We’ve been on a trend of talking about all the places in the Solar System that we shouldn’t go, as they aren’t habitable. That leads to OPS.15, the robotic exploration of the Kuiper Belt.
Named for astrophysicist Gerard Kuiper, the Kuiper Belt is a selection of various and far-flung small rocky objects, punctuated by a few larger bodies, such as Pluto, the nearest of those bodies. The hubbub over the Pluto mission a few years ago was impressive, and well deserved, but a mission to the genreral Kuiper Belt would be even more so, with far less understanding of its nature. It would be a new plunge into the unknown. We will have to make that voyage someday, if only to show that we can and to better understand our system.
From an Outbound perspective, this is another chance to test our mettle in the production of robust, long-lived space systems, then bring that stretch of our knowledge back to the human space systems we’ll need. And as difficult as the inner planets will be in terms of heat and orbital mechanics, the Kuiper missions will spend a massive amount of it’s mental capital (and most of its electrical energy) on providing enough heat to sustain the necessary mission functions. The ability to keep systems alive for many decades in such an environment will return great technological benefit in the relatively more hospitable regions of our settlements.
Another aspect of the Kuiper missions, and also any larger mission to the Oort Cloud, would be the effect upon the development of higher-speed propulsion to serve the needs of such long journeys. Once beyond the Mars and the asteroid belt, going anywhere in the solar system is a many-years long affair with current technologies. Given that the known transit from Earth to Pluto alone was nearly a decade, any practical exploration of the Kuiper belt will require propulsion capable of much higher speeds. That would be nothing short of revolutionary for space operations in much closer locales…