Among the worrying – but predictable – news for humanity is that it may soon be confronted with energy shortages. This is not a new sign: as early as 1960, the Anglo-American theorist Freeman Dyson was concerned 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 harness its energy. But the scientist left no trace necessary to achieve what he simply described as “a habitable shell”.
Since then 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 that is accessible and can be used by humans. No doubt: by moving us to Phase 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 toward 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 about 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 ball collapsing under the enormous weight of gravity, as no material available today can withstand such force. The engineers who imagined a resilient structure show that it would use too much, if not all, of the energy of the central star.
If we succeed in solving this first obstacle, there is still the issue 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 called the “Solar Wind Power Satellite” (SWPS). Their idea: satellites that do not use the energy from visible light, but electrons that make up half of the solar wind.
These satellites, each weighing approximately 3.7 tons, would each meet needs equivalent to the needs of 1,000 American homes. They could be constructed with relatively inexpensive materials, such as copper wire.
On the other hand, even if they require little maintenance, these satellites would not be self-cleaning and would risk deteriorating over time. Another obstacle is also the organization needed for the launch of several millions – or even billions – of satellites in orbit.
If these challenges have not yet found sufficient answers, the hypothesis put forward by Dirk Schulze Makuch is that other forms of developed 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, and the basis for this argument is that the great developments on Earth appear to have taken place several times independently of each other.
According to Dyson himself, if an extraterrestrial life form had realized a Dyson sphere, we would be able to discover its existence. Perhaps the inhabitants of other planets have come to the same conclusion as the scientist, namely that this is probably not the most practical invention to respond effectively to the energy crisis?