Well, it looks like the Solar System is on the verge of having nine planets once again; all those old textbooks will be right again before long! This is great news, as it gives everyone somewhere new to write about, somewhere new to think about. Better still, somewhere a little different. The projections suggest that this is a world larger than Earth, possibly ten times larger, which puts it right into Super-Earth territory - and that will resolve an interesting conundrum, in that we’re finding a lot of those worlds orbiting over stars, but ours seemed to lack one. The chance to get a much closer look at one is going to be well-nigh irresistable.
No, I don’t see a manned mission in the near future. (Though if we find pure, refined unobtanium lying on its surface or it turns out it is occupied by BEM, that might be a different story!) Certainly it would be a target for observation, though, and if we can actually find it, then I can see a lot of time being dedicated to it by observatories on Earth or in space - with a space probe a definite possibility, albeit probably not for a number of decades. A new planet in the Solar System would be interesting enough, but one that represents something we haven’t seen before would be fascinating.
It’s a long way away, though. Previous surveys have ruled out a planet of this size close-in, which suggests that it is probably at the furthest point of its orbit - and with a possible fifteen-thousand-year cycle, that’s a long way. (Conspiracy theories arise - for if it is at the outer part of its orbit, the last time it was close, we were busily inventing writing and agriculture!) That’s a long trip for a space probe, though not an inconceivable one; we’re still in touch with Voyager 2 at the edges of the Solar System, and that was built with much older technology than we now have. If we find it, I’ll predict right now that by 2060, there will have been a probe flyby at the very least. It’s just too obvious a target, and one we could reach with known technologies.
I’ve been fascinated by the Kuiper Belt for a long, long time - something about those cold worlds orbiting out there in the dark, where the Sun provides no warmth or light, appeals to me at some level. The first decade of the century saw the discovery of a host of little worldlets out there, each of them with their own mystery - worlds such as Eris, Makemake, Orcus. I’ve been seriously tempted to write a book set out there for years, but there are some problems to overcome first.
Knowledge being the first. Most of these worlds don’t even have names (fancy having your book being rendered out-of-date within months of release?) and we know very little about them. Now - this isn’t a massive dilemma, in that there is enough known about some of them to provide some interesting locations, and certainly some story options, and there are a lot of fun theories out there to play with. I’ve always thought that the advantage of using a real-world setting is that the universe is a lot stranger than anything we can possibly imagine. Nevertheless, this is an issue.
There’s a big one, though, and it is this. How do we get there? Now, you’re likely thinking that this is science-fiction, and you can just make up some sort of a reason, and to an extent, this is always true. Alamo has the hendecaspace drive, Dune has the spice melange, Star Wars has hyperdrive, and so on - but these things all have limitations. The reverse is true of the Kuiper Belt, in that it is a very, very long way away. Jupiter and Saturn are quick walks around the block in comparison - which means that if you are getting to the Kuiper Belt in realistic time, you can get pretty much anywhere else in the system in relatively short order. Larry Niven got around this by giving his hyperdrive a mass limit, but that means that the characters have all of space to explore - why are they looking at icy rocks in the middle of nowhere?
Therein lies the critical problem. By the time you are getting out that far, you’ve got speeds that suggest the possibility of going a hell of a lot further - or going to other places, faster. So why go at all? Well, again, that’s where the imagination of the poor science-fiction writer comes into play. If you can get from Earth to Saturn in a few days, then having a frontier a few months away becomes a practical proposition, but we’re looking at a long way into the future here. The Kuiper Belt is not somewhere we’re going to colonize in the 22nd century.
Perhaps a modest proposal is called for here. Let’s look at one of the old SF stables, the generation starship. A large vessel carrying a community of people between stars, taking centuries or millennia to make the trip, self-sustaining and supporting - who might eventually not realize that they are on a ship at all. It’s one way that we might reach the stars, short of finding a shortcut of some other means, but that story has been written. What about, instead of a generation starship, a planetary generation ship?
Think of it. Some burning need to get to Pluto, or Eris. Something we find there that is worth investigating, or some crazy patriotic super-project. It might take thirty years for a one-way trip, maybe seventy years for the complete journey, but that’s not a problem. Three generations. One gets the ship out there, one conducts the scientific exploration, one gets the ship home. Perhaps somewhat more plausible than the usual generation ships might be, but still a way of exploring the concept - and one, I think, that has never been done before...