Oort Cloud Colonisation
Despite the fact that so much has been written about the "Oort Cloud" by scientists and other commentators, that its existence is now often taken for granted, the truth is that no direct observation has ever been made of any object that would be one of its possibly trillions of components. Its conjectured existence is purely the result of hypothetical speculation, based on models of the Solar System's formation and evolution, and of the possible projected source of long period comets.
This discussion will assume that the Oort Cloud exists, with the inner Oort Cloud located between 2000 and 20,000 AU in a toroidal region centred on the ecliptic plane. The outer Oort Cloud, which is the main focus of this study, will be considered as approximately equally distributed in all directions, with its inner edge at about 20,000 AU and its outer edge at about 100,000 AU, although the regions beyond 50,000 AU may be relatively sparsely populated. We will also assume that it consists largely of icy comets and planitesimals. In the outer Oort Cloud, objects greater than 1 km in size may count in the trillions, actual planitesimals perhaps in the billions. The mean distance between significant objects is probably 10s of millions of kilometres.
The question then is whether colonization of such remote regions is possible, and if so what would be the benefits of such distant locations that would motivate the effort required to establish and maintain these colonies.
Given the distances between the Oort Cloud and the planets of the Solar System, travel to the Oort Cloud from a civilisation based around the planets will not be possible using chemical propulsion. The most likely candidates are fusion propulsion and beam propulsion. These are technologies that have been proposed for interstellar travel to the nearest stars at subluminal velocities. Colonising the Oort Cloud may well be an intermediate step towards achieving interstellar travel, both as a test of the technologies required and even as a means of breaking interstellar travel into shorter steps, which may be particularly useful in the initial phases of interstellar exploration.
To build and maintain colonies in the Oort Cloud will require sources of materials and energy, much of which could be obtained from the icy comet like objects thought to make up the Oort Cloud. They are thought to contain a relatively high percentage of deuterium, which could be promising for fusion power. Ideally, small autonomous robot devices could be sent ahead of any human settlers to prepare fully functional facilities, but it is also possible that beam and fusion propulsion could be developed to the point that the resources for a colony could be shipped in from planetary bases at relatively low cost. In any case, since survival in space is really about cultivating as many options as possible in any given scenario, developing technologies that would allow colonies to be completely self sufficient for long periods of time would be extremely worthwhile.
Other than its intrinsic value as an exercise in very long distance space travel and habitation, there is another very great return that could be made from the investment in such colonies - namely priceless information. The establishment of very large scale hypertelescopes in the ultra-cold regions far from any star, will surely revolutionise our view and understanding of the cosmos. With interferometry networks established over a diameter of up to 4 light years, there is the potential to obtain high resolution images from the surface of exoplanets, among many other wondrous astronomical achievements. Also, many experiments in fundamental physics many benefit from the tranquil environment available. Even such mundane tasks as long term data warehousing and data mining could be achieved with large scale cryogenic data banks, less at risk from corruption due to solar flares, and other interference.
The Oort Cloud colonies may well be extremely exciting places to be in the future, at the forefront of exploration in many fields of science and engineering.