pass,” Lingman said.
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