By Lev E., Seventh Grade, Krieger Schechter Day School of Chizuk Amuno Congregation
Climate change, the process by which gas emissions warm the atmosphere, is only growing worse. The world may soon reach a point of no return. Could the widely forgotten and seemingly impossible Dyson Sphere, a hypothetical megastructure surrounding a star, provide guidance and save us?
Humans are special. Unlike other primates, we have the ability not only to invent, but to create new types of innovations that interact with the world in different ways. To my knowledge, we have three main types of inventions. First, there are inventions that require no energy, like water bottles. This type of invention continues to function without an energy input, and it can be operated by hand power. Second, there are inventions which do require energy, like cars, computers, and lights. This type of invention will cease to function without an energy input, and relies on electricity. The third type of invention is one which collects, rather than expends, energy. This is mostly limited to solar panels and batteries.
Early humans only invented implements like clubs and utensils, which, of course, were hand powered. Then, humanity made the most exciting, important, history-changing discovery of that era: fire. Fire would continuously emit energy on its own, until running out of fuel. That discovery forever altered the technological path of humankind.
Now that we are so deeply ensnared in climate change, it is probably time for us as a civilization to change. The discovery of fire was great, but how can we institute a change in our technology of the same magnitude? Well, an answer to that would lie in the largest, most costly, most ambitious structure ever created: the Dyson Sphere. First practically conceptualized by Freeman Dyson in 1960, the Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical megastructure that would surround a star. The structure would collect almost all of the energy output of a star, resulting in an energy reservoir so vast that for a civilization like ours, it would seem infinite.
Just as fire sparked a new age of invention for early humans, a Dyson Sphere would launch our next age of invention. And that’s something that we need, right now, if we want to survive as a civilization. I don’t want to just be another prophet, foretelling doom and disaster, but let’s be realistic. Humans have a greater energy consumption rate now than ever before, and that is evident everywhere. Overpopulation is causing extreme hunger, plastic is killing marine life (there are literally plastic bags 200 miles below sea level at the deepest point on Earth), and climate change threatens to kill us all through flooding, forest fires, drought, and the like, if we don’t take action.
All these problems are similar in that with access to enough emission-free energy, we could fix them. More energy lets us fuel machinery used in agriculture and the vehicles to deliver the products to hungry cities. More energy lets us replace fossil fuels. More energy even lets us produce biodegradable materials to replace plastic, but we don’t have that energy. So, where could we find that energy? Well, imagine detonating one trillion nuclear bombs… every second. Only then would you reach the energy levels at which the sun shines. According to a paper by members of the Physics Department at Boğaziçi University, the sun is also 100 quintillion times more powerful than the most efficient nuclear reactor. Sound like a powerful enough energy source? Let’s use it to our full advantage.
To build something as complex and grand scale as a Dyson Sphere, we’ll need a well laid out plan. First, the concept of a Dyson Sphere has one rather important flaw: it’s one solid piece, and being quite heavy, it would probably crash right into the Sun. According to an article on sentientdevelopments.com, the Dyson Sphere’s rigid body would also make it liable to break if hit by space debris.
One variant on the Dyson Sphere is the Dyson Swarm. Although it is unclear who originated the idea, it quickly became much more popular than the original Dyson Sphere. It would consist of many small solar panels orbiting the Sun, rather than one big piece surrounding the Sun. That would be easier to build, because each piece would be easier to manufacture, plus we wouldn’t need to worry about connecting them. Each piece would function as an individual unit, not relying on other units to work. Because the units would function on their own, the Dyson Swarm could be built incrementally. For example, we could send the first 50 units into orbit around the Sun, and soon enough, those first units would collect enough energy for us to build the next ones. We could build quite efficiently that way, and probably finish a Dyson Swarm in a matter of a few decades, probably around 40 years total.
In order to gather the material for a Dyson Swarm, we would probably need to dissect Mercury. Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun, and it also happens to be rich in metals, according to an article on phys.org. This makes it an ideal spot to build our Dyson Swarm, because it would be easy to launch our solar panels from there, and we could even build the solar panels on Mercury to begin with if we transported the necessary machinery. Furthermore, solar panels on Mercury would be vastly more efficient than solar panels on Earth because they are so much closer to the Sun, so we could get energy for mining metal and launching solar panels by keeping some panels on Mercury that would not be launched. Those would provide energy for the first phases of mining, refining, and launching, until the solar panels actually part of the Dyson Swarm started collecting energy. We have the technology to do this. Sending spaceships to Mercury would require no new technology, mining and refining of metals has been happening for centuries, and making solar panels is no challenge. The final stage would just be to launch the satellites into orbit around the Sun, which would be even easier than on Earth because of Mercury’s reduced gravity and its proximity to the Sun. So, a Dyson Swarm could be built today.
However, Ben Sugerman, a Ph.D. astronomer and AI Engineer in Algorithms and Exploitation at Northrop Grumman Corporation, disbelieves this notion. On a positive note, mining half of Mercury to get materials for a Dyson Swarm would not affect its orbit at all, says Sugerman. That had been a concern of mine, as I had been a little bit worried that Mercury would slowly grow closer to and possibly crash into Venus. However, that was about where the positives stopped in my conversation with Sugerman.
First, there are problems with the concept of a Dyson Swarm which make them impractical. Sugerman explained to me that it is harder to launch mass towards the Sun than out of the solar system. Basically, in order to launch something out of the solar system, you need only apply a small amount of energy, possibly using planets’ gravity for boosts along the way. To launch something into the Sun, you must stop it from going into orbit. As an object gets closer to the Sun, its orbit gets faster, and the faster it’s moving, the harder it is to break its orbit and push it closer to the Sun. Dyson Swarm panels would need to be very close to the Sun indeed, so to launch all of the solar panels into place would require an immense amount of energy. After adding up the energy required to send rockets to Mercury, mine metal, and make the solar panels, the total energy cost is close to the energy output of a Dyson Swarm. Therefore, if enough energy is available to make a Dyson Swarm, that energy source could be used, and there would be no need for a Dyson Swarm anyway.
Sugerman also points out that if a civilization’s technology is advanced enough to make a Dyson Swarm, it would be easier to use hydrogen fusion, which would be just as powerful but much easier to institute. Hydrogen fusion is actually what occurs inside the Sun that generates its energy, so it would make sense to cut out the middleman of a Dyson Swarm and use hydrogen fusion directly rather than collecting its output indirectly.
There are also some negative impacts of Dyson Swarms. For example, one would shade the Sun, which would make growing crops in bulk nearly impossible. We could theoretically build a Dyson Swarm around any star of our choosing, but the Sun, being the closest star to Earth, is by far the best option. With climate change prominent in the news, we are all very aware of the impact even a few degrees can make. A Dyson Swarm would lower global temperatures by many, many degrees, far more than climate change raises temperatures. Yes, a Dyson Swarm would reverse climate change, but it might just kill us with cold instead of heat.
Another issue with Dyson Swarms is the extreme delicacy of the parts. Solar panels break quite easily, and when they break, they send shards of glass spewing in all directions. Those shards would then break other solar panels nearby, starting a destructive chain reaction. Because of this, any small piece of space debris that hit a solar panel in a Dyson Swarm would obliterate the entire structure. Not to mention, the solar panels would be in a rapid orbit around the Sun, meaning that only a slight disturbance in that orbit could send a solar panel into the Sun, another solar panel, or out of the Dyson Swarm entirely.
The other major problem with a Dyson Swarm is the matter of transmitting the energy from the Sun all the way back to Earth. When you total the costs of overcoming all of these challenges, a Dyson Swarm begins to sound like a pretty ridiculous idea, as at the moment, there is not enough money on earth to fund one.
Although the Dyson Swarm does not seem feasible with our technology and might never be the optimal energy source, Sugerman also says the idea has value.
To scientifically inclined minds, the Dyson Swarm has forever been a captivating source of intrigue, and it has played a role in making many people interested in astronomy. Science is all about coming up with ideas, and while the Dyson Swarm may not be practical now or ever, that it has excited so many people and inspired them to look up at the stars is inherently valuable nonetheless.
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