Massive asteroids could one day be home to future space colonizers.
That’s because a team of scientists from the University of Rochester published, what they call, a “wildly theoretical paper” outlining how we could one day use asteroids as massive city-sized space habitats.
The theoretical method involves one large, spinning asteroid and one enormous mesh bag made of carbon nanofibers.
The O’Neill cylinder is a spinning habitat typically made up of two cylinders connected by a rod, rotating in opposite directions. Those cylinders spin just fast enough to create artificial gravity but not so fast as to induce motion sickness.
Science fiction enthusiasts might have recently read about a similar concept used for the titular spacecraft in ‘The Martian’ author Andy Weir’s latest novel ‘Project Hail Mary’. More grandiose and far-fetched concepts exist in various forms in sci-fi, such as in the image below.
The idea they ultimately came up with was to use materials already free-flying around space in massive quantities in the form of asteroids.
The rotation of the cylinders creates centrifugal force, which mimics the force of gravity. By adjusting the rotation speed, the desired level of artificial gravity can be achieved, allowing people to live and work comfortably inside the cylinder without experiencing the effects of microgravity.
One problem remained, however. Asteroids are nowhere near large enough to provide enough gravity for a space habitat. What’s more, if they are spun around fast enough to create artificial gravity — as in the O-Neill cylinder concept — they would simply break apart, as they weren’t built and designed to have structural integrity like a spacecraft.
The solution to this problem is where the “wildly theoretical” part comes into play. The scientists posited that future space colonizers could wrap a massive mesh bag made of carbon nanofibers around an asteroid roughly the size of Bennu, which has a 300-meter diameter.
“Obviously, no one will be building asteroid cities anytime soon, but the technologies required to accomplish this kind of engineering don’t break any laws of physics,” explained physics professor Adam Frank, who worked on the project alongside a number of Rochester University students during the lockdown.