Among the worrying – but predictable – news for humanity is the fact that it may soon be confronted with energy shortages. This is not a new omen: in 1960 already, the Anglo-American theorist Freeman Dyson was worried about it and was looking for a solution to the problem.
The physicist had then imagined a kind of megastructure, the “Dyson sphere”: built around a star, it would make it possible to exploit its energy. But the scientist left no clues necessary to achieve what he simply described as “a habitable shell”.
Since and until today, Freeman Dyson’s theory has never ceased to fascinate the most ambitious scientists. According to Popular mechanics, the German astrobiologist Dirk Schulze Makuch would even be very close to a feasible conceptualization of the famous sphere.
Imagine all the energy of our sun available and usable by humans. No doubt: by moving us to stage II of the Kardachev scale, this would make it possible to respond to the energy crisis in the very long term and even to dream even bigger. Why not, for example, use this energy to propel us towards exoplanets, and potentially find other forms of extraterrestrial life?
A swarm of flying objects
Dirk Schulze Makuch is a professor at the Technical University of Berlin. Fascinated by hypotheses of extraterrestrial life, he began to take an interest in the Dyson sphere about ten years ago.
Together with Brooks Harrop, one of his former students, he identified several problems in his commonly accepted design. The most important of these is: the risk of the sphere collapsing under the immense weight of gravity, since no material available today can withstand such a force. The engineers who imagined a resistant structure show that it would use too much, if not all, of the energy of the central star.
If we manage to solve this first obstacle, there remains the question of asteroids and solar flares which the structure should also resist.
Dyson himself had found a possible solution: a discontinuous structure in the form of a swarm of flying objects, placed in independent orbits around the star. It would then take about 10 million.
Dirk Schulze Makuch and his student therefore came up with a design to meet these challenges, which they named “Solar Wind Power Satellite” (SWPS). Their idea: satellites using not the energy of visible light, but electrons, which make up half of the solar wind.
These satellites, weighing approximately 3.7 tonnes each, would each meet needs equivalent to those of 1,000 American homes. They could be constructed with relatively inexpensive materials, such as copper wire.
On the other hand, although they require little maintenance, these satellites would not be self-cleaning and would risk degrading over time. Another obstacle also remains the organization necessary for the deployment of several millions – or even billions – of satellites in orbit.
If these challenges have not yet found adequate answers, the hypothesis put forward by Dirk Schulze Makuch is that other forms of evolved extraterrestrial life could have already achieved this.
According to the physicist, if a form of life appears on a habitable planet, it eventually evolves and becomes intelligent, the basis of this argument being that the great evolutions on Earth seem to have occurred several times independently of each other.
According to Dyson himself, if an alien life form had realized a Dyson Sphere, we would be able to detect its existence. Perhaps the inhabitants of other planets have come to the same conclusion as the researcher, namely that this is probably not the most practical invention to effectively respond to the energy crisis?