So far we’ve seen two space colony form factors that arose from a 1975 NASA-backed study. The Bernal Sphere was round, the O’Neill Cylinders cylindrical. This third concept, proposed as part of the same study, is a sort of combination of the two that takes the cylinder and bends it into a circle.
Known as a Stanford Torus, it’s named after the university where the study took place. The torus shape—I’m guessing “torus” is either Greek or Latin for donut or bagel—provides its gravity by rotating around its hub, and at a suggested 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) in diameter could theoretically support some 10,000 people inside. Sunlight would be bounced from mirrors in the hub into the living space, providing the effect of “overhead” sunlight.
I find the visual effect of being within a large torus more interesting than that of the Bernal Sphere or O’Neill Cylinders; it kind of looks like you’re in a valley that slopes up and out-of-view on either side. An additional benefit versus the O’Neill Cylinders is that with the latter, there is a feeling of finite space; jogging along it, you would eventually reach the end and have to turn around. The torus on the other hand provides infinite scroll, which would make chase scenes more entertaining.
Here’s a fly-through of what a Stanford Torus might look like:
Design god Syd Mead famously included renderings of a Stanford Torus to serve as the space habitat in the 2013 sci-fi film “Elysium.”
However, space geeks are quick to point out that that’s not technically a Stanford Torus, because as depicted in the movie, the habitat features no “roof;” the inside of the torus is absent and open-air, allowing ships to fly in and out of it.
That would make it what’s known as a Bishop’s Ring:
A Bishop’s Ring is essentially a gi-normous Stanford Torus, with the theory being that if it were made from carbon nanotubes rather than steel, a much larger structure could be built: Some 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles, roughly the driving distance from New York City to Miami) in diameter and 500 kilometers (310 miles) wide, providing a livable surface area roughly the size of India. Towering sidewalls stretching 200 kilometers (120 miles) in height would actually obviate the need for a “roof” and the design could be left open-air; science eggheads say the gravity generated would be enough to hold the atmosphere in place, and the open-air design would allow TIE Fighters and such to fly in and out.
Sci-fi author Iain M. Banks has taken the concept of the Bishop’s Ring and run with it. In his Culture series of novels, Banks envisions something called Orbitals: huge Bishop’s Rings that stretch to 3,000,000 kilometers (1.9 million miles) in diameter, up to 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) wide, containing landmasses the size of proper continents.
In Banks’ fictional world, these Orbitals are tilted towards a nearby star, and thus their rotation not only provides gravity, but a proper day/night cycle. The theoretical surface area would be up to 120 times more than what we’ve got on Earth.
While nothing like an Orbital will ever be constructed in our lifetime, Banks’ fictional creations did inspire a real-life object that many of you may own: A little video game called Halo. That game and its sequels have netted $3.4 billion in sales since 2001. It’s strange to think that a sci-fi author’s imagination unwittingly helped propel the Xbox console to success.