I was watching a program about the New Horizons space probe and was fascinated by the new revelations about cryolava/cryomagma, and the amorphous planes covering Pluto(98% nitrogen ice).

I'm wondering how this might affect the idea of a human colony on an ice-world/cryo-world. In particular:

  • How would you keep structures from slowly sinking into the surface of a planet completely covered by cryolava?

  • How fast would this sinking occur?

I'm assuming the habitat will need to be kept warm, and would therefore accelerate the process.

I imagine for small habitats, this might not be a big deal, as they could be on wheels and roll along the surface, although this could scale poorly to larger settlements/cities


Quick freezing point chart from wikipedia data

pure       freezing 
substance  point 
H2O        273.2 °K 
CO2        216.6 °K
NH3        195.5°K
CH4        90.70 °K
CO         68.13 °K
N2         63.15 °K
O2         54.4°K
H2         14.0°K

approx. surface temp. Pluto(for reference): 33°K - 55°K

Amorphous means non-crystalline, not non-solid. Glass is amorphous, and it's solid enough to hold a load for a long time at room temperature (the myth about sagging in centuries-old stained glass windows is just that -- a myth). Likewise, amorphous ice (whether water ice, ammonia, clathrate, or even oxygen) will be solid enough not to flow or creep noticeably, so long as the temperature stays below the freezing temperature of the substance.

As long as your habitats are insulated so the surface(s) contacting the amorphous ice plain are below the melting or sublimation temperature, you needn't worry about the habs sinking into the surface. If they get too warm on the bottom, it won't matter whether the material they're standing on is crystalline or amorphous, it'll still melt (and, in a vacuum, immediately flash to vapor). Sinking won't be subtle at that point, if there's enough heat reserve to boil off a lot of the supporting material.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe... I'm not sure I agree... I've seen my fair share of old warped glass, and the surface of pluto is 98 percent nitrogen ice $\endgroup$ – kipbits Apr 2 '19 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ I'm thinking it might not be a problem initially, but perhaps it might start sinking, sort of like New Orleans. I guess its a question of speed. $\endgroup$ – kipbits Apr 2 '19 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ Water ice, even when crystalline, flows, too (c.f. glacier) -- but that doesn't mean you can't build on it (c.f. Little America, McMurdo Station). @kipbits Even nitrogen ice won't be a problem as long as the legs under the habs are cold enough. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Apr 2 '19 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ It's tempting to suggest that by the time the technology exists to move or support that kind of population on Pluto or some other cryo-body, either we'll have given up living on planets entirely, or be able to chill a baseplate enough not to have to worry about it. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Apr 2 '19 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @kipbits I was under the impression that old glass is warped simply because making glass panes flat is really much harder than you'd think and old methods for doing it created glass that is warped from the beginning. (<-obviously off-topic) $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 2 '19 at 22:03


styrofoam pontoon

Your ice world settlements are built on giant hydrogen-puffed Styrofoam pontoons. Each building and its pontoon is lighter than the liquid below and so it will not sink. Once could use the same method for building on a Minnesota lake of unpredictable April frozenness - if liquid or slush, your building floats. If solid your building sits.

The styrofoam also provides extra insulation between hot dwelling and frozen substrate.

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    $\begingroup$ titanic pontoons for floating cities I like it! $\endgroup$ – kipbits Apr 3 '19 at 2:11
  • $\begingroup$ Worlds this cold have effectively zero atmosphere; nothing with significant vapor pressure can stay liquid (that includes nitrogen and oxygen above their melting point).. There'll be no liquid to float on. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Apr 3 '19 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ is that right? wouldn't there still be some buoyancy force from the displace magma, assuming it doesn't evaporate..? It's like how they say to lie down when stuck in quick sand? $\endgroup$ – kipbits Apr 3 '19 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ I like the pontoon approach, although I'm still thinking it might have problems scaling to larger/megalithic structures; I'm not sure they could put the Burj Khalifa on pontoons ...like what if this world becomes a "hot destination", and real estate shoots way up? $\endgroup$ – kipbits Apr 3 '19 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ I imagine this cryo-magma could go pretty deep, I'm pretty sure a standard foundation would be impossible. need to do more research... $\endgroup$ – kipbits Apr 3 '19 at 18:00

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