Ever since the dawn of humanity, people have envisioned great structures and systems that could help us achieve the impossible. In fact, much of the technology we take for granted today began life in the realm of the fantastic – as myths and fairy tales.
For instance, most cultures have stories about objects that could allow humans to fly, such as the Flying Carpet of the Arabian Nights, or the Chinese Emperor Shun, who flew with the aid of two large reed hats!
Needless to say, these stories existed long before the invention of the modern aircraft. It seems we humans need to spend a long time dreaming about something – and telling stories about it – before we can turn those stories into reality through innovation and ingenuity.
So it’s probably a good thing that modern science fiction has long been obsessed with the idea of enormous, man-made megastructures dwelling in the depths of space.
But could any of these hypothetical megastructures actually become part of our day-to-day reality in the foreseeable future?
To answer this question, let’s take an in-depth look at eight of the theoretical megastructures popularized by science fiction that many believe we will one day construct.
A space elevator is perhaps the megastructure that humanity is most likely to build in the foreseeable future. It will massively reduce the cost of sending people and cargo into space. In fact, many scientists believe that the construction of a space elevator might be the first step needed for humanity to become a space-faring civilization.
To function optimally, a space elevator will have to comprise four major elements – namely, the anchor, tether, climber, and counterweight. The tether will extend from the surface of the planet into low earth orbit. The climber will carry people and cargo along the tether and into space, thus making space travel more affordable and accessible than ever before.
However, if the tether happens to break mid-journey, the fallout could be devastating. To counteract this risk, extremely strong, durable, and stable materials will have to be used for constructing the tether. Some options suggested by scientists include diamond nanothreads, advanced carbon nanotubes, and graphene.
If constructed, the space elevator will become the most massive structure ever built by humans.
The concept of ring worlds was first popularized by Larry Niven’s eponymous novel, Ringworld. In essence, a ring world is an artificial ring around the sun, with a radius approximately matching that of the earth’s orbit. This man-made ring will have a star at its center and will rotate continuously to create artificial gravity.
Expected to be more than a million miles wide and 600 million miles in circumference, a ring world will be able to comfortably accommodate a population of trillions, if not more. The star at the center of the ring will be the primary source of power for the civilization flourishing on this massive world.
The inhabitants of the ring world will live on the inner side of the ring, while the external shell will provide much-needed protection from the hazards of outer space. However, experts doubt that such a megastructure could be stable in the long term, as an asteroid strike or a solar storm might wreck the entire system and doom the civilization within it.
While ring worlds are an interesting thought experiment, we can be reasonably certain that a megastructure of this magnitude will not be built within our lifetime.
The idea of a Dyson sphere was first proposed in the 1937 novel The Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. It was later popularized by physicist Freeman Dyson in the 60s.
This megastructure would be constructed around a star and would be able to collect and utilize the entirety of that star’s energy output. To put this in perspective, let’s remember that our sun – being the greatest source of energy in the solar system – burns six hundred million tons of hydrogen as fuel every single second to produce the heat and light that we need.
Other variations of the Dyson sphere include the Dyson swarm or Bubble. Most scientists agree that the structure would not need to completely enclose the sun in order to be effective – and that’s where the Swarm or Bubble come in; they only partly surround the sun, and collect part of its energy. Regardless, such a megastructure would become a necessity as our civilization advances rapidly and becomes more sophisticated, until the conventional sources of energy found on earth are no longer enough to satiate our needs.
With a Dyson sphere efficiently harnessing the entire energy output of the sun, energy costs would disappear – or at least drop significantly – as humanity will now have access to much more power than we’d know what to do with.
This is a small, ring-like space habitat which was first conceptualized at an engineering systems design program organized by NASA’s Ames Research Center, in collaboration with Stanford University.
Just over a mile in diameter, this self-enclosed torus would rotate once per minute, providing gravity to its 10,000 inhabitants. A series of spokes would connect the outer ring of the torus to an inner ring, making the megastructure look much like a bicycle wheel. A system of mirrors will be used to provide the requisite sunlight to its inhabitants.
For the people living in a Stanford Torus, life would be much like living in a small town on earth. Houses, laboratories, and hi-tech farms would dot the landscape, with no skyscrapers in sight.
Engineers, scientists, and space construction workers – along with their families – would comprise a large section of the population on the Torus. They would be responsible for constructing and maintaining satellite solar power stations and facilitating deep space research.
The name of this megastructure was derived from the Matryoshka dolls popular in Russia, which typically comprise a number of wooden dolls of decreasing size nested inside one another. A Matrioshka Brain, as it was originally conceptualized, was nothing but a mega-computer in space that could consume all the energy released by a star. All this energy would then be used to perform complex computational processes, making this megastructure the ultimate super-intelligence in the solar system, and perhaps in the entirety of the universe.
In this system, the sun’s energy would be harnessed with the help of numerous Dyson spheres nested inside one another. Nanoscale computers will cover most of the available surface on these Dyson spheres. While the construction of a Matrioshka Brain does not violate any of the currently known laws of physics, the entire planetary system of a star may have to be disassembled to acquire the construction materials for such a massive project. A Matrioshka Brain might one day be used by humanity to simulate whole universes or to store trillions of human minds uploaded into a virtual reality.
This astronomical megastructure would resemble a CD disk or a phonograph record, with a star resting in the hole at the center of it. As the local sun would remain stationary at the center of the rotating disk, there would be no night and day cycle for those living on it. Instead, life on the Alderson Disk would be more akin to a perpetual twilight.
A typical Alderson Disk would have the mass of 3,000 suns, as it would need to have a stronger gravitational pull than its local star to be able to support life. Alternatively, scientists might also create artificial gravity on the disk by making it spin fast enough that it wouldn’t get swallowed by the sun at its center.
Either way, humans would only be able to inhabit the central band of this massive disk, as the areas closest to the sun would be too hot to sustain life and those farthest away would be too cold.
A stellar engine is a hypothetical megastructure created for the purpose of propelling the solar system through space. It would consist of a massive solar sail capable of directing radiation and energy away from our sun, which would in turn drive the sun (and all its planets) in a particular direction. As the planets are glued to the sun by gravity, they would follow it in any direction it decides to move.
A stellar engine could potentially help us avoid civilization-ending disasters such as asteroid strikes or a star going supernova in our vicinity, by simply moving our solar system away from the site of the calamity.
Another name for this megastructure, which was first proposed by Dr. Leonid Mikhailovich Shkadov, is the Shkadov Thruster. This thruster is essentially a huge mirror that reflects more than half of the solar radiation to create thrust. With enough thrust, the stellar engine would be able to slowly push the sun in the desired direction. The mirror would probably be constructed from aluminum alloys or similar materials, as it would have to be quite light to avoid being pulled in by the sun’s gravity.
Originally proposed by artist and architect Christian Waldvogel in 2004, this megastructure would take all of the matter comprising planet earth and turn it inside out, with the habitable zone transferred to the interior of the planet. As a result, earth would be transformed into a hollow artificial world, much bigger and able to support a much larger population than the present.
In this Globus Cassus or ‘hollow sphere’, the centrifugal effect will be used to simulate gravity and sunlight will enter the interior of the planet through two large ‘windows’. Only the equatorial zones will be able to sustain an ecosphere on this transformed earth. The thin atmosphere at the tropics will only allow for farms, while the polar regions will be used for storage as they’ll have neither atmosphere nor gravity.
This megastructure will consist of at least 20 great walls, which will be constructed from materials excavated from the core of the earth. Windows as large as continents, made from silica-glass, will ensure that the inhabitants of this hollow earth are not relegated to darkness. Although the idea may seem far-fetched now, humanity may be forced to construct a Globus Cassus at some point in the future to accommodate the ever-growing global population.
A Bright Future for Humanity
From the pyramids to the Pantheon, humans have built some magnificent and awe-inspiring megastructures in the past. And if current trends continue, there’s no reason to doubt that – in the decades and centuries to come – we will build many more. Whether any of the theoretical megastructures discussed in this video will ever become reality, only time will tell. But we can be sure that the future has some amazing surprises in store for those who will inherit the earth!