Astronomy:Colonization of the outer Solar System

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Short description: Proposed establishment of permanent human communities in the outer Solar System

Many parts of the outer Solar System have been considered for possible future colonization. Most of the larger moons of the outer planets contain water ice, liquid water, and organic compounds that might be useful for sustaining human life.[1][2]

There have also been proposals to place robotic aerostats in the upper atmospheres of the Solar System's gas giant planets for exploration and possibly mining of helium-3, which could have a very high value per unit mass as a thermonuclear fuel.[3][4]

The Jovian System

Jovian radiation
Moon Sv/day
Io 36[5]
Europa 5.40[6]
Ganymede 0.08[6]
Callisto 0.0001[6]

The Jovian system in general has particular disadvantages for colonization, including its severe radiation environment[7] and its particularly deep gravity well. Its radiation would deliver about 36 Sv per day to unshielded colonists on Io and about 5.40 Sv per day to unshielded colonists on Europa. Exposure to about 0.75 Sv over a few days is enough to cause radiation poisoning, and about 5 Sv over a few days is fatal.[8]

Jupiter itself, like the other gas giants, is not generally considered a good candidate for colonization.[citation needed] There is no accessible surface on which to land, and the light hydrogen atmosphere would not provide good buoyancy for some kind of aerial habitat as has been proposed for Venus.


Io is not ideal for colonization, due to its hostile environment. The moon is under influence of high tidal forces, causing high volcanic activity. Jupiter's strong radiation belt overshadows Io, delivering 36 Sv a day to the moon. The moon is also extremely dry. Io is the least ideal place for colonization of the four Galilean moons. Despite this, its volcanoes could be energy resources for the other moons, which are better suited to colonization.


Main page: Astronomy:Colonization of Europa
The magnetic field of Jupiter and co–rotation enforcing currents

The Artemis Project proposed a plan to colonize Europa.[9][10] Scientists would inhabit igloos and drill down into the Europan ice crust, exploring any subsurface ocean. The report also discusses use of air pockets for human habitation.


Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System. Ganymede is the only moon with a magnetosphere, albeit overshadowed by Jupiter's magnetic field. Because of this magnetic field, Ganymede is one of only two Jovian moons where surface settlements would be feasible receives about 0.08 Sv of radiation per day. Ganymede could be terraformed. [6]


Due to its distance from Jupiter's powerful radiation belt, Callisto is subject to only 0.0001 Sv a day.[6] When NASA carried out a study called HOPE (Revolutionary Concepts for Human Outer Planet Exploration) regarding the future exploration of the Solar System, the target chosen was Callisto.[11] It might be possible to build a surface base that would produce fuel for further exploration of the Solar System.

Jupiter trojans

The Keck Observatory announced in 2006 that the binary Jupiter trojan 617 Patroclus, and possibly many other Jupiter trojans, are likely composed of water ice, with a layer of dust. This suggests that mining water and other volatiles in this region and transporting them elsewhere in the Solar System, perhaps via the proposed Interplanetary Transport Network, may be feasible in the not-so-distant future. This could make colonization of the Moon, Mercury and main-belt asteroids more practical.

The Saturnian System

Robert Zubrin identified Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as "the Persian Gulf of the Solar System", as the largest sources of deuterium and helium-3 to drive a fusion economy, with Saturn the most important and most valuable of the three, because of its relative proximity, low radiation, and large system of moons.[12] On the other hand, planetary scientist John Lewis in his 1997 book Mining the Sky, insists that Uranus is the likeliest place to mine helium-3 because of its significantly shallower gravity well, which makes it easier for a laden tanker spacecraft to thrust itself out. Furthermore, Uranus is an Ice giant, which would likely make it easier to separate the helium out of the atmosphere.


Main page: Colonization of Titan

Zubrin identified Titan as possessing an abundance of all the elements necessary to support life, making Titan perhaps the most advantageous locale in the outer Solar System for colonization. He said, "In certain ways, Titan is the most hospitable extraterrestrial world within the Solar System for human colonization."[13] A widely published expert on terraforming, Christopher McKay, is also a co-investigator on the Huygens probe that landed on Titan in January 2005.

The surface of Titan is mostly uncratered and thus inferred to be very young and active, and probably composed of mostly water ice, and lakes of liquid hydrocarbons (methane/ethane) in its polar regions. While the temperature is cryogenic (95 K) it should be able to support a base, but more information regarding Titan's surface and the activities on it is necessary. The thick atmosphere and the weather, such as potential flash floods, are also factors to consider.


On 9 March 2006, NASA's Cassini space probe found possible evidence of liquid water on Enceladus.[14] According to that article, "pockets of liquid water may be no more than tens of meters below the surface." These findings were confirmed in 2014 by NASA. This means liquid water could be collected much more easily and safely on Enceladus than, for instance, on Europa (see above). Discovery of water, especially liquid water, generally makes a celestial body a much more likely candidate for colonization. An alternative model of Enceladus's activity is the decomposition of methane/water clathrates – a process requiring lower temperatures than liquid water eruptions. The higher density of Enceladus indicates a larger than Saturnian average silicate core that could provide materials for base operations.


Because Uranus has the lowest escape velocity of the four gas giants, it has been proposed as a mining site for helium-3.[4] If human supervision of the robotic activity proved necessary, one of Uranus's natural satellites might serve as a base.


It is hypothesized that one of Neptune's satellites could be used for colonization. Triton's surface shows signs of extensive geological activity that implies a subsurface ocean, perhaps composed of ammonia/water.[15] If technology advanced to the point that tapping such geothermal energy was possible, it could make colonizing a cryogenic world like Triton feasible, supplemented by nuclear fusion power.

Kuiper belt and Oort cloud

The noted physicist Freeman Dyson identified comets, rather than planets, as the major potential habitat of life in space.[16]


There would be many problems in colonizing the outer Solar System. These include:

  • Distance from Earth: The outer planets are much farther from Earth than the inner planets, and would therefore be harder and more time-consuming to reach. In addition, return voyages may well be prohibitive considering the time and distance.
  • Extreme cold: temperatures are near absolute zero in many parts of the outer Solar System.
  • Power: Solar power is many times less concentrated in the outer Solar System than in the inner Solar System. It is unclear as to whether it would be usable there, using some form of concentration mirrors, or whether nuclear power would be necessary. There have also been proposals to use the gravitational potential energy of planets or dwarf planets with moons.
  • Effects of low gravity on the human body: All moons of the gas giants and all outer dwarf planets have a very low gravity, the highest being Io's gravity (0.183 g) which is less than 1/5 of the Earth's gravity. Since the Apollo program all crewed spaceflight has been constrained to Low Earth orbit and there has been no opportunity to test the effects of such low gravitational accelerations on the human body. It is speculated that the low gravity environments might have very similar effects to long-term exposure in weightlessness. Such effects can be avoided by rotating spacecraft creating artificial gravity.

See also


  1. G.J. Consalmagno, Ice-rich moons and the physical properties of ice, Journal of Physical Chemistry, vol. 87, no. 21, 1983, p. 4204-4208.
  2. Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton, Lifting Titan's veil: exploring the giant moon of Saturn, Cambridge University Press, 2002
  3. Robert Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization, section: Settling the Outer Solar System: The Sources of Power, pp. 158-160, Tarcher/Putnam, 1999, ISBN:1-58542-036-0
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jeffrey Van Cleve (Cornell University) et al., "Helium-3 Mining Aerostats in the Atmosphere of Uranus" , Abstract for Space Resources Roundtable, accessed May 10, 2006
  5. "Archived copy". 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Frederick A. Ringwald (29 February 2000). "SPS 1020 (Introduction to Space Sciences)". California State University, Fresno. 
  7. R. Walker Fillius, Carl E. McIlwain, and Antonio Mogro-Campero, Radiation Belts of Jupiter: A Second Look, Science, Vol. 188. no. 4187, pp. 465–467, 2 May 1975
  8. Robert Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization, section: Colonizing the Jovian System, pp. 166-170, Tarcher/Putnam, 1999, ISBN:1-58542-036-0
  9. Artemis Society International official website
  10. Peter Kokh et al., "Europa II Workshop Report", Moon Miner's Manifesto #110, Nov. 1997
  11. Troutman, Patrick A.; Bethke, Kristen; Stillwagen, Fred; Caldwell, Jr., Darrell L.; Manvi, Ram; Strickland, Chris; Krizan, Shawn A. (February 2–6, 2003). "Revolutionary Concepts for Human Outer Planet Exploration (HOPE)". Space Technology and Applications International Forum 2003. Albuquerque, New Mexico: NASA. Retrieved June 13, 2021. 
  12. Robert Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization, section: The Persian Gulf of the Solar System, pp. 161-163, Tarcher/Putnam, 1999, ISBN:1-58542-036-0
  13. Robert Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization, section: Titan, pp. 163-166, Tarcher/Putnam, 1999, ISBN:1-58542-036-0
  14. "NASA's Cassini Discovers Potential Liquid Water on Enceladus". 2007-11-22. 
  15. Ruiz, Javier (2003). "Heat flow and depth to a possible internal ocean on Triton". Icarus 166 (2): 436. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2003.09.009. Bibcode2003Icar..166..436R. 
  16. Freeman Dyson, "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil", Third J.D. Bernal Lecture, May 1972, reprinted in Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Carl Sagan, ed., MIT Press, 1973, ISBN:0-262-69037-3