Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Colonizing Ceres Before Mars Could Save The Red Planet Authentic NASA Toys and Replicas
Some people say Mars is our next home. Other people say Mars is utterly worthless. Regardless of the viewpoint, humans will probably end up visiting the place for "eternal glory," if not for scientific reasons.

Whether or not our species actually settles the red planet is highly questionable. Unlike Earth's Moon, Mars lacks major resources of any kind that would make colonizing the planet worthwhile. Unless those crimson deserts can provide some return on investment, it may be wiser to turn Mars into a penal colony, than attempting to recreate the world into a second home.

But humanity may be able to justify settling Mars by diverting its attention towards the asteroid belt first--and the key towards conquering the asteroid belt, as well as Mars may lie upon the dwarf world Ceres.

Despite their major differences, both Mars and Ceres share a few similarities. Both worlds harbor abundant supplies of water, respectively, and both worlds are located closer to the metal rich "zone" of the asteroid belt than our home world.

Ceres however is located within the "mineral field of dreams," dancing around the sun between 2.5-3 AU (or astronomical units). This places the icy world in the heart of the metal rich zone, the majority of which can be found orbiting our star between 2 and 3.5 AU.

Its prime location gives it an enormous advantage over the red giant, as well as a motivation for both national governments and companies to visit this lonely dwarf planet.

Ceres also has a lower gravity well than either Earth or Mars, making rocket launches off of the asteroid king very inexpensive. Boasting 3% Earth gravity, Cerian colonies would be able to easily transport precious metals back to our home world (from other asteroids) without the need for large amounts of rocket fuel.

Ceres's prime location as well as its gravitational benefits could (like Earth's moon) help jump start our solar economy, if not give it a second wind. But how would an active mining industry aid a future Martian colony? After all, if Mars has very little to offer our species financially, why even bother colonizing it?

Despite the fact that Ceres has an abundant supply of water, that supply is finite and will not last forever. As the number of asteroid colonies increase throughout the asteroid belt, so too will the demand for water. Although Earth has plenty of water to spare, it may be simply too expensive to rocket the precious liquid to quench the thirst of asteroid minors.

As the demand for water increases, so will the cost of transporting it from Ceres's dwindling supplies. While launching water from Earth may not be affordable, launching it from Mars probably will. With only 38% Earth gravity, the crimson planet would have a much shallower gravity well than our blue home world, enabling it to meet the future water demand at an affordable price.

Although Mars may ultimately provide a second habitat for humanity, it may make business sense to refocus our efforts on the asteroid belt first. Not only would it sustain political support from various Earth governments over time (mainly because of the money), but it would satisfy the "why space" questions in the public, without resorting to a short hand list.

(Image Credits: NASA)

Note: Due to lack of time, images (and some links) will be added later.

Update: Added several paragraphs as well as edited a few sentences for grammar and clarity. Also added several images and links as well.

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  1. The US has to get there first bfore some one else and monopolize.

  2. Re: "Ceres has an abundant supply of water, [but it] is finite and will not last forever."

    Any supply of water is finite and will not last forever. The question is whether by careful husbandry (e.g. closed-loop ecosystems) we make it last for an arbitrary length of time, or we take the squandering of resources for granted and start thinking of where could we get some more (to squander as well). I hope that this question is rhetorical.

  3. Hi Darnell

    Space transport issues are a bit more subtle, so that Ceres being in the Middle of the Belt is actually a disadvantage. Waiting times for orbital windows between objects on similar orbits can be very high, because their relative angular velocities are low. Venus is actually a better centre for asteroid trade than Ceres, Mars or even the Earth because launch windows are more frequent from-and-to there for all the Belt.

    Alex, as for water Ceres certainly has a lot and I think it's a bit naive to worry about its excessive usage in the early days of Belt colonialism.

    Aaron, monopolising Ceres would merely encourage China, India and Russia to go grab outer Belt comets which might be even more water rich. Such a diaspora would be good for humanity, but makes a poor selling point.

  4. Mars does have lots that we want, including a gravity field that is just enough for human biology, volitiles, especially water, and lots of land.

    Ceres is definitely the second most interesting object after Mars (and Earth) in the solar system. But the gravity is very very low. As a naval base, I can see it. Let's wait until Dawn gets there and we learn more about it.

    The moon does not have resources that Mars does not have. The Moon is basalt, and Mars has lots of that, though it almost certainly also has mineral deposits refined by hydrothermal flow, which is also where metal ore veins on Earth come from.

    Mars also has several regional magnetic fields that are sufficient to be significant radiation shielding. We don't know about Ceres, Vesta might be more likely to have one of those,

  5. Given its relatively small size, would it be feasible to shift its location to some place, say, exactly between Mars and Earth?
    Also I recall a sci-fi book I read some years ago in which a comet was colonized. Its orbit was similar to Halley's and would return to Earth every 75 years or so.


You can either visit the stars or watch them from afar.

But if you choose the former, you'll definitely get a better view.

~Darnell Clayton, 2007

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