NASA’s New Horizons flew by Pluto last July and is continuing to send back stunning images and breathtaking data. Forbes, in a Monday story, speculates about sending humans to the once and possibly future ninth planet from the sun. Since New Horizons took nine and a half years from launch to flyby, such a voyage would have to await the development of very advanced propulsion systems, among quite a few other technologies.
The establishment of a base on Pluto would present a number of unique challenges as well as advantages, considering the complexity of that strange, new world on the edge of the solar system. The extreme cold is just the easiest of the challenges, requiring power and insulation.
“There would not be any real difference in a base on Pluto and a base on the Moon, Alan Binder, the principle investigator on NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission and a longtime advocate of lunar colonization, told me.
“Binder says once at Pluto, astronauts would have a virtual cornucopia of volatile compounds such as water, methane and nitrogen ices as well as carbon monoxide to use for construction, life support, even chemical propellant. In contrast, Binder notes that if setting up shop on the lunar surface, one would have to import most of these compounds.
“Having a base on Pluto, would also offer future planetary scientists the chance to literally get their hands on primordial components of the early outer solar system, while living and working atop a world that remains both puzzlingly-active and geologically-complex.”
Besides being a place to study a unique geology and a possibly biology in a suspected subsurface ocean, it turns out that Pluto might be a great site to set up telescopes.
“Well beyond Jupiter and our solar system’s region of local zodiacal dust, electronically-linked arrays of an optical and/or radio telescopes should offer astronomers an extraordinary view of the cosmological deep sky and the earliest universe.
“Even a modest wide-field, near-infrared telescope on Pluto’s surface would offer astronomers a great way to search for and characterize objects at the outer edge of our solar system’s Kuiper Belt.
“It could give astronomers an opportunity to detect and observe comets in the Oort Cloud, the heretofore unseen leftover reservoir of trillions of comets that orbit our solar system at a distance of a light year from Earth. A telescope on Pluto might even aid in detecting and determining the orbits of hundreds of potentially earth-threatening long-period comets.
“Pluto’s sheer cold, says van Belle, would be useful for mid-infrared observations. And he notes the dwarf planet’s strangely-inclined, 17-degree orbit above the rest of our solar system could provide astronomers with an interesting planetary vantage point.”
Likely, if a base on Pluto were to be attempted sometime later in the 21st Century, robots would be sent first to build the facility to make it ready for human occupants. The first astronauts on Pluto would likely fly on a spacecraft that is propelled by engines built by technology that is currently only dimly imagined. Nevertheless, the voyage will likely take years. Thus, the first people on Pluto will likely make that world their permanent home, far enough away so that the sun is a dim spot in the sky.
Of course, worlds exists that are closer to Earth than Pluto, such as Mars and the moons of the Outer Planets. Pluto would be the culmination of human exploration of the solar system to take place over many decades.