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Credit: NASA/Rick Guidice

Forget Mars! This scientist is pitching megasatellite habitats around Ceres

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Jan 27, 2021, 5:22 PM EST

Sorry, Mars! You just might be left in the dust when it comes to permanent human colonization. While the heavenly body called Ceres might have been a pivotal space station outpost for Belters in Amazon Prime's The Expanse, an interesting new proposal to build a floating network of megasatellite habitats around the dwarf planet could be a cost-effective alternative to settling the surface of the Moon or Mars.

In an updated research paper submitted to the online journal arXiv, astrophysicist Pekka Janhunen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki delivers his ambitious notion of an interconnected "megasatellite" colony comprised of thousands of cylindrical spacecrafts. 

Credit: NASA/Rick Guidice

According to Janhunen's original study, each separate cylinder of the Ceres mega-colony would produce its own artificial gravity through rotation. Cylindrical habitats would measure roughly 6.2 miles long, have a total radius of 0.6 miles, and finish a full rotation every 66 seconds to produce the necessary centrifugal force to emulate Earth-like gravity.

One cylinder unit could properly house approximately 57,000 people and would be fixed in place beside its neighboring cylinders via intense magnets similar to those found in magnetic levitation. Each habitat would include an artificial atmosphere and a tasteful blend of urban and agricultural space.

These individual modules would be linked together inside a disk-shaped frame that permanently orbits Ceres, which is the biggest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

This visionary project isn't exactly a new proposition, as it was first explored as an ambitious concept back in the 1970s when they were known as O'Neill cylinders, named after the Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill who designed them.

Ceres is a fantastic candidate for this sort of enterprise as its average distance from Earth is similar to that of Mars, allowing for reasonable travel times.

However, the dwarf planet's main advantage is its abundance of nitrogen, an element essential in creating the orbiting colony's atmosphere. Instead of building a settlement on the surface of Ceres, a body roughly 1/13th the size of Earth, colonists might employ a system of space elevators to shuttle materials from the planet to the orbital city.

"My concern is that children on a Mars settlement would not develop to healthy adults (in terms of muscles and bones) due to the too-low Martian gravity," Janhunen told Live Science. "Therefore, I searched for an alternative that would provide gravity but also an interconnected world.

"Mars' surface area is smaller than Earth's, and consequently it cannot provide room for significant population and economic expansion. A Ceres colony, on the other hand, is growable from one to millions of habitats."

Credit: NASA/Rick Guidice

Despite billionaire Jeff Bezos' public skepticism about the feasibility of such a disk of interconnected habitat cylinders flanked by giant mirrors to angle sunlight into the colony, Janhunen remains positive. and insists human settlers might begin packing their bags for Ceres within the next 15 years.

There are obvious opponents to this idea and one of them is Manasvi Lingam, an assistant professor of astrobiology at the Florida Institute of Technology who believes that the Ceres proposal is a "plausible alternative" to colonizing the surface of Mars or the Moon, but the plan still has a few major technological, budgetary, and logistical obstacles.

"The first is a question of other essential elements, other than nitrogen," Lingam told Live Science. "One key element that isn't mentioned in the paper is phosphorus. The human body relies on phosphorus to create DNA, RNA and ATP. All organisms on Earth — including any plants colonists might hope to grow in their floating habitats — need it in one way or another, but Janhunen's proposal doesn't address where or how this critical element would be obtained."

Do you believe in Janhunen's enthusiasm or are you still hoping for a future base station on the Moon or Mars?