Could a civilization exist on a planet/dwarf planet like Pluto? It is so cold and barren. Is it possible? What would they live off? They don't have to be humanoid.

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    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 I mean like as successful as us and like a sprawling civilization across the planet $\endgroup$ Nov 30 '14 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ A dwarf planet is a small planet but it does not have to be cold. What is more important: temperature, planet size or both ? $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Nov 30 '14 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte The title states 'as advanced as humans'. They don't have to be humanoid, they just need to have the same level of advancement. Advancement has to do with technology/knowledge/etc., not with species. $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Dec 2 '14 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Mast thanks - at the time I posted the comment the title still said "humanoid civilization" (see edit history). Now that the title has been updated I'll delete the comment. $\endgroup$
    – trichoplax
    Dec 2 '14 at 13:32


I hate that that's my token response to things like this (I really should be more creative), but it seems pretty unlikely for a few reasons:

  • Low surface gravity: Pluto's mass is 0.00128 times that of the Earth. That means that it's really hard for it to keep a lot of matter on it. Sure, it's big by human standards, but it's really small on a celestial scale. The low gravity would make it hard for any creatures like us to develop.
  • Temperature: It's pretty bloody cold on Pluto. It's normally less than 200 degrees Celsius below freezing. There's no way liquid water could exist there. In fact, liquids of any kind (which are crucial for life) would have to have really low melting points to exist.
  • Atmosphere: Take a look at this passage from Wikipedia:

    Pluto's elongated orbit is predicted to have a major effect on its atmosphere: as Pluto moves away from the Sun, its atmosphere should gradually freeze out, and fall to the ground.

    Good luck breathing that. Respiration will not be easy.

  • Seasons: Pluto's orbital eccentricity is 0.245, way larger than that of any of the planets. This means that it may have different temperature changes as it swings closer to (and passes away from) the Sun. That's not good for life. You want stability in a planet.

  • Neptune: Pluto goes inside Neptune's orbit for a brief stretch of time during its year. That has the potential (the potential) for close encounters, which could be disastrous. If Pluto goes too close, it could be flung out of its orbit! This would be horrible, no matter which way it goes. This is really only applicable if the dwarf planet in question is Pluto - the question seems to indicate that it could be a dwarf planet somewhere completely different.

You said in a comment,

I mean like as successful as us and like a sprawling civilization across the planet

My joke answer is yes, because there's not as much space to spread across, but the real answer is that it is highly unlikely that such a relatively advanced civilization could develop.

fredsbend said in a comment,

If the dwarf planet had a very dense core then the gravity could be close to Earth's. I'm not sure, but I think "dwarf" status is a measure of volume, not mass. But even if it is mass, I think most people perceive it as a measure of "size" (volume), so for pragmatic purposes, I would say it is a volume thing the OP is looking for.

I would argue, actually, that "dwarf" status is a measure of mass, as well as volume. Here's the IAU's definition of a dwarf planet:

A "dwarf planet" is a celestial body that

(a) is in orbit around the Sun,

(b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,

(c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and

(d) is not a satellite.

Volume isn't anywhere in there. Note also, from Wikipedia,

There is no defined upper limit, and an object larger or more massive than Mercury that has not "cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit" would be classified as a dwarf planet.

(Emphasis is mine.)

Volume doesn't play into it, but mass does, in two ways:

  • Enough mass to bring itself into a rounded shape
  • Enough mass to clear its neighborhood of other non-satellite bodies.

However, if you did mean volume, and not mass (and thus were ignoring the strict definition of a dwarf planet), then things may be a bit different.

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    $\begingroup$ For the Pluto-Neptune system, there is an orbital resonance that prevents them from colliding or having close encounters. However, this wouldn't necessarily be the general situation for dwarf planets' interactions with larger planetary bodies. $\endgroup$
    – ajp15243
    Dec 1 '14 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Lynda Assuming you also circularize the orbit (which stabilizes the seasons in this case), and have the right chemical composition for the formation of life, then yes, I would see the extremely low gravity as enough of a hindrance to make it nearly impossible for life even vaguely like humans to develop. $\endgroup$
    – ajp15243
    Dec 1 '14 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ The Neptune/Pluto thing was a joke right? We don't live in a 2-D world. $\endgroup$
    – blankip
    Dec 1 '14 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ If the dwarf planet had a very dense core then the gravity could be close to Earth's. I'm not sure, but I think "dwarf" status is a measure of volume, not mass. But even if it is mass, I think most people perceive it as a measure of "size" (volume), so for pragmatic purposes, I would say it is a volume thing the OP is looking for. The other points are characteristics that Pluto has but does not have to be so with any given dwarf planet. The OP wasn't very clear that dwarf planets specifically were being researched, rather than Pluto-like planets. $\endgroup$
    – frеdsbend
    Dec 1 '14 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ What about a planet covered in ice heated by internal heat? $\endgroup$
    – liftarn
    Feb 3 '15 at 15:47

Ok I am going to have to disagree with all the answers given here.

Chances of humanoid / civilized life evolving on a planet like Pluto ranges from extremely unlikely to impossible.

However you never said anything about a civilization evolving on a planet like Pluto - you asked if a civilization could exist on Pluto.

If we can survive in spaceships in outer space, then sure, we can exist on Pluto. It would probably be similar to something like a Moon Base, where the living area's would be completely self contained.

Natural lifeforms developing on Pluto is unlikely, even basic bacteria and creatures like the Tardigrade wouldn't develop in this harsh environment. Its generally thought that liquids are required for life, and given the vast temperature differences that Pluto experiences (due to its orbital eccentricity / seasonal changes) liquids wouldn't exist for long on the surface even if there was a possibility of liquids on Pluto. Check out Titan, a very cold moon, but it has liquid lakes on it (of methane and the like), and this means it has a much greater chance of having simple life on the surface.

But life existing on Pluto is fairly likely provided that there is a sufficiently advanced race in the vicinity.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for noticing the difference between "developing" and "existing" on a planet. Not obvious which one OP wanted. $\endgroup$ Dec 1 '14 at 17:41

It is unlikely. Any chemical processes occurring on such a world would be very slow given the extreme distance from the sun and given that only very heavy gases would be present in what passed for an atmosphere. Unless there was a large moon very close by to cause tectonic activity that would cause significant warmth, chemical reactions would be likely to be too slow for any life to evolve and become sentient before the parent star either went supernova or burned out into a dwarf star.


It depends on their technological level. Civilizations probably won't evolve on a small planets because resources like iron and water are too scarce there. If the planet is as far way from the star as Pluto, then breathing is impossible and it's too cold to sustain most chemical processes let alone biological ones (biological ones need some kind of liquid).

But an advanced civilization could move to such a planet, hollow it out, make it spin to create gravity (unless they have other means to create gravity which, according to current physics research, seems unlikely).

So basically, they could turn the planet into a huge space ship. If they have the technology to terraform the planet, they could exist on (or inside of it) as long as they wish.


This is my first WorldBuilding post and I tried to edit my initial answer to better answer the question, so I apologize if it's still lacking.

I agree with Jimmery that it would be exceedingly unlikely for life to originate on such a planet, but it could be there nonetheless.

As I see it, the only real requirements for life to persist would be the natural resources (elements & compounds) their bodies are comprised of in order for their population to grow, and an energy source to fuel the necessary chemical reactions. The rest could be a result of the beings' unique physiology.

My answer might be biased though, because I fondly remember reading a book where precisely this happens.

In "Camelot 30K" by Robert L Forward, mankind encounters and studies an intelligent civilization living in extreme cold and in near-vacuum on a planetary body beyond Pluto's orbit. The aliens in the book use the decay of Uranium to provide themselves with the heat needed to live. Without giving away the ending of the book, they also have a method of colonizing other such planets.

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    $\begingroup$ KJP, welcome to the site. This answer is more of a comment (which you don't have access to yet, that comes at 50 reputation). When you utilize the answer section please ensure you are addressing the question being asked. It takes some time getting used to the format here. Feel free to edit this into an answer for the question if you would like, otherwise I would recommend removing it. Feel free to drop over to chat or meta if you have questions. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Dec 1 '14 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately @James meta is 5 rep, and chat is 20 rep. Privilege rep requirements. KJP, please check out the tour as well as the 'answering' section of the help center, particularly How do I write a good answer?. As James mentioned answers should address the question as asked. Don't worry; stick around a little and you'll get the hang of it soon enough! We all started out as newcomers to the site and the form. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Dec 1 '14 at 20:21

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