What is a Dyson sphere?

What if an advanced civilization could collect all of the energy emitted by its star?

View larger. | Here is a completely fantastic artist's concept of a Dyson sphere.  I like it.  Notice the little moon on the left side, being ravaged for raw materials.  Via FantasyWallpapers.com

Image Credit: langalex

Proponents of solar power know that only a tiny fraction of the sun’s total energy strikes the Earth. What if we, as a civilization, could collect all of the sun’s energy? If so, we would use some form of Dyson sphere, sometimes referred to as a Dyson shell ormegastructure. Physicist and astronomer Freeman J. Dyson first explored this idea as a thought experiment in 1960. Dyson’s two-page paper in the journal Sciencewas titled Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation because he was imagining a solar-system-sized solar power collection system not as a power source for us earthlings, but as a technology that other advanced civilizations in our galaxy would, inevitably, use. Dyson proposed that searching for evidence of the existence of such structures might lead to the discovery of advanced civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy, and indeed, in 2013, several groups of astronomers have begun a search for the telltale signs of Dyson spheres.

Read about KIC 8462852: Is this strange star surrounded by a Dyson sphere?

A solid, hollow shell around a star isn't mechanically possible.  The simplest form of Dyson sphere might begin as a ring of solar power collections, sometimes called a Dyson ring.  Image via Wikipedia.

Originally, some envisioned a Dyson sphere as an artificial hollow sphere of matter around a star, and Dyson did originally use the word shell. But Dyson didn’t picture the energy-collectors in a solid shell. In an exchange of letters in Science with other scientists, following his 1960 Science article, Dyson wrote:

A solid shell or ring surrounding a star is mechanically impossible. The form of ‘biosphere’ which I envisaged consists of a loose collection or swarm of objects traveling on independent orbits around the star.

As time passed, a civilization might continue to add Dyson rings to the space around its star, creating this form of relatively simple Dyson sphere.  Image via Wikipedia.

A Dyson sphere might be, say, the size of Earth’s orbit around the sun; we orbit at a distance of 93 million miles (about 150 million kilometers). The websiteSentientDevelopments describes the Dyson sphere this way:

It would consist of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star. With this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of the energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. [Dyson] speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization.

And of course science fiction writers have had a field day writing about Dyson spheres. In fact, Dyson admitted he borrowed from science fiction before he began his technical exploration of the idea of a megastructure gathering energy from its star. Olaf Stapledon first mentioned this idea in his 1937 science fiction novel Star Maker, which Dyson apparently read and used as inspiration.

View larger. | Artist's concept of a Dyson sphere via SentientDevelopments.com

As mentioned above, astronomers in 2013 are now seriously discussing the search for evidence of Dyson spheres in the space of our Milky Way galaxy. Frustrated by decades of seeking radio signals from intelligent civilizations beyond Earth – and not finding any – a few have begun to contemplate this new search strategy. What would they be looking for? Consider that if a system of solar power collectors – a megastructure – were put in place around a star, the star’s light, as seen from our perspective, would be altered. The solar collectors would absorb and reradiate energy from the star. It’s that reradiated energy that astronomers would need to seek.

Stephen Battersby at New Scientist wrote a great article about this search, released in April 2013. The article is available by subscription only, but if you search on the title (“Alien megaprojects: The hunt has begun”), you might find an alternative link.

There’s also a very cool diagram published in New Scientist that helps explain astronomers’ new search, which you can see

Bottom line: A Dyson sphere would consist of orbiting solar collectors in the space around the star of an advanced civilization. The goal would be to ensure a significant fraction of the star’s energy hit a receiving surface where it could be used to the civilization’s benefit. Freeman J. Dyson, who in 1960 became the first scientist to explore this concept, suggested that this method of energy collection be inevitable for advanced civilizations. In 2013, some groups of astronomers are seriously discussing the best ways to search for Dyson spheres in the space of our Milky Way galaxy.

How to build a Dyson sphere in five (relatively) easy steps


Join the discussion…

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    I would have loved at least a nod to “Niven Rings” as a possible alternative to full spheres…

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    A universe full of Dyson Spheres might just be the missing mass the universe needs.

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    KIC 8462852

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    You unlock this door with the key to imagination, beyond it is another dimension
    A dimension of sound,
    A dimension of sight,
    A dimension of mind.
    You are moving into a land of both shadows and substance of thing and ideas.
    You just crossed over into the Twilight Zone

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    Hmm.. Searching for Dyson Spheres? Certainly an interesting concept, but you’d also be assuming that, unlike us, they’d have the means of building one, would have decided to build one, and would’ve also had the same idea that we did. Is there life out there? I’m so sure of it, that I’d even go to say “Yes.” Are there other intelligent, sentient life forms? Probably. Maybe in 300 years, there will be some miserable little guy somewhere in the universe, in a world with the equivalent of 1980s technology, who has dedicated his entire life to scanning all frequencies for hours a day, looking for SOMETHING, as he sits there over his 5th equivalent of a cup of coffee of the night, he gets a signal. Something from us. He freaks out, he’s out of his mind with excitement, and franticly sends his response, “Hello!” in his language. And in another 300 years, we get his response. Ain’t that some shit. As long as intellectual curiosity exists, it WILL happen! Just like how a million years, a million monkeys with a million typewriters will type out Shakespeare.

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      Probably not, a common radio wave tend to slather after a few hundreds of light years. So after a while it gets pretty unreadable.
      Sorry about my bad English, I hope that you get what am I trying to say.

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    The atmosphere has tiny molecules that zip around fast and there is nothing you can do to stop them.

    >>Starts to hyperventilate and make whistling noises while waving 2 very
    large knives around me like the molecules<<

    And don’t you dare try to stop the molecules.

    >>looks very upset and scared; holds the knives tightly and ready to pounce<<

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    Anybody see the Star Trek Next Generation episode, Relics? It’s set around a Dyson Sphere but that one is solid.

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    We can’t even get close to the sun, so why put debris in space? Or why set up something that could actually harm us more than we are harming ourselves?

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      Well, Dyson’s idea was that a series of solar collectors would be put in independent orbits around the sun at a distance about equal to the Earth’s. So, the collectors wouldn’t interfere with sunlight hitting the Earth, and would instead just be collecting the sunlight that is “wasted” by being radiated out into the space where Earth isn’t.

      On the other hand, it does assume a lot: that collecting this “waste” sunlight won’t have negative indirect effects in some way (perhaps it’ll interfere with the solar winds, which would have an effect on the orbits of other planets, which would have an effect on their interactions with each other, which would disrupt weather and magnetic fields on those planets, which may have affect neighboring worlds in surprising ways, which may have an unexpected effect on Earth….)

      One might also wonder whether any such technology can suitably handle “solar storms” and other poorly-understood solar phenomena.

      And then there’s a question of whether this is really the most efficient way of generating enough energy to maintain a civilization advanced enough to engineer such a contraption, or whether a civilization advanced enough to build a Dyson Ring/Sphere/Cloud/Whatever would really need an amount of energy proportional to what our civilization requires to do the things we expect them to do (it’s a bit like predicting the size and quantity of the vacuum tubes needed to build a modern smart phone, and the coal and wood burning energy needed to generate the power for them, without without taking into account the developments of transistors and microchips and portable batteries and nuclear energy to recharge them with…. technically, a vacuum-tube device capable of doing everything a modern smart phone can do would be vast, expensive, hot, and a marvel of early-20th-century engineering that could possibly drink up enough power to fuel an early 20th century city, but it would be a bit silly and quite impractical by any standard that the 21st century could measure such a device by. By the same token, there may be cheaper, easier, more energy-efficient ways of powering a space-faring civilization than the Dyson Works.)

      There are a lot of potential problems with the Dyson technologies that would need to be ironed out, before they can be considered a credible possibility. Nevertheless, evidence that might suggest the presence of a Dyson Thingy is easy and inexpensive to look for, and such a search might find evidence of natural phenomenon that are just about as interesting and useful to know about, so it’s not really a wasted effort to take a look and see what can be found. (If it’s not a Dyson Sphere blocking starlight around some stars, then what is it? Is it something that could happen to our Sun? If so, what effect would it have on our solar system? Is it dangerous? What causes it to happen? What can we do to prevent it or fix it, if it becomes a problem around our Sun? These are good things to know about sooner than later.)

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    hmmm, this is interesting and a little far fetched.

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      I dont know. A few (hundred) satellites lined up in an orbit around the sun, redirecting sunlight doesnt sound far fetched to me at all. In fact, it might even be possible today.

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        satellites around the sun? Just how far away from the sun must these satellites be so they don’t burn up? The sun has hot spots that blow outward, think they won’t burn satellites? Maybe one day in the future possible, big maybe.

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          You don’t need to be near the sun, just outside of Earth’s atmosphere to collect much more energy from it than you could on the planet, think of all the interference down here, weather, day/night cycles, dust, pollution, etc.

          According to this article, satellites orbiting the earth could collect 5 times as much energy, which could be redirected back to earth through a high energy laser beam.


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            okay, but what about the radiation? wouldn’t earth get more of that too? it seems like it would. I’m a little skepticle about that.

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              I’m not sure if I follow you. Why would the earth get more radiation from the sun from an array of solar energy gathering satellites? The earth is protected from solar radiation by the ozone layer. Collecting solar energy and passing it back to earth in a high energy laser beam wouldn’t change the amount of radiation hitting the earth. (The continued emission of chlorine and other chemicals on the other hand continues to break down the ozone layer).

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                the ozone has holes and shooting space travels don’t help that…My grandpa, a long time ago said “there goes our atmosphere”. He said this when they started talking about shooting up to the moon.

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                  I really think you should do some real research. I don’t think you grasp the concept of anything that has been discussed in this thread. You’re phrasing sun spots, radiation and so forth, but haven’t actually researched into what they are, the and effects of any of it.

                  Any 30 second Google would find you the following, validated, information regarding the effect on the Ozone via Space Travel.

                  NASA found that the chlorine released annually in the stratosphere (assuming launches of nine Shuttle missions and six Titan IVs — which also have solid rocket motors — per year) would be about 0.25 percent of the total amount of halocarbons released annually worldwide (0.725 kilotons by the Shuttle 300 kilotons from all sources).

                  The report concludes that Space Shuttle launches at the current rate pose no significant threat to the ozone layer and will have no lasting effect on the atmosphere. The exhaust plume from the Shuttle represents a trivial fraction of the atmosphere, and even if ozone destruction occurred within the initial plume, its global impact would be inconsequential.

                  Further, the corridor of exhaust gases spreads over a lateral extent of greater than 600 miles in a day, so no local “ozone hole” could occur above the launch site. Images taken by NASA’s Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer at various points following Shuttle launches show no measurable ozone decrease

                  I really suggest, before you make yourself look like an idiot even further, you do some real research and learn something.

                  see more

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                  We’ve actually already been putting all sorts of satellites into such orbits for about half a century or so – that much wouldn’t be new to us, at least. there’s the matter of building, launching, positioning, and maintaining all those satellites, though, and then make use of the energy collected – it would be a project beyond anything the human race can practically accomplish right now.

                  As for the “ozone holes”, our planet’s atmosphere and magnetosphere have weathered far more disturbing things than this within the short bit of human history alone, and even worse than that in pre-human history. (Check out the “Starfish Prime” experiment for just one example of some of the fun little things our planet has put up with: Q: “What happens when we detonate an extremely powerful nuclear explosion into the upper atmosphere, where it can disrupt the magnetic fields that protect the earth from the worst of the harsh solar and cosmic radiation, to see if we can weaponize the atmosphere itself?” A: “Hilarity ensues; stark, staring, Doomsday Scenario hilarity, of the sort that left combat-hardened military observers speechless in horror until they fell to their knees and prayed. Hilarity of the sort that illuminated submarines under the ocean with the flash of radiation, detonated street lights in Hawaii and ruined power grids across the Pacific, disabled satellites around the world, left the sky glowing in weird and lurid colors long after the explosion, and belts of radioactive material orbiting the Earth for decades afterward.” Stunned and horrified scientists conducting the Starfish Prime test thought something bad might happen, and that something horribly horribly wrong could happen, but were totally unprepared for just how big and destructive the Starfish Prime explosion would actually be.)

                  see more

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    if only!

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    Interesting, but I don’t see anything about how solar flares would handled…

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    Dreams Are Made Of This

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    There are of course extreme problems with creating a structure that surrounds a star, one of them being that orbits at varying lattitudes will tend toward geodesics that crisscross one another, requiring extremely complex and heavy structural members to counter these forces…while under construction, the sphere would be highly unstable, even if it was possible to build. A finished structure would require materials probably not available in a single stellar disk to keep it together.
    Nivens Rings are more feasible, which is why they are found in nature. I suspect
    any attempt to build a sphere around a star would be quickly flattened into such a ring.

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    What about meteors? And maybe we can’t see the Dyson Spheres because the stars and galaxies are hundreds of light years away, so what we see is the stars hundreds of years ago.

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    would be cool to see how it would look from inside 😀

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    We already have an endless energy source. Atoms

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    maybe if you are able to turn energy into matter…. you could have something to start off…

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    I have also thought about this too.

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    I very much doubt it be a complete enclose sphere, wasting mammoth amounts of materials.

    It’s more likely it’d be a wireframe of a sphere that had many points that attracted and guided the energy bursts.
    I doubt working out how to over come the gravity force would be to difficult to overcome, but still might be as much work.

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    There isn’t a lot of constructions advanced robotic swarms wouldn’t be able to produce.
    I didn’t know about any search for megastructures, thanks.

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    I also have thought about this idea before. I don’t think it’s fesible for two obvious reasons: 1) The enormous amount of material and resources needed for its construction, and 2) Maintaining its orbit in light of the gravitic effects it wwould create simply by its presence, also the orbits of planets and other objects within or without the shell would also be destabilized.

One thought on “What is a Dyson sphere?

  1. sounds great i sure we have the technology to to this (not in the public arena though) but no government would put up the money to fund it. Plus oil compaies would never allow it to happen!


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