Is Colonization of Dwarf Planets Like Ceres Actually Possible

Could astronaut miners settle on Ceres in 15 years like the Belters in The Expanse fictional series?
ceres planet by nasa

Between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars is an asteroid belt that contains most of the asteroids in our solar system and dwarf planets such as Ceres. Ceres is a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was the first asteroid discovered on 1 January 1801 and was initially believed to be an asteroid.  

Ceres has become the fascination of scientists and creators of fiction because Ceres has something many other planets don’t, and that is water.  On Earth, water is essential for life, ‘so it’s possible that with this ingredient and a few other conditions met, life possibly could exist there.’. If life does exist there now, ‘it’s likely to be tiny microbes similar to bacteria.’.

John S Lewis, the author of the book ‘Asteroid Mining 101‘, quoted by Wikipedia, considers that ‘Ceres could become the main base and transport hub for future asteroid mining infrastructure.’.

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Inspiration for hit series “The Expanse”

The fact that Ceres has water and could potentially support life has made it a feature in the Expanse series.  The Expanse is a sci-fi series with a very realistic plot for the politics of the human future. Imagine an ‘independent Mars colonized by humans that’s now its own formidable military power, engaged in a cold war with a resource depleted Earth, now lead by the United Nations. An asteroid belt in the outer part of the solar system, also colonized by humans (the Belters).’

In the Expanse, the Belters (the human settlers) who live in the asteroid belt ‘mine much needed mineral resources for Earth and Mars, and who’ve historically been marginalized and oppressed by the two super powers’.

Building a fictional series that includes settlers living on the planet Ceres and mining the asteroid belt for supplying resources to competing superpowers isn’t that far-fetched.  John Barat writing for the Smithsonian, stated in 2011, ‘With Earth’s population moving toward 7 billion, humankind may someday need to look to space to help feed its need for precious metals, iron ore, and other raw materials. Asteroids are a logical place to look for such resources as they contain enough gold, platinum, iron, and nickel to perhaps one day make the technological challenges of mining them economically feasible.’ 

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In 2022 the current world population is over 7.9 billion and headed towards 8 billion.  In 2021 computer chip shortages were reported worldwide, with findings showing ‘demand for the chips that power cars, electronics, medical devices, and other products far outstripping supply, even as global chip makers approach their maximum production capacity.

With precious resources running out on Earth, the challenges to asteroid mining such as the high cost of spaceflight, unreliable identification of asteroids which are suitable for mining, and the challenges of extracting usable material in a space environment is not likely to continue deterring companies and universities thinking up ways to mine asteroids. There will likely be a push in the future to send settlers to live on Ceres, just like the Belters in the Expanse.

PIA22983 Ceres DwarfPlanet EzinuCrater 20181227
Ceres-Ezinu Crater by NASA

Some scientists have even hypothesized that aliens may have even mined asteroids already. Two astrophysicists, Duncan Forgan and Martin Elvis, even published a paper in 2011 about ‘what type of signs astronomers might look for with optical, thermal, and spectral telescopes to detect such mining activities.’  Mining asteroids and the possibility of living on Ceres have been covered in quite a few scientific papers.

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Living on Ceres

Ceres in its current form isn’t habitable to humans.

The gravity on Ceres is different from Earth; scientists say it has a gravity of 0.27 m/s², gravity on Earth is 9.807 m/s².  Writer George Gonzalez describes, ‘The gravity on Ceres is about 1/40th that on earth. So you would be able to jump about 40 times higher; if you can jump up 2 feet here, you could jump 80 feet in Ceres.’  Living on Ceres would be very difficult for humans unless its gravity was adjusted.  In The Expanse, fictional company Tycho Manufacturing managed to spin up the asteroid, which gave it a gravity of 0.3 g when the first human settlers arrived.

Ceres Earth Moon Comparison
Ceres Earth Moon Comparison by CWitte

People couldn’t survive in the atmosphere of Ceres as it is, spacecolonization.fandom.com covering the subject of Colonization of Ceres state, Terraforming Ceres is unlikely due to its relatively small size. It could be done using very powerful greenhouse gasses such as SF6 or CF4, but the atmosphere would soon be lost due to very low gravity and need replenishing (a “worldhouse” could solve this problem).

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Another possibility that is still in the realm of science fiction is artificial gravity colonies, spacecolonization.fandom.com writes, ‘Artificial gravity colonies are colonies on worlds with extremely low natural gravity, where manipulated spacetimes create enough gravity to retain a breathable atmosphere. It is an alternative to hollow asteroid/comet colonies, but artificial gravity colonies may be more attractive to Human colonists because they have an outdoor-style environment too.’

Living in a cylinder just outside Ceres

More likely than people living on a Ceres where the gravity and atmosphere has to be artificially adjusted, is a proposal by Pekka Janhunen to ‘build a gargantuan floating habitat around the dwarf planet Ceres, instead’.

Brandon Specktor covering Pekka Janhunen’s research for livescience.com in 2021 wrote:

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‘In the paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, astrophysicist Pekka Janhunen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki describes his vision of a “megasatellite” of thousands of cylindrical spacecrafts, all linked together inside a disk-shaped frame that permanently orbits Ceres — the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Each of these cylindrical habitats could accommodate upwards of 50,000 people, support an artificial atmosphere and generate an Earth-like gravity through the centrifugal force of its own rotation, Janhunen wrote. (This general idea, first proposed in the 1970s, is known as an O’Neill cylinder).’

CylinerCeres
NASA illustration showing what an interior of an O’Neill Cylinder could look like. Each habitat would have an artificial atmosphere, Earth-like gravity and a mix of urban and agricultural space. (Image credit: Rick Guidice courtesy of NASA)

When Brandon Specktor covered Pekka Janhunen’s research back in 2021, it was estimated that potentially people could live in this kind of habitat within the next 15 years.  However, since the war between Russia and Ukraine, space programs have had setbacks; it could be a bit longer before astronaut miners live in a gargantuan floating habitat.  In the meantime, we can watch the Expanse for further inspiration of what life in the asteroid belt will potentially be like.

Cylinder
A habitat cylinder millions of miles from Earth. Image credit: Don Davis courtesy of NASA