Building Solar Panels in Orbit Around the Sun – Dyson Structures

Building solar panels in orbit around the sun would give humans unprecedented amounts of energy, rendering fossil fuels obsolete.

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Building solar panels in orbit around the sun would give humans unprecedented amounts of energy, rendering fossil fuels obsolete. In sci-fi, this is called a Dyson Structure.

A Dyson Structure is a hypothetical megastructure built out of solar panels (or mirrors focused at a single point) that a civilization could build around a star to absorb and utilize its energy.

How would a Dyson Structure transform Humanity?

The Sun is effectively a nuclear reactor in the sky. Collecting even a small fraction of that energy would be transformational.

A Dyson structure would transform humanity by allowing humans to harness the total energy output of the sun.

Angus McKie
source: Angus McKie

The energy output would be able to support 100% of life on Earth. Energy costs would drop significantly.

We would have more power than we would know what to do with.

No more fossil fuels would be needed. The Sun might look a bit different, but we would still have enough solar rays reaching Earth to maintain the greenhouse effect and climate.

Additionally, a large megastructure around the sun would have a surface area of 550 million times the surface of Earth[9], providing a larger amount of space where a civilization could live.

How would energy transfer and storage be managed?

We would not want to send the energy back to Earth. Doing so would cause our planet to heat up to a point that it would be un-livable.

Dyson structures would enable a civilization to tap into virtually unlimited amounts of energy in order to perform work within the infiniteness of outer space.

Ultimately, it would enable a us to become a truly space-faring civilization.

To build a Sphere or a Swarm?

The initial theoretical structure described by Olaf Stapledon in his scifi novel Star Maker in 1937 [1] was a hollow rigid sphere, however, this less realistic than building separate free-floating solar panels.

File:Dyson Swarm.png
Dyson Swarm. source: wikimedia commons

According to Stuart Armstrong, the tensile strength (ability for a material to resist cracking / breaking when being stretched) needed to prevent the Sphere from being ripped apart is too large.

Rotational and gravitational stresses would be immense because the Dyson sphere would have to revolve as a whole.

The sphere would not gravitationally bind to an orbit. There is no center of mass.

A connected spherical design is impossible because the large forces are too large for any material to withstand. As it rotated, the forces would tend to move material towards the equatorial plane.

Possible or Not?

Many consider this to be practically impossible. Dyson Spheres are difficult to build and require an entire planet’s worth of material.

The reason is related to engineering and construction. Complicated design, resource collecting, transport, manufacturing, engineering, construction, and maintenance.

The most practical solution is to build free moving solar panels. Imagine a ring of solar panels around a star, for instance.

“The form of “biosphere” which I envisaged consists of a loose collection or swarm of objects traveling on independent orbits around the star.” – Freeman J. Dyson

Albeit still futuristic, a swarm of panels is the best way to try and harvest a star’s light energy.

What would it look like?

A Dyson structure would be about the size of Earth’s orbit, with a surface temperature of 200-300 deg. Kelvin. It would be radiating infrared radiation.

How would we build a Dyson Structure?

We could build the first Dyson panel in a few decades. Because a megastructure would use such a large amount of material, advances in nanotechnology would help.

Since we do not currently have the ability to successfully use nanomaterials to build structures, the first step in building a Dyson structure is resource gathering the old fashioned way – we would need to start drilling and mining on asteroids or planets to get the required materials.

Thanks to Zepherus’ YouTube video who did the math for this, we know that you would need to mine 12 planets the size of Earth to make a Dyson structure. We would have to dismantle entire solar systems, and then transport these products light years to a star.

Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, contains iron oxide hematite from which we could make mirrors. Mercury is advantageous because it has a small gravitational force, so less energy is required to take off and land rockets there.

WLA hmns Hematite.jpg
Hematite. Source: Houston Museum of Natural Science

Mirrors would be used to reflect light into a small solar plant that would concentrate light energy for storage and utilization.

Autonomous mining, manufacturing, and transportation would be mandatory. It turns out that asteroid mining is important not just for procuring precious metals like gold and silver, but would enable a civilization to increase space manufacturing technology and build stuff in space.

Building the first would be the slowest, taking perhaps 10 years which would lead to of magnitude better capabilities.

The reason individual panels are best is because it would allow humans to take a phased approach to construction. We could start by building just one panel, and then use the energy from that panel to help in creating more. This would create a positive feedback loop, where the more Dyson panels we build, the more energy we have to help us build more, leading to an exponential increase in construction speed.

You would start with just a few mirrors orbiting the sun that could reflect light into a solar power plant.

Some companies, such as Made In Space, are already working on 3D printing giant telescope mirrors.

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Q&A: Frequent Comments from TikTok

  • Q: Would the sun be blocked off?
    • A: In short, possibly. But in practicality, no. We would not cover the entirety of the sun in solar panels.
  • Q: Isn’t a Dyson swarm is better than a Dyson sphere?
    • A: Yes. A rigid and hollow Dyson sphere is impractical for a number of reasons discussed in the article. A Dyson array or swarm is more practical. Since no one has experience building one of these and it seems silly to argue over the design of a hypothetical structure that does not exist yet, I have renamed it: calling it “Dyson Structure” should suffice without being overly ambiguous.
  • Q: How would we get the energy to Earth?
    • A: We wouldn’t want to do this. Building a Dyson sphere would enable us to become a space-faring civilization. We could use the energy there.
  • Q: Would this be better suited for a dwarf star?
    • A: Long-term, since dwarf stars don’t expand, yes.
  • Q: Would we have to disassemble every planet in our solar system?
    • A: Possibly. We could build the first few solar panels and send them in to orbit around the sun in the matter of a few decades if we begin mining Mercury.
  • Q: Is nuclear energy much better than this?
    • A: Hard to say. I’d like to learn more about nuclear energy in the future. What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments below or email me espressoinsight@gmail.com.

Sources:

  1. Olaf Stapledon first proposed it in 1937 in his book Star Maker.
  2. Startrek Episode “Relics”
  3. Freeman Dyson paper published in 1960 about Dyson Shell
  4. http://www.islandone.org/LEOBiblio/SETI1.HTM
  5. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/131/3414/1667.abstract
  6. Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku
  7. Stuart Armstrong
  8. TikTok
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyson_sphere

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