The Dyson Sphere: NO, It’s Not The Death Star

By Maya McHarg, G9

What if there was a way to sustainably power human civilization for millions of years? It might seem like something straight out of science-fiction, and you would actually be correct. A Dyson Sphere made an appearance in the 6th season of Star Trek:The Next Generation, giving a theoretical example of how it might work if it was actually built. No, it’s not the Death Star, although it might appear that way at first. And no, it has nothing to do with the vacuum company; the concept was actually created by Freeman Dyson, a mathematician and physicist. The idea of a Dyson Sphere was primarily invented to come up with a way for humanity to harness power –enough of it for us to stop worrying about our energy consumption. And because all of this energy would be coming from the Sun, it would be considered a form of renewable energy.

(The Kardashev Scale via briankoberlein.com)

First, you have to understand the Kardashev Scale. The Kardashev Scale is a way to measure how technologically advanced a civilization is. It was first invented by Nikolai Kardashev, a Soviet astronomer in 1964, which was expanded later on by the distinguished astronomer, Carl Sagan. A Type 1 on the scale would be harnessing all the resources of a planet. This means that we would have to generate energy from our earthquakes, weather, and volcano eruptions. A Type 2 would be harnessing all the radiation of a star. Type 3 is harnessing all the energy in our galaxy. Although the energy emissions extend far beyond that, you only need to know about the first 2 types to understand a Dyson Sphere. Just remember: Type 1 is harnessing the energy of a planet while Type 2 is the energy from a star.

(The earth from space via historyextra)

Earth is currently estimated at a 0.7 on the Kardashev Scale. While this might seem good, in order to reach Type 1, we would have to increase our energy by at least 100 times more. However, if we continue at this rate of technological advancement, we should be able to reach Type 1 in a few centuries, if not sooner. This next part is where Dyson Spheres come in. Although our technology is nowhere near advanced enough to do this yet, the basic idea of a Dyson Sphere is to create an entire sphere covering the sun. It would have to be enormous, and would orbit around 5 million miles away from the actual surface of the sun. Now, before you start calling this idea insane – let’s be honest, it can get pretty far-fetched –there are a lot of scientists who believe that, while we might not have the technology to do this yet, it could be plausible in a couple thousand years.

Using this sphere, we could collect enough radiation from the sun to reach a Type 2 civilization. The only issue? It would have to be extremely big. In order to build it, not only would we require a massive amount of materials, but we might need to destroy Earth and several other inner ring planets in our solar system to do it. While that might sound bad, we are talking about years into the future, where we could even be artificial consciousness at that point. Another solution would be to build land on the inside of the sphere. This would look like an inner ring on the inside of the sphere, pointing towards the sun. Living like this, powered by a Dyson Sphere, would provide humanity enough energy to basically survive forever – we wouldn’t run out of energy until the sun explodes into a red giant.

Ignoring the imminent explosion of our sun, there are a lot of problems with the Dyson Sphere’s structural integrity and its vulnerability to asteroid showers and other debris in space. Without something like Earth’s magnetic field, we would have less protection against those sorts of things. That would mean that there would be a higher chance of something in space hitting the sphere, and causing irreparable damage. This problem is something that affects all of the proposed solutions to reaching a Type 2 on the Kardashev Scale, including this next one, the Dyson Swarm.

(An artist’s rendition of what a Dyson Swarm might look like via Getty Images)

The list of crazy future solutions continues with Dyson Swarms, although they seem slightly more plausible than Dyson Spheres. A Dyson Swarm has the same goal as a Dyson Sphere, however it is a much more possible solution. The Dyson Swarm would consist of many solar panels in space to catch light and radiation, rather than a solid sphere. The downside is that, like with Dyson Spheres, we do not have enough materials to build this many solar panels. Not to mention the fact that each solar panel would require a diameter of around 3000 km. So back to the materials problem, the easiest solution would be to mine materials from Mercury, which would only be a small amount compared to the total mass of that planet. So, the Dyson Swarm seems like a more conceivable solution than the Dyson Sphere, given that in the process, we wouldn’t have to destroy several planets (including our own!) to get the energy we would need to sustain humanity for hundreds of thousands of years, and reach a Type 2 on the Kardashev Scale. 

Humanity still has a long way to reach these steps though, and with new technologies being invented at every corner, there is a decent chance that some other, more plausible solutions will be invented, getting rid of the need for a Dyson Sphere altogether. But when all else fails, we could always just build the Death Star… right?

Glossary:

The Kardashev Scale – A scale created by physicist and mathematician, Freeman Dyson in order to measure a civilization’s technological advancement.

Dyson Sphere – A sphere or shell around the sun designed to capture it’s radiation for energy.

Dyson Swarm – A collection of solar panels orbiting around the sun in order to collect its energy.

Freeman Dyson – A physicist and mathematician born in 1923.

Carl Sagan – A prominent astronomer in the 20th century; he expanded the Kardashev Scale.

Nikolai Kardashev – A Soviet Astrophysicist who invented the Kardashev Scale.

Star Trek – A Sci-fi TV Show from the 80s & 90s, based in the future.

Cover illustration courtesy of Kit Beresford, G9

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