Always imagined as encompassing the sun, the star closest to our planet, a Dyson Sphere is, more generally speaking, a hypothetical megastructure – an enormous self-supporting artificial construct, which is entirely wrapped around a star to channel its power output to meet the energy requirements of a civilization advanced enough to engage in the journeying through space, enabling it to harvest a far greater percentage than if it were to await that energy to reach a planet’s surface.
Origins and development
The first mentions of a Dyson Sphere appeared in the realm of literature where a 1937 science fiction Novel, Star Maker, published by Olaf Stapledon, described a “solar system… surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use.” This inspired mathematical-physicist Freeman Dyson in his thought experiment, theorizing that the Dyson Sphere was the logical outcome or result of civilizational advancement. As one grew larger, its energy demand ever expanded, working towards needing its star’s full energy output.
He published his Dyson Sphere description in “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation,” one of his papers published in 1960 in Science. Specifically, he outlined a shell – an arrangement of orbiting structures – which would intercept and store the energy generated by the ongoing fusion in the Sun. However, this structure remained highly theoretical as he did not issue any proposals on building such a system.
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These theoretical speculations are immensely hopefully and conceptually beautiful in terms of human achievement and energy provisions. However, the manufacturing or transport of a Dyson Sphere and its stability is currently beyond human engineering and industrial capacity. To overcome this limitation, George Dvorsky, a Canadian futurist, had envisioned self-replicating robots as a solution to building and assembling a Dyson sphere.
Two other considerable variations to a classical Dyson Sphere as described by Freeman Dyson are a Dyson Swarm and a Dyson Bubble.
A Dyson Swarm relies on the idea of a multitude of smaller independent constructs that orbit the star in close and dense formation. This option is considered slightly more reasonable first and foremost because the size of the constructs would be to scale what humans are capable of engineering. Secondly, it can be constructed in increments, as the whole structure is not dependent on one gargantuan engineering achievement. The energy is envisioned to be transferred wirelessly between the component and the planet. However, the orbital pattern’s practicality remains extremely complex, for example, due to the loss of orbital stability as the number of constructs increases as they start to interact amongst each other and interfere with each other’s trajectory.
Secondly, the Dyson Bubble, similar in construct to the Dyson Swarm, holds all of the same advantages. However, the independent constructs would be replaced by a network of statites – satellites employing solar sails to remain stable – and would thus be totally stationary with respect to the sun, independent of one another, removing the danger of collision or orbital interference.
When the proposal for a Dyson Shell was issued, other possibilities of use, above the mere collection of energy, started to emerge. For example, with a solid shell completely encompassing the sun, it would be theoretically fathomable to render its surface inhabitable. However, as its surface/dimensions would have to liken the conditions of life on Earth and would thus have to have a radius of about 1 AU, but would not interact gravitationally with the star, the shell would thus be subject to drifting about the Sun’s center and could collide with it.
Due to this lack of gravity, a great effort would need to be dedicated to pulling structures built on the sphere towards its surface, as nothing is holding them back from falling. Finally, amongst many other practical impracticalities, this shell would be highly vulnerable to cosmic activity, such as the movement of comets and meteoroids.
To conclude, it would be implausible for any of us to witness a Dyson Sphere at work. Still, as the theory maintains its beauty, hope continues to persist in the form of numerous other thought experiments and Science Fiction appearances of the Dyson Sphere.