Should humanity colonize space, asteroids would have several advantages. Theoretically, settlements would be possible there, a research paper shows.
Presentation of the concept (Image: University of Rochester illustration/Michael Osadciw)
A research team from the USA has developed a concept to enable the colonization of asteroids in a way that has so far only been possible in science fiction. Because while the celestial bodies there are often simply set in rotation in order to provide the necessary gravity for colonization, in reality, they would not survive because they are not strong enough for it.
This is exactly where the researchers’ concept comes in: It envisages wrapping the asteroid to be colonized in a kind of net. When it is then rotated, the components are pushed outwards and open up a kind of ring. A settlement could then be built on the inside, protected from radiation.
Continuation of an old concept
As the team led by Peter Miklavčič from the University of Rochester now explains, the work was started during the corona pandemic, also as a distraction from the associated stressful situation. The aim was to test the feasibility of so-called O’Neill cylinders. This is a concept for a space settlement designed 50 years ago on behalf of NASA. Sufficient gravity is to be generated inside two counter-rotating cylinders so that people can live there without symptoms. This would look like the Babylon 5 space station in the television series of the same name.
Miklavčič has now figured out how to do this with asteroids, even though they are actually too unstable for rotation. However, asteroids have the advantage that there are enough of them and they immediately provide the necessary building material to build a settlement.
The rock is also helpful as a protection against the dangerous radiation in space, which is why there have been concepts for cave settlements for some time. “All those flying mountains circling the sun could provide a faster, cheaper, more effective route to space cities,” summarizes Adam Frank, who was involved in the work.
The main disadvantage is that the rock that makes up asteroids is not stable enough to survive the rotation. If one were to spin, it would simply splinter and break. Others aren’t even made of rock, just rubble. In order to be able to work with it anyway, the celestial bodies should first be wrapped in a “huge flexible bag,” writes the team. Made from carbon nanofibers, this one could be both light and strong enough. As soon as the celestial body is then set in rotation, the asteroid material would be pressed against the net from the inside and stretched out. A settlement could then be built on the inside.
The resulting layer of asteroid material would be thick enough to shield people inside from cosmic rays, the team writes. According to the calculations, a cylindrical habitat with an area of 22 km² could arise from an asteroid with a diameter of 300 m – about the size of Manhattan. Of course, it’s all very futuristic and theoretical, they admit. But they would have proved that such a thing does not violate fundamental laws of physics.
The idea still seems very distant, but in 1900 no one flew in an airplane and now it is a completely normal mode of transport: “Space cities may seem like fantasy, but history shows that a century of progress can make impossible things possible says, Frank. The technical article was published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences.