Could Humanity Survive in a Future Colony on Pluto?

Formerly the 9th planet from the sun, now just a large dwarf planet: Pluto. As humanity branches out into space and begins colonizing other planetary bodies, some places like Mars or the Moon seem like logical candidates for the first colonies. They are nearby, relatively speaking. We’ve studied them extensively. But what about other rocky objects in our solar system… like Pluto?

Now admittedly, some problems with Pluto are glaringly obvious. It is very, very cold and extraordinarily far away. Transportation of materials from Earth would be unreliable, so all resources would have to be taken from on-site with only some basic goods (plant seeds, for instance) coming from Earth. Pluto only has 6.3% of Earth’s gravity, a number which is sure to pose massive health risks for humans. Also, it receives only a fraction of the sunlight that we do here on Earth, so relying on solar power could prove problematic.

However, Pluto also has one benefit over many other rocky celestial objects: it is so far away that solar radiation is at a minimum. Radiation is an often-overlooked danger in the science fiction genre, but for real planetary scientists, radiation is a major risk when developing plans for future settlements. The idea that you could build a settlement somewhere with decreased radiation risk (which could be further decreased by insulating buildings with thick layers of materials like lead or ice) is appealing.

To take advantage of Pluto’s relatively low stellar radiation, the other issues must be circumvented. For the problem of gravity, settlements would likely need to be rotated. If a colony were made on a giant centrifuge, the rotation would have to be significant enough to make the gravity suitable for humans. It is not currently known how much gravity humans need to survive and successfully reproduce, but it is quite likely more than Pluto’s 6.3% of Earth gravity. Perhaps we could develop medicine in the future that could counteract the effects of low gravity, but there’s no reason to speculate about that until we fully understand the effects of living in low gravity.

The building materials shouldn’t be a serious problem. Pluto has a thick coat of water ice and some nitrogen that should be able to provide both water and air for the human colonists and their plants. Metals may be difficult to come by, but a colony in Pluto wouldn’t exactly be prime real estate. I wouldn’t expect them to use enough to create significant shortages.

Power may be a bigger issue. There is evidence of cryovolcanism on Pluto, though. It is conceivable that steam power could be harnessed from within the dwarf planet if the colonists were to dig deep enough. Solar power is technically possible, too, but you would need a lot of solar panels that operate at a much higher level of efficiency than the ones currently available.

As for an economy? Pluto will likely make water-based products. A giant rocket fuel plant on Pluto in the distant future is quite possible. I could also see Pluto being a place for tourism, but that would not happen for a very, very long time. Give it 500 years, and then we’ll see.

Also: I know I picked a mountain image for the header picture (since that’s probably what Pluto looks like, just a lot darker), but here are some real pictures from NASA’s New Horizons mission.

 

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