Image: This artist’s conception of the ‘scattered disk’ object Sedna reminds us that even beyond the Kuiper Belt and as we move into the Oort Cloud, vast numbers of icy objects are thought to exist. Can we exploit these as we move outward toward another star?

Interstellar Expansion: Colonizing Ice Dwarfs


Are habitable planets the best places to look for life? The question seems odd, because we’re assuming life has to have clement conditions to emerge and survive. But step beyond the question of life’s formation and the issue can be framed differently. Where beyond its birthplace might life migrate? In SETI terms, where might we look for the signature of a civilization advanced enough to move beyond its home world and expand between the stars?

A lot of ideas seem to be converging here. In Huntsville, Ken Roy (whose description at the recent interstellar conference was ‘an engineer living and working amidst the relics of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee’) described potential habitats stretching far out into the Solar System and beyond. Roy has been working for some time with Robert Kennedy and David Fields on colonization scenarios.

My own talk covered the kind of places where we might extract resources, ranging from icy dwarfs like Pluto to cometary objects and ‘rogue’ planets without any star. And science fiction author Karl Schroeder, in a recent blog post called A Tale of Two Worlds, also brought the topic up. Let me quote Schroeder, because I want to return to his post in a day or so:

…it’s important to bear in mind that habitability and colonizability are not the same thing. Nobody seems to be doing this; I can’t find any term but habitability used to describe the exoplanets we’re finding. Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there. So, the term applies to places that are vitally important for study; but it doesn’t necessarily apply to places we might want to go.

Both Schroeder and Roy are assuming not near-term projects but the kind of settlement and terraforming that draw on huge resources of energy. The premise, in other words, is that we’re talking about a culture that ranges freely through its own system, having mastered fusion or other technologies and being capable of large-scale building projects in space and on planetary or other surfaces. Grant that premise and then think about what kind of structures it might make sense to build when exploiting local resources and looking out toward the stars.

Read more: Interstellar Expansion: Colonizing Ice Dwarfs — Centauri Dreams.

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