What Is a Dyson Sphere?

(Last Updated On: February 18, 2020)

What Is a Dyson Sphere?

It’s that time of the week again where we talk about weird science fiction technology! This time, we’re exploring Dyson spheres–technology that would implicate control over entire stars. So what exactly is a Dyson Sphere? Is it just a cheaper Death Star? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is a Dyson Sphere?

The concept of Dyson Spheres originated as a thought experiment about how advanced alien civilizations could possibly gather the energy required for interstellar travel. Only a tiny fraction of a star’s energy reaches orbiting planets, but what if a large enough structure could be built to harness most if not all of that power? That’s where a Dyson Sphere comes into play.

In essence, a Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical megastructure that would completely encompass a star, capturing a large percentage of its energy.

Implications For Humanity

We’ve referenced the Kardashev scale before, and we’d be remiss to bring it up again while talking about neat future technology. The scale is broken down into 3 types–based on how much power the civilization consumes. Type I civilizations are considered Planetary, consuming 10^16 watts (W). These civilizations exhibit total control over their home planet. A Type II civilization exhibits control over its own star, consuming 10^26 W. These are Stellar civilizations–one upped by Galactic civilizations. These sit at about 10^36 W consumption (that’s 10 followed by 36 zeros). A Type III civilization would control its entire galaxy. 

The long short of a Type III civilization would have basically ascended to godhood as far as we’re concerned. 

As far humans go, we’re not really at a full Type I civilization. Since the advent of nuclear technology we’ve gotten ourselves at a nice little nexus point though. A Type I civilization is global in nature–which means all of us humans are going to have to get along. Good luck with that.

If we wanted to reach a Type I civilization, we’d definitely need to have developed reliable nuclear fusion. Heck, we’d probably need to be able to control the weather!

So assuming we don’t blow ourselves to smithereens with nuclear weapons, we could reach a Type I civilization once everyone stops arguing over whether or not democracy is the spawn of Satan or the blessing of God or whatever.

If we were sitting on a Dyson Sphere, we’d have reached the status of a Type II civilization. Suffice to say that we’re quite a bit off from ever seeing one–at least in our lifetimes. But it could happen.

Designing a Dyson Sphere

Originally, the idea behind a Dyson Sphere, as proposed by Freeman Dyson, was a literal, hollow shell. Like taking a sphere and wrapping it around the Sun. We’re not going to break down the numbers of this kind of feat, but suffice to say we would need a lot of stuff. In terms of sheer mass, we’re probably going to have to disassemble an entire planet. 

Which means the most efficient design for a Dyson Sphere is likely not even a sphere. We’d likely be looking at something like a “Dyson Swarm.” This would look more like a bunch of satellites orbiting a star, funneling energy over to a larger condenser. Centralizing this stuff is definitely easier, since if a single part of a Dyson Sphere fails, it could very well collapse and fall into its home star. Especially since things in space move very fast and could break/damage the sphere easily. 

Each satellite in a Dyson Swarm would be the most efficient build possible. Because… Well duh, the thing closest to the star will probably fail the most, while also being the most difficult to repair. So it’d be easier to just replace a failed satellite by launching it at the star. These satellites would probably just be glorified mirrors that redirect the star’s energy to whatever condenser we have set up on another planet. 

Have We Found a Dyson Sphere?

Well conclusively, we have yet to find a Dyson Sphere–or other similar structure. Colloquially known as Tabby’s Star, KIC 8462852 is somewhat of an astronomical anomaly. Yeah, there’s a reason we didn’t keep the weird numbers. 

What makes Tabby’s Star so special is the way we’ve observed its luminosity. It’s experienced a lot of major dips in brightness–we’re talking 15%. Followed by a 22% drop about two years later. With other dips every now and then, there’s been no conclusive pattern as to what’s causing the dips. 

A planet the size of Jupiter would only reduce brightness by about 1% if it eclipsed the star, so whatever is causing the dips has to be big.

As such, many have proposed that Tabby’s Star may actually have some kind of Dyson-structure around it. Sadly for us, there are a lot more likely explanations. Like forming planets or a bunch of asteroids. 

But an alien megastructure would just be exciting. And a little terrifying.

It’s hard to make a megastructure and put it into space. But animals are easier. Here are some space animals.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.