Link - article by M. Christian and A. Abrams

Make Room! Make Room! - Mega-Scale Planet Engineering

Overheard in the future: "We already talked about how to add extra storage space to your continent by turning mountain ranges into bookcases, turning lakes into bath tubs, and continental shelves into decks (see also our popular Future Plate Tectonics article). Well, in this special episode we're going to be taking the same approach but ramping it up a bit because, let's face it, even the best planet can only hold so many people." One day – though probably not anytime soon – all of us are going to need to do some serious expanding.

(Dyson's Sphere as imagined by M. S. Escher? - via, "M.C. Escher's Concentric Rinds": Cordon Art B.V. - Baarn - Holland)

Dam!.. why didn't we think about it before?

Back in the 1920s Herman Sörgel had the right idea, though on a pretty small scale. Herman's plan was to do a bit of tinkering with a rather tiny, almost insignificant, part of the Earth: the Mediterranean Sea. Using readily available materials – though a lot of them – and technology he drew up plans to put a dam across the Straights of Gibraltar, and then to drain a large portion of the sea. The dam, he said, would provide power, and the radically lowered Mediterranean would give Europe and Africa a bountiful new spread of fertile land. Alas, Herman's Atlantropa never got off his drawing board but you have to admire his creativity – even if he didn't think big enough.

(images via 1, 2, 3)

Planetary Do-It-Yourself

Christian Waldvogel, though, realized that if you're going to do some serious structural work it's better to overdo it than underdo it. Let's face it, if you’re going to tear down an old classic like the Earth you might as well get as much from it as you can. Waldvogel's idea was to take the planet, every bit of it, and reform it into what he called Globus Cassus: a massive hollow shell that humanity would live inside of, sunlight coming in through continent-sized windows.

(images via 1, 2)

Since Globus Cassus would use all that wasted matter that otherwise is doing nothing but giving our little world gravity it would be much bigger, and with much more surface and living area than what we have now: imagine being on the inside of something the size of Jupiter. Since there'd be no gravity the people living inside would be held in place by inertia – what used to be called centrifugal force -- by giving the structure an appropriate amount of spin.

(image credit: Adam Burn /Phoenix-06)

Cosmic Expansion & Astro Engineering

The obvious question is that if you're going to be a doing a bit of fixing-upping then why just stick with the Earth? There are plenty of other worlds in the solar system that are just sitting there, taking up space. Adding their mass to your plan opens up whole new opportunities to add some serious dimensions to your expansion.

(art by: Adam Burn (Phoenix-06))

One of the smallest of these is Larry Niven's legendary Ringworld. The idea of rather simple: take most of the planets in the solar system, chew them up, and then turn them into a ring as long as Earth's orbit, as wide as the planet, with 1000 mile high edges to keep the air in. A Ringworld would certainly give you lots of extra space – something on the order of three million earths – and, like Globus Cassus, it would be spun to make fake gravity. You could even make parts of it higher off the surface if you like your air a bit thinner, and if missed days and nights then you could put a row of black squares in an inner orbit to cast shadows.

(images via 1, Orion's Arm, used by permission)

(left image: Stephan Martiniere's cover to Larry Niven's "Ringworld's Children"; right image: a "Horizonless Map of Manhattan", via - a curved landscape view, reminiscent at once of Ringworld and... "Inception")

(the Halo Array, also known as Sacred Rings - more info)

This is what it might look INSIDE the Ringworld - concept art by Alexander Preuss:

(image credit: Alexander Preuss, CG Society - click to enlarge)

(image credit: John Berkey)

Super-Colossal Megastructures

No insult to Larry Niven and his Ringworld, though, it is on the smaller end of what you can do with a solar system if you really put your mind to it. Dan Alderson thought a bit bigger with his Disc idea. Once again, all you need to do to create one is take every speck of matter in the solar system but instead of creating a ring you make a disc. Think a CD as thick as the earth's diameter – to make gravity – and with our sun in the center. If you like it warm you can get closer to that center and if you like it colder then step back a bit. If you miss the sunrises and sunsets then just bob the sun up and do so the folks on one side will get a bright day while the folks on the other will get a cooler night. And since the disc is as thick as the earth you don't need to worry about needing to fake gravity.

(image via)

How such colossal cosmic structures may be constructed in the far future? Well, here is a fragment of the epic artwork by Adam Burns, which offers us a glimpse - taking the whole planet, and... turning it inside out! -

(image credit: Adam Burn (Phoenix-06))

See another incredible "Melting Planets" image by Adan Burns - here.

Legendary science fiction artist Chris Foss shows another cosmic construction: assembling blocks for, possibly, a Ringworld:

("Untitled", art by Chris Foss)

But, once again, we just aren't thinking big enough. Ponder the sun for a sec: isn't a lot of it being wasted on both a ringworld and a disc? Why not simply put a sphere around a sun to catch every little photon and, as a huge bonus, give you a lot of real estate to play with.

The also-legendary Freeman Dyson had the very same thought, thus the structure that bears his name: a Dyson Sphere (info). The only problem with a Dyson Sphere, aside from certain logistical headaches, is one of gravity as you can't do the same trick with a disc that you can do with a sphere. But that doesn't mean you couldn't just spin the sphere, giving folks on the inside an illusion of it – though if you walked too far up or down the inside there might be some very odd effects.

If you really want to be ambitious, though, why not simply make the sphere as thick as the earth and have your population live on the outside? Light could be provided by a parade of fake suns powered by the real sun trapped inside the sphere under their feet.

(images via 1, 2)

Next... Well, next we'll discus how to add some serious space to your solar system by taking the idea of the Dyson sphere and ramping it up a bit. After all, if you can cage a star why not do the same to a solar system or even a galaxy?

The sky -- to dismiss the cliché -- is not the limit when it comes to planetary engineering.

(this image is "...based on the Halo universe: a forerunner Dyson sphere type construct being built, with nearby moon being mined for resources" - art by Adam Burn /Phoenix-06 - click to enlarge)




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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. Some related interesting stuff at:

Anonymous Neil said...

I feel like the concept of "make it as thick as the earth to deal with gravity" suggests a lack of attention to high school physics.

Mass creates gravity, sure, but when we're not dealing with a nice, convenient, ball, you're going to have issues with exactly what direction gravity is pulling you. Hollow or not, you will be pulled towards the centre of mass. In the Dyson Sphere, that's the centre of the sun. With the disc it's a bit more of a complex math problem.

Anonymous Julian said...

"Did you ever go to a place... I think it's called... Norway?"

"What? No, no I didn't"

"Pity. That was one of mine. Won an award, you know. Lovely crinkly edges."

Anonymous Lynn said...

My all time favorite megastructure was the huge hollow artificial planet in Tony Rothman's "The World is Round".

Anonymous Patrick said...

In response to Neil, the concept of the disc is actually much more complicated than high school physics allows, as does this article. Gravity on a flat plane is significantly different from that of a sphere, as it will always be perpendicular to the surface. See the wikipedia article on Alderson Discs for an easy-to-follow refernce. However, as you approach the sun, there would be a shearing effect as the sun's gravity competed with the disc's.

Blogger Michael Grosberg said...

There's one more megascale structure from a more recent SF novel. It's not as large as the others but honstly? it's much more fun, and that counts, doesn't it?
I'm talking about Karl Schroeder Virga structure - basically a hollowed-out baloon the size of a planet, filled with air. there's no gravity inside so you can fly in the air. You live on rocks that float inside the environment, or in floating cities built like small rotating halos / space stations. For light, you need a large artificial sun in the middle or have smaller artificial suns placed throughout the structure.
There's probably less room for people inside one of these then there's on a regular planet the same size but You can make lots of similar structures from the material of one planet - provided you have air to fill all of them. Also, you don't need an impossibly high tensile strength like you need to build a ringworld. Lastly, if you live in such a structure you can fly by flapping your arm - that's just awesome.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with the Gibraltar dam is that the water lost from the Med ends up in the oceans, raising sea levels and reducing land area around the world. The net increase in land area would be negligible, and some inhabited areas would be flooded. Someone didn't think it all through!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Ringworld' is an awesome trilogy. It should be noted that its much 'wider than the planet'
About a million miles across I believe between the 1000 mile high edges.
Havent seen an illustration yet that accurately portrays this.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Megastructures like Dyson spheres and Alderson discs are recurring themes in science fiction; back in the seventies a similar article (with, alas, sketches rather than the fine illustrations in this article) was published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact. i believe it, too, was titled "Bigger Than Worlds."

Anonymous Meteoricshipyards said...

Very few images of Ringworld are realistic; there used to be some images created with POV-Ray that showed that at 93 some million miles from the sun, the even a million mile wide ringworld is almost invisible from the far side (which would be 186 million miles away).

Tom A.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have anyone ever tried to make a great illustration of Larry Niven's Integral Trees (natural grown megastructures) or John Varley's Titan?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about orbitals? Ringworlds the size of a planet spinning in orbit around a star.


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