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Living On An O’Neill Sphere

Updated on June 3, 2015

Would you want to spend the rest of your life living in space?

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Imagine for a moment, it is the year 2190 and scientists have just made a rather nasty discovery; the Earth is rapidly dying due to human pollution. Whilst it isn’t too late to save, the only way this can feasibly be done is if the human population were to be reduced by a significant number. Yet which government is really going to want to start a global civil war by killing off vast spades of its population? Under such a terrifying scenario, it looks as if the Earth is doomed, or is it…

Since the 1920s, scientists have believed that it is possible to build massive structures in Space (the size of cities) which can support hundreds of thousands of individuals in communities. The proposer of this idea was Desmond Bernal, one of UK’s most controversial scientists of the time. If the idea of spending your life floating about in small corridors, eating food out of a toothpaste-like tube doesn’t fill with you with excitement, than you’d be pleased to know that life on board one of these massive space islands (as they later became referred to as) will be nothing like current space.

An O’Neill Sphere (also known as cylinder) builds on from the ideas of Desmond Bernal, where in the 1970s, Dr Gerald O’Neill, an American physicist and space activist, took the ideas of Bernal further. He came up with designs and illustrations on how an actual human community could thrive and develop on one of these space islands, in principle for thousands of years. Though the constructing of these space islands would be an unimaginable effort, if humanity was given the stark choice of leave the Earth or face extinction, space islands would give humanity thousands of years extra to decide what our next steps would be.

Life inside an O'Neill sphere (artists impression)
Life inside an O'Neill sphere (artists impression)

In his designs, O’Neill described how living on one of these islands would be very similar to life on Earth, you would feel a force similar to gravity, holding you (and everything else) down from floating around. This is due to the islands being spherical in shape, rotating at a certain speed so habitants on the inside would be pressed towards the spherical walls, which to them would make them feel like they were on the ground. This is all thanks to centrifugal force. Crop could be grown on artificial land (soil) with lakes, villages, etc. all around.

Yet if you’d think you could accidentally mistake living on an O’Neill sphere as still living on Earth, than think again. Though the typical O’Neill sphere is big in size (some designs of a tubular sphere range from 2 miles wide and 15 miles across) if you were to stand on the inside of the sphere and look straight up, you wouldn’t see a bright blue sky. Instead you’d see land, with houses, lakes, etc. above your head. And oddly enough, these people wouldn’t be falling towards you; in fact according to someone on the other half of the sphere, you’d be the one in the sky!

With regards to atmosphere, filling the inside of the sphere with breathable gases wouldn’t be a problem; with the correct amount of gases as well as trees and animal life, it should be possible to build a self-sustaining eco-system within one of these space islands. And by using mirrors on the outside to reflect the sunlight into various parts of the O’Neill sphere, it would be possible to make parts of the sphere experience daytime and parts experience night-time. Yet the weirdest aspect to living inside an O’Neill sphere is how the combination of heat and light (from sunlight), gases and eco-system (plus artificial gravity) would enable to island to have its own internal weather! At certain times and parts of the sphere, you could look straight up and instead of seeing the other half of the sphere, you’d simply see grey overcast sky. As this whole eco-system is man-made, it would in theory be possible for us to control the weather via altering the amount of sunlight coming through (through angles of mirror) as well as internal temperature. As such, it would be possible to have pleasant weather all year around!

Though all this sounds wonderful to any science fiction fan (or someone just bored with living on the Earth) the effort it would take to build one of these islands would push the current world economy into a deep recession! For one thing, such islands couldn’t possibly be built on the Earth. Instead the island would be constructed in Earth orbit, with hundreds of thousands of space missions, carrying components of the island up into space. Once in space, a vast team of humans who’d be permanently stationed up there would then have the awkward job of connecting the pieces of the island up together with perfect precision. You can imagine how if the 1960’s Apollo missions and Vietnam War almost bankrupted America, building something on this scale would bankrupt the entire planet.

In years to come though as the technology to reach space reduces the cost of getting there drastically, as well as the dangers we humans would face in the coming years; Nuclear holocaust or man-made pollution making life down here very difficult, building habitable space colonies could be humanities only real option!

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