From Centauri Dreams:
Jules Verne once had the notion of a comet grazing the Earth and carrying off a number of astounded people, whose adventures comprise the plot of the 1877 novel Off on a Comet. It’s a great yarn that was chosen by Hugo Gernsback to be reprinted as a serial in the first issues of his new magazine Amazing Stories back in 1926, but with a diameter of 2300 kilometers, Verne’s comet was much larger than anything we’ve actually observed. Comets tend to be small but they make up for it in volume, with an estimated 100 billion to several trillion thought to exist in the Oort Cloud. All that adds up to a total mass of several times the Earth’s.
Of course, coming up with mass estimates is, as with so much else about the Oort Cloud, a tricky business. Paul R. Weissman noted a probable error of about one order of magnitude when he produced the above estimate in 1983. What we are safe in saying is something that has caught Freeman Dyson’s attention: While most of the mass and volume in the galaxy is comprised of stars and planets, most of the area actually belongs to asteroids and comets. There’s a lot of real estate out there, and we’ll want to take advantage of it as we move into the outer Solar System and beyond.
Comets and Resources
Embedded with rock, dust and organic molecules, comets are composed of water ice as well as frozen gases like methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and an assortment of compounds containing nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Porous and undifferentiated, these bodies are malleable enough to make them interesting from the standpoint of resource extraction. Richard P. Terra wrote about the possibilities in a 1991 article published in Analog:
This light fragile structure means that the resources present in the comet nuclei will be readily accessible to any human settlers. The porous mixture of dust and ice would offer little mechanical resistance, and the two components could easily be separated by the application of heat. Volatiles could be further refined through fractional distillation while the dust, which has a high content of iron and other ferrous metals, could easily be manipulated with magnetic fields.
Put a human infrastructure out in the realm of the comets, in other words, and resource extraction should be a workable proposition. Terra talks about colonies operating in the Oort Cloud but we can also consider it, as he does, a proving ground for even deeper space technologies aimed at crossing the gulf between the stars. Either way, as permanent settlements or as way stations offering resources on millennial journeys, comets should be plentiful given that the Oort Cloud may extend half the distance to Alpha Centauri. Terra goes on:
Little additional crushing or other mechanical processing of the dust would be necessary, and its fine, loose-grained structure would make it ideal for subsequent chemical processing and refining. Comet nuclei thus represent a vast reservoir of easily accessible materials: water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, and a variety of metals and complex organics.
Energy by Starlight
Given that comets probably formed on the outer edges of the solar nebula, their early orbits would have been more or less in the same plane as the rest of the young system, but gravitational interactions with passing stars would have randomized their orbital inclinations, eventually producing a sphere of the kind Jan Oort first postulated back in 1950. Much of this is speculative, because we have little observational evidence to go on, but the major part of the cometary shell probably extends from 40,000 to 60,000 AU, while a projected inner Oort population extending from just beyond the Kuiper Belt out to 10,000 AU may have cometary orbits more or less in the plane of the ecliptic. Out past 10,000 AU the separation between comets is wide, perhaps about 20 AU, meaning that any communities that form out here will be incredibly isolated.
Image: An artist’s rendering of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Credit: NASA/Donald K. Yeomans.
Whether humans can exploit cometary resources this far from home will depend on whether or not they can find sources of energy. In a paper called “Fastships and Nomads,” presented at the Conference on Interstellar Migration held at Los Alamos in 1983, Eric Jones and Ben Finney give a nod to non-renewable energy sources like deuterium, given that heavy elements like uranium will be hard to come by. Indeed, a typical comet, in Richard Terra’s figures, holds between 50,000 and 100,000 metric tons of deuterium, enough to power early settlement and mining.
But over the long haul, Jones and Finney are interested in keeping colonies alive through renewable resources, and that means starlight. The researchers talk about building vast mirrors using aluminum from comets, with each 1 MW mirror about the size of the continental United States. Now here’s a science fiction setting with punch, as the two describe it:
Although the mirrors would be tended by autonomous maintenance robots, the nomads would have to live nearby in case something went wrong… Although we could imagine that the several hundred people who could be supported by the resources of a single comet might live in a single habitat, the mirrors supporting that community would be spread across about 150,000 km. Trouble with a mirror or robot on the periphery of the mirror array would mean a long trip, several hours at least. It would make more sense if the community were dispersed in smaller groups so that trouble could be reached in a shorter time. There are also social reasons for expecting the nomad communities to be divided into smaller co-living groups.
Jones and Finney go on to point out that humans tend to work best in groups of about a dozen adults, whether in the form of hunter/gatherer bands, army platoons, bridge clubs or political cells. This observation of behavior leads them to speculate that bands of about 25 men, women and children would live together in a large habitat — think again of an O’Neill cylinder — built out of cometary materials, from which they would tend a mirror farm with the help of robots and computers. Each small group would tend a mirror farm perhaps 30,000 kilometers across.
The picture widens beyond this to include the need for larger communities that would occasionally come together, helping to avoid the genetic dangers of inbreeding and providing a larger social environment. Thus we might have about 500 individuals in clusters of 20 cometary bands which would stay in contact and periodically meet. Jones and Finney consider the band-tribe structure to be the smallest grouping that seems practical for any human community. Who would such a community attract — outcasts, dissidents, adventurers? And how would Oort Cloud settlers react to the possibility of going further still, to another star?
While by no means is this is a new theory, ( note the Jules Verne story ), it presents the scenario of the very slow spreading of intelligent biological life through-out the Galaxy ( see Slow Galactic Colonization, Zoo Hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox ).
Now here’s a thought; could a potential alien Oort Cloud civilization be the basis of the Ancient Astronaut Theory and the legends of the Sumerian Gods, the Anunnaki?
There’s no hard evidence of that of course, but there are Pluto-sized and larger objects in the Kuiper Belt glowing in the infrared, a sign that was said to represent a Dyson Sphere type civilisation.
Either these are natural objects such as Brown Dwarf stars, or potential alien civilisations whom don’t care whether they are detected in the infrared or not.
And that’s disturbing.