To be able to colonize another world, there are some requirements; the harvesting of energy, enough recourses, handling of the environment (pressure, temperature and gravity and so on) and availability (close enough to be reached).

I just saw a documentary about what a potential planet beyond Pluto would be like. If there is such a thing, we don't know yet. But let's assume there is, and that we are able to travel to it. Would we be able to create a human colony on it? One of the suggestions in the documentary is that it could be half a gas giant and half a terrestrial (or icy) planet.

If the gravity is more or less the same as on earth (like it is on Saturn), there is enough metals and minerals on the surface from asteroids that has slammed into it, the atmospheric pressure is not too hostile and it is possible to construct buildings able to protect you from the cold, then only energy remains.

The sun is too far away, and there is no tidal heating, but there are extremely strong winds on the surface (again, assuming the planet is as described in the documentary). Wind turbines would not work under these conditions. But what about piezoelectric materials? If they can work under very low temperatures (making it possible to use superconductors as batteries?) and is partly protected from the worst winds, could it provide a potential colony with enough energy?

For those interested in the documentary mentioned in the post; just jump directly to 24:30 minutes into the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qERd54UaW-I

Edit: Reasons for downvoting: "This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful" I would say it is both clear another has show research effort. And yet someone still downvotes it. If it is still not clear: The post explains that it could be possible for humanity to establish itself on the surface of a planet even beyond Pluto (the kind of planet that is proposed in the video). The only thing that's uncertain is there is a technology, even if it's just theoretical yet, that could harvest the energy from its atmosphere.

  • $\begingroup$ There's a really interesting novel about this by Karl Schroeder called Lockstep. Check it out. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Sep 13 '19 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @TimHansen You have only really told us about your planet by indirect means. Perhaps you could be more specific and say it's gravity, size and atmospheric composition. A few details about it's orbital path would be helpful too, also it's rotation, angle of rotation to the solar-system's ecliptic and perhaps a bit about it's geology. Tell us about the sort of level of technology available to the species that you wish to colonise there, that would be helpful. $\endgroup$ – Tantalus' touch. Sep 13 '19 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ There are some fundamental misunderstandings in the text of this question that might be detrimental to the end product. Piezoelectric generation has nothing to do with the ability to use superconductors as batteries. High winds are no barrier to using wind generation - quite the opposite. Neptune's high winds are something of an aberration - if you have a dense atmosphere, even Neptune-like conditions would not result in high winds. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 13 '19 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ Downvoting alone is pretty useless. Please tell OP what could be done to fix the question. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Sep 13 '19 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDyingOfLight I see two comments, from Chickens are not cows and jdunlop respectively, which point to perceived problems with this question. I'm not necessarily saying that I would downvote for those reasons, and I am definitely not saying that those users downvoted (that information is not available to moderators), but there certainly are comments telling OP what two different people (out of four who have downvoted this so far) felt could be improved in the question. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 13 '19 at 19:58

Windpower, geothermal, beamed power, fission and fusion

The kind of planet you are describing is a super-earth or mini-neptune. Given its location it will have a substantial hydrogen atmosphere and a significant part of its mass will be ices (water, ammonia and methane). If there is a surface, it will be an ice desert under a high pressure atmosphere, kind of like the surface of Venus but cold. This would be the super-earth case. The mini-neptune case would have no solid surface, because the hydrogen atmosphere is so thick that the ices will become liquid at a certain depth due to the high pressures. There will only be a slush-ice-ocean like on the ice-giants.

All of this means that it will be quite hard to colonise, but nonetheless possible. I'll assume for the purpose of the question that the planet has a surface, the super-earth case. Colonising the surface-less version is also possible but requires rather fancy airships (using either warm hydrogen or vacuum as carrier-gas) or chandelier cities hanging down from dynamically suspended structures.

A much more sensible approach to colonisation would be to colonise the planets, out there certainly huge, moon system. This does not negate the power issues but makes things easier in general.


I don't see why wind power would be unusable on such a planet. While one would certainly not use huge windmills, a turbine specifically designed for the pressures and windspeeds is certainly on the table. Think of water-power turbines on Earth. I've once seen a proposal for a wind turbine for a Venusian airship and it looked nothing like a windmill. I would picture these windmills as rather compact structures with a channel and a turbine in the middle. If wind speeds are truely enormous one could even catch the moving atmosphere and force it through a tunnel into a generator house with hydro-power turbines. In contrast to the three other suggested methods wind power could not be used on the planet's moons.

Geothermal power

If there is enough heat down in the planet you could just bore a hole down there and use the temperature gradient to generate energy. I've heard of geothermal systems capable of using a water only four degrees hotter than near the surface for energy generation.

Beamed Solar power

Light out there would be to weak to be properly used for solar power. However if we use a station near the sun, a power satellite, to beam concentrated light out there with a laser it could work. The laser beam will have spread strongly when it reaches the Kuiper belt, but an array of solar panels could be operated efficiently in orbit of the new planet. These satellites now beam the power down to the colony using another laser with a frequency the atmospere is transperent to.

Fission and fusion

These are the most sensible options in my opinion. Just import fission fuel and use a reactor with a very high burn up rate, a breeder, for maximum efficiency. Or just use a regular one, at the energy density of fission fuel it doesn't really matter.

Fusion would of cause be even more convenient as the colony is sitting in an atmosphere rich in Deuterium and Helium-3. Fusion would also explain why manned expeditions and outposts can be found in the Kuiper-belt. While fission powered ships could explain this, too, fusion power would create an economic incentive to visit Saturn, Neptune, Uranus and your Planet-9 as those are the locations in the solar system where it is sensible to mine for Helium-3.

Also this video about colonising Neptune is a discussion of the strategies one would use for the mini-Neptune case and this video discusses the colonisation of the outer, icy debris belts and how to power stuff out there.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't know what the planetary rules are, but I assume it wouldn't violate any of these rules if a planet with a solid surface far from the sun could have a thick atmosphere, but not as thick crushing as that on Venus. The other suggestions regarding energy, as mentioned in the previous post, could also work. But if you should bring equipment from earth, at least during the establishing of the first base, a turbine would perhaps be the easiest solution. Especially if the design has already been tested on Venus. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 13 '19 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ The issue is atmospheric escape and the fact that hydrogen and helium are extremely abundant. The graphic on the website demonstrates the issue nicely. If H2 and He are supposed to escape at the temperatures out there, the planet can't be bigger than Mars. Otherwise, it will have a thick atmosphere which will very quickly turn it into a mini-Neptune. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Sep 13 '19 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ No, the size Mars would be way too small if we assume it has more or less the same gravity as earth. A thick atmosphere shouldn't be a problem, considering that humans can handle the pressure under a few meter of water just fine. It's only when the atmosphere become so thick and dense that it can actually kill if that it becomes a real problem. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 14 '19 at 4:51

If there are extremely powerful winds on the surface, then the Sun is not too far away. Wind power is Sun power... unless it's geothermal power.

Wind turbines would still work fine, just not wind turbines that look like the ones that work on Earth. You need different shapes for different wind speeds and densities. So, you can get indirect solar / geothermal power from wind.

You could also look for direct sources of geothermal power, or even direct solar power: you may need enormous orbital mirrors to concentrate enough solar power to be useful (as in, continent-sized mirror segments spread over volumes of space many times larger than a planet), but this can in principle be done.

Since this is sci-fi anyway, you can also look at fusion power. An icy outer planet would have plenty of fusion fuel. And fission power might be accessible, if you can process sufficiently huge quantities of ore efficiently.

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  • $\begingroup$ Neptune is far from the sun, and still has the strongest winds in the solar system. It may be science fiction, but the hypothetical planet is based on real science. If you follow the link I added and watch the specific part of the video on Youtube, you will notice how professional astronomers tell us there would probably be powerful winds on the surface despite its distance from the sun. You could probably use fusion as well, but the wind energy is just there, waiting to be harvested. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 13 '19 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ @TimHansen Indeed it does. I don't dispute that. I'm merely pointing out that that means the Sun is not too far away. $\endgroup$ – Logan R. Kearsley Sep 13 '19 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know the requirements for how such a planet can have strong winds, but I'm willing to believe the astronomers and planetary scientists knows what they are talking about. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 14 '19 at 5:04
  • $\begingroup$ @TimHansen Like I said, it's either solar or geothermal--most likely a combination of both. Geothermal energy powers a lot of Jupiter's winds, but even at the distances of Uranus and Neptune, solar power is still significant, as can be easily proven by observing that there is seasonal variation in both world's cloud patterns (well, I say "easily", but it took a rather long time to gather that data, given their seasons are so long...). $\endgroup$ – Logan R. Kearsley Sep 14 '19 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ I see. Yes, Neptune is known for radiating about twice as much energy as it receives from the Sun, which is probably responsible for the strong winds. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 15 '19 at 4:42

With current and near-future technology, this is likely a poor candidate for colonization

We don't know how to build long-duration settlements outside of our nice blue marble. This is not an ultimate problem perhaps, because presumably this is something we can figure out in time.

Transit time from Earth to a Kuiper belt object is very long. Resupply missions would be inordinately long and expensive.

Presumably you are hoping for a dense but not crushing atmosphere, based on internal heating from the planet's core. This may also result in nastiness like heavy methane or nitrogen snows that complicates living.

Clearly you also need a solid surface, which implies the need for a rocky planet. A rocky planet is less likely to have enough internal heating for your needs (a strong magnetic or gravitational compression factor is likely needed for the desired heating).

Many of these "documentaries" are more than a little suspect in their science, they tend to be selective in which science applies because they are more about entertainment than actual science. Since this is blocked in my region, I can't comment about the accuracy of this specific program.

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  • $\begingroup$ The goal of colonization, the way I see it, is to spread out in the solar system as much as possible, colonizing everything that can be colonized, even if some candidates are a little more challenging than others. Not sure what you mean with heat from the planet's core. A rocky planet, but probably covered with frozen liquid and gases. Due to the winds, the colony would probably be most isolated right under the surface. The documentary is called Bad Universe, which hosts like Phil Plait, Tony Mulhare, Tony Stephens and Peter Schultz, which all seems fine for me. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 14 '19 at 5:01

In deep space, there are two different ways to go.

  1. Send the energy to the planet. Large lasers can be built near the sun to take advantage of the large amounts of solar energy, either through solar electric satellites in orbit around the Sun or around Mercury, or directly using sunlight by focusing the sunlight onto a suitable lasing medium. The high intensity laser beam can be refocused and redirected through a series of lenses or mirrors in different parts of the Solar System (given the planet will take hundreds of years to orbit the Sun while the laser array around Mercury would only orbit every 88 days (roughly). The energy can be absorbed as heat, or directed to highly efficient solar panels which are optimized for the wavelength of the laser beam.
  2. Concentrate the available energy. Giant solar mirrors in orbit can be made in any arbitrary size to concentrate solar energy either in orbit (i.e. a power target) or onto the surface. While mirrors the size of continents are possible, they are likely unwieldy and it seems more plausible to have platoons of mirrors in orbit. The size of the mirrors really depends on how much energy you want to capture.

In reality, the answer is probably both options will be used, so periodic interruptions of the laser beam are inconvenient, not fatal to the colony. Fusion reactors are another backup system the colonists might favour, especially if 3He is present in the atmosphere. Spaceships will benefit from being self propelled using an on board fusion reactor.

This is really nothing more than scaling up currently known and understood engineering principles, and does not even require the colonists to live on the planet at all. Free flying colonies can be built to simulate Earthly conditions with gravity, sunlight and even radiation environments familiar to the colonists, and simply orbiting the planet where a robot workforce mines for resources and building materials.

enter image description here

A Bernal Sphere. If it is built near a large mirror platoon or laser target, it will receive all the energy it needs anywhere in the Solar System beyond Mars

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for reply, but beyond light, there are the potential energy sources already mentioned in this thread. With the right technology, a source a little closer would probably be preferable for the colonists. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 14 '19 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ For colonizing space, a reliable, high energy density source is preferable, much like in our society the baseline power of the grid is thermal, nuclear or large scale hydro. A space colony is going to measure energy consumption in gigawatts or more. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Sep 15 '19 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ Unless there is a weather system of liquid gases, since we are talking about a very cold planet, the hydro principle should be out of the equation. Would thermal and nuclear energy be available there? If it is, one could use them as power sources. If it's not, there are always the winds that are far more powerful than on earth. $\endgroup$ – Tim Hansen Sep 15 '19 at 4:45

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