Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure first described in 1959 by the physicist Freeman Dyson in a short paper published in the journal Science entitled "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation". It is an artificial hollow sphere of matter around a star designed to capture nearly all of the star's radiated energy for industrial use.
Although Dyson is credited with being the first to formalize and popularize the concept of the Dyson sphere, Dyson himself got the idea in 1945 from a science fiction novel titled Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. The original proposal by Dyson did not go into much detail about how a Dyson sphere would be constructed, focusing instead on the more fundamental issue of how an advanced civilization could expand its energy production to the maximum possible for a given solar system. Such a civilization would be classified as a Type II civilization under the Kardashev classification scheme developed by the astronomer Nikolai Kardashev.
A star contained within a Dyson sphere would not be directly visible to the outside universe, but the Dyson sphere itself would radiate an equivalent amount of energy in the form of infrared light due to solar heating from within. In addition, since Dyson spheres are composed of solid matter instead of heated gas, the emission spectrum of the Dyson sphere would more closely resemble a black body spectrum than the typical emission spectrum of a star, which has absorption features introduced in the stellar atmosphere. Dyson proposed that astronomers search for such giant anomalous "stars" in order to detect advanced alien civilizations, but none have been recorded. Attempts to detect Dyson Spheres using the IRAS (Infrared Astronomical Satellite) sky survey data are currently underway.
However, if the creators of a Dyson sphere wanted to increase the temperature gradient (and thereby increase the efficiency of the energy gathering process), they could reflect the light from the inner surface of the sphere onto some areas on the surface of the sphere. The concentration of light would be restricted by the maximum allowable temperature of the materials involved in the energy conversion process. As a result the radiation toward the outside world would not have to be omnidirectional, so Dyson spheres may well be invisible.
Shell-type Dyson spheres are neutrally stable, having no apparent overall gravitational attraction toward the enclosed star (in contrast to a ringworld, which is much more unstable). Thus the sphere would only need propulsion to counteract any unusual forces moving it out of place relative to its star.
There are several basic varieties of hypothetical design for a Dyson sphere.
The most realistic of them, and the closest to Dyson's original conception, is the "Dyson swarm". It consists of a large number of independent solar collectors orbiting in a dense formation around the star. The solar collectors could range widely in individual size and design, and possibly include space habitats for biological creatures to live in, but as a group they would collectively intercept almost all of the star's total light output. A number of different orbital patterns for the collectors have been proposed, each with different benefits and drawbacks; whatever pattern is chosen, some solar collectors will spend part of their orbits in the shadows of other solar collectors, reducing the sphere's efficiency somewhat. Since the collectors operate largely independently of each other, a Dyson swarm can be constructed incrementally over a long period of time and provide useful output throughout.
A second type of Dyson sphere is a uniform solid shell around the star, sometimes called a "Dyson shell", often with a layer of atmosphere and soil on the inner surface to provide an astronomically large living space for organic life forms. This form of Dyson sphere is much more popular in science fiction, but is not physically feasible for a variety of reasons. One is the immense strength that would be required for such an enormous structure.
Another is the fact that the net gravitational force exerted by a uniform hollow sphere on anything inside is zero; there would be nothing holding the atmosphere to the sphere's surface, and it would fall into the star. In fact, whatever the mass distribution, a spherically symmetric gravitational field is never outward, see also the divergence theorem applied to gravity. This is a characteristic of the fundamental inverse square falloff nature of gravitational force combined with the fact that this force is always attractive. Thus it would still apply even if hypothetical "gravity generators " were used (devices that can produce the gravitational field of a non-existent mass-distribution), except if they could simulate negative masses.
The sphere could be rotated to produce centrifugal pseudogravity around its equator, but the structural strength requirements for the shell material becomes even larger in this case. Another possibility would be to put the atmosphere on the outside of the sphere, which while not lit by the interior star, would have gravity.
A Dyson sphere is a neutrally stable design, but during construction — before the sphere's domes are closed — it would act as an unstable ringworld and would need to be kept in place with thrusters to keep it centered around the star. One possible way to avoid this is to construct a Hoberman sphere with a far greater radius around the star. Because of the increased radius the sphere would have much less effect from the gravity of the star. Once the Hoberman sphere has been completed it can be folded (collapsed) onto the star until the shell of the sphere is within the habitable zone. From then on it is a matter of filling in the gaps of the Hoberman sphere until it forms a Dyson sphere.
While no known or theorized material is strong enough to form a rigid, static sphere around a star like this, it may be possible to support a Dyson shell by dynamic means similar to those used in a space fountain. Masses travelling at significantly greater than orbital velocity could be contained in enormous circular tracks around the sphere's circumference in various orientations, their outward centrifugal force counterbalancing the inward weight of the shell. The velocities required for most shell designs would be large, however; orbital velocity at 1 AU from the Sun is roughly 30 km/s, so a mass would need to be travelling at 300 km/s to support nine times its weight in shell structure at this distance.
A third type of Dyson sphere called a "Dyson bubble" is occasionally considered, composed of statites that hover motionless relative to the englobed sun using light pressure; this form of Dyson sphere has such low mass requirements that it could potentially be built from the material contained in a single small moon or large asteroid. However, a Dyson bubble has few practical applications (harvesting energy would be difficult due to its low mass and dependence on high reflectivity) and so it is not often discussed.
Another possibility is the "Dyson net", a web of cables strung about the star which could have power or heat collection units strung between the cables. The Dyson net reduces to a special case of Dyson shell or bubble, however, depending on how the cables are supported against the sun's gravity.
Dyson spheres in fiction
Most fiction features the shell variant; unless otherwise noted, that is the type of Dyson sphere in the instances noted below.
- The Star Trek novel The Starless World by Gordon Eklund .
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Dyson Sphere by George Zebrowski, Charles R. Pellegrino . A follow-up to "Relics".
- The novels Orbitsville, Orbitsville Departure, and Orbitsville Judgement by Bob Shaw.
- The novel Spinneret by Timothy Zahn (Dyson net).
- The novel The World is Round by Tony Rothman .
- Two novels by Frederik Pohl & Jack Williamson - These are notable in that the sphere in these novels is inhabited on the outside, producing an unusual environment with both very low gravity and an atmosphere hundreds of miles deep.
- The novel Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton.
- The novel Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg.
- The novel The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter.
- The novel The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons, featuring a partly completed sphere, being grown using advanced biotechnology.
- The short story Star Light, Star Bright by Robert J. Sawyer.
- The novel Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer.
- The Doctor Who New Adventures novel The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch .
- The novel Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks.
- The novel Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds.
- The novel Russian Spring by Norman Spinrad. (Brief mention in a news blurb)
- The "Cageworld" novels Search for the Sun!, The Lost Worlds of Cronus, The Tyrant of Hades, and Star-Search by Colin Kapp. Features concentric nested Dyson shells built from collected interstellar matter, also inhabited on their outer surfaces.
- The novel Illegal Aliens by Nick Pollotta and Phil Foglio mentions two Dyson shells. The first, simply called "Big", is the headquarters of a galactic federation. The second is unnamed and apparently consists of nothing but nested Dyson shells built by an insane race to cope with their sun getting smaller.
- The novel The Singers of Time by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson visits a parallel universe totally covered in Dyson shells, where only the farthest quasars are visible (already covered, but the light from them is still travelling). They were constructed by a formerly biological race that slowly converted their bodies to cyborgs and then full robots, the only logical evolution being the creation of a Type V or VI civilization.
- The sci-fi web-comic Schlock Mercenary by Howard Tayler features an alien race known as the Gatekeepers, who live in habitats hanging from Dyson Bubbles they call Buuthandi (an abbreviation of "Buut go buut-buut nnaa-nnaa cho handi", which translates to "this was expensive to build").
- The comic BLAME! by Tsutomu Nihei. In the artbook, BLAME! And So On it is revealed by the artist that the "city" the characters keep referring to and are currently wandering in is actually a Dyson Sphere extending to the orbit of Jupiter.
- The PC game Freelancer by Microsoft Game Studios
- The PC game Mission Critical by Legend Entertainment
- The PBeM Game Quadrant Delta
- The collaborative worldbuilding website Orion's Arm describes several fictional planetary systems which incorporate Dyson Swarms, which orbit the local star and collect energy to use for life support, industry and computation.
- The protagonist of the Ringworld series, Louis Wu, mentions that the Ringworld is somewhat like a dyson sphere.
- Alderson Disc
- Star lifting
- Megascale engineering
- Hollow Earth
- Future energy development
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