While most SF stories and adventures are based on or around spacecraft, planetary colonies or even space colonies, a few make use of structures on a scale currently unheard of. It is these megastructures and their possibilities I want to take a look at this month.
The airless, microgravity environment of space is often seen as a hindrance to be overcome, but it can also provide unique environments. The lack of stress over large distances will allow the engineers of the future to design and build structures we can barely dream of. Large, delicate components don't need to support their own weight, so extremely fine structures can cover tens or even hundreds of kilometres without undue stress.
We looked at some possibilities of nanotechnology in the "Interstellar Trade" and "Future Medicine" article, but perhaps they will shine the brightest in the arena of space construction. Rather than laboriously processing raw material into large structures by hand, nano-assemblers could be programmed to reduce ores and produce simple structures on large scales (such as the turning of an asteroidal mass into a viable colony structure). Given the limtiations of nanite programming, simple tasks such as this are tailor-made for them. Taking this idea far into the future, perhaps hordes of correctly-programmed self-replicating technology could, given enough time, re-work an entire solar system into new shapes and purposes.
Allen Steele's "Labyrinth of Night" and Stephen Baxter's "Moonseed" have some fine examples of construction nanites in action.
Below are some literary examples of megastructures that you could use to spice up your campaign:
The Space Elevator
An idea first looked at at the turn of the twentieth century, Arthur Clarke's calculations regarding geosynchronous orbits allowed this idea to take full shape. A space elevator (sometimes called a "beanstalk") would consist of a vast length (tens of thousands of kiklometres in length) of immensely strong cable, running from the surface of the Earth to a space station in geosynchronous orbit (the station would act as a counterweight, preventing the beanstalk from toppling). Using only electrical energy (some of which could be generated just by the beanstalk's passage through the Earth's magnetic field), payloads and luxury lift-cabins could be hoisted to geosynchronous orbit at a fraction of the cost of a free-launch. Alternatively, the cable could stand free if it was twice as long, since the masses at either side of the geosynchronous mid-point would balance each other. Payloads launched from the far end of a "long" beanstalk could reach the asteroid belt without expending a gram of rocket fuel!
In fact, if two worlds were in a fully locked orbit with each other (such as Pluto and Charon in our solar system), a beanstalk could be constructed to form a permanent bridge between tham. In Charles Sheffield's "Summertide", the tidally-locked twin worlds of Quake and Opal are linked by a beanstalk structure left behind by an ancient culture whose bizarre and gigantic artifacts litter the galaxy.
The artificial planetary ring is an extension of the beanstalk idea. Rather than relying on just a single beanstalk, an sufficiently advanced culture could construct several of these structures. To help them to maintain balance with a minimum of energy, a framework could be built to link the tops of these structures together, creating an artificial ring in orbit. Such a structure, simple but strong at first, could then be augmented with inustrial and agricultural structures, orbital habitats and even planetary defence systems. The sheer scale of living area and workspace opened up is staggering (a simple structure no more than hundred metres or so in width could provide as much floor-space as the island of Madagascar!).
Even Bigger Rings; The Ringworld
The author Larry Niven came up with an incredible idea. If an advanced culture needed more living room and couldn't find it easily, they would resort to creating their own. While most ideas are limited to the kinds of structures we talked about in the "Space Colonies" article, this structure is a whole order of magnitude greater. Taking the mass of a world like jupiter, one could create an artificial ring 2AU in diamater and a kilometre thick. It could be spun to provide constant centripetal gravity (and the disorienting coriolis forces would be undetectable in a structure this size). Put walls a thousand kilometres high at the edges of the ring and it will be airtight. Setting immense rectangular plates in an inner orbit would allow sectors of day and night to circle the ringworld, creating a day/night cycle. This kind of design would produce something with the same surface area as many hundreds of thousands of earths!
Of course, whatever material the ringworld was made of, it would have to have a strength many orders of magnitude greater than anything currently known, or else it would fly apart.
Lock Up the Stars
The engineer and visionary Freeman Dyson dreamed up a structure even more impressive than the Ringworld. He surmised that an energy-hungry civilisation would want to trap as much free energyn -in the form of sunlight- as possible. He envisaged a network of megastructures and vast, orbiting collectors that would be efective enough to essentially block off all of the star's light in order to produce energy. It would require the mass of all or most of a system's planetary bodies to produce this network, but it is at least thoroughy possible. the only way to detect such a system would be to look for a solar-mass star that only radiated in the infrared part of the spectrum (the captured energy would eventually be re-radiated as heat.
Successive ideas have even gone so far as to propose an SOLID spherical structure to totally encase a star. the mass of more than one system would probably be required for this enterprise, but it would create an enclosed environment in which literally hundreds of civilisations could flourish for millions of years or more. Assuming spin-induced gravity, the structure would be rather like a vast Bernal sphere, perhaps with open gaps at the "poles" to make for easy egress for spaceships of any and all sizes. The sphere's spin would keep the atmosphere concentrated around the equatorial regions.
Building such a structure around a sun-like star would be an utterly incredible feat, but maybe the use of smaller bodies would make the task easier. White dwarf stars in particular are very stable, since they radiate only by means of their residual heat energy ather than fusion reactions. The sphere structure could also be much smaller (say 0.05 AU in diameter), though still large enough to be utterly awe-inspiring to visitors from a more conventional civilisation.
Perhaps it is in structures like these that the last intelligent inhabitants of the Universe will stave off extinction when the last stars die a hundred trillion years from now.
One Ring to Rule Them All...
In his novel "Ring", an incredible story spanning the next five million years, Stephen Baxter created a structure simply called the Ring. It's a classic example of an astronomical puzzle watered with the imagination of a science-fiction writer.
Many tens of millions of lightyears from our own galaxy is a structure of galactic clusters known as the Great Wall. Some distance beyond this is a concentration of mass that is slowly but steadily pulling all the neighbouring galactic clusters (including our own local cluster) towards itself. Cosmologists refer to it as the Great Attractor. Baxter took this cosmological oddity and turned it into the most incredible structure I have ever come across.
Constructed by a highly advanced species called the Xeelee, its purpose was to create a spinning black hole so powerful it could create a stable gateway to other universes (they wished to flee this one since they had lost a struggle with another lifeform who were destroying the stars themselves). It was many lightyears in diameter, and the masses of several galactic clusters (!!!) had been compressed into the most massive singularity in the Universe. The whole thing was spinning at a good fraction of the speed of light, and it remained stable for at least a million years. Despite originally pitting itself against the Xeelee, Humanity was eventually also able to escape through it.
Of course, these splendid ideas aren't all the possibilities of megastructures. try to let your imagination go, and think on scales we normally apply to astronomy. Maybe a cluster of hot, powerful stars has been surrounded by a flower-like network of photocells that beam the energy through jump-gates or the like to every planet in a civilisation's control. Turning up the power a little, what about a power-collector array poised "above" a polar jet from an active black hole (it would need incredibly powerful engined to remain in place, of course). The energy such a structure could collect would be more than worth the cost of producing it.
The keyword when dealing with megastructures is "big". The usual scales and consideration don't apply.
I have seen the future, and it's large.
Â© Mark Peoples 2000.