A “wildly theoretical” paper explains how carbon nanofibers could be the key to asteroid cities.

Key takeaways

  • Scientists propose turning asteroids into large space homes using advanced nanofiber mesh.
  • The idea builds on the O’Neill cylinder, a 70s NASA design for spinning space habitats.
  • By spinning an asteroid, the mesh would create artificial gravity and hold the asteroid’s debris together.
  • The asteroid debris caught in the nanofiber mesh would act as a protective barrier against radiation.
  • A 300-meter asteroid could be converted into a habitat with 22 square miles of living space, similar to the size of Manhattan.

Massive asteroids may one day be home to future space colonists.

That’s because a team of scientists from the University of Rochester released a “wildly theoretical paper” explaining how humanity may eventually exploit asteroids as gigantic city-sized space homes.

According to the news release, the theoretical approach consists of one big, spinning asteroid and one giant mesh bag comprised of carbon nanofibers.

An asteroid city concept based on a 70’s NASA design

The new idea is a variation on the so-called “O’Neill cylinder,” which was developed by physicist Gerard O’Neill after NASA commissioned him in 1972 to build a space habitat that would allow humans to live in space.

The O’Neill cylinder is a spinning habitat consisting of two cylinders joined by a rod and moving in opposing directions. These cylinders spin quickly enough to provide artificial gravity but not fast enough to cause motion sickness.

Science fiction fans may have already read about a similar concept employed for the titular spaceship in ‘The Martian’ author Andy Weir’s latest novel, ‘Project Hail Mary’. In science fiction, more grandiose and farfetched themes occur in numerous forms, as seen in the figure below.

The scientists who developed the new strategy, which is described in a study published in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space, did it as part of a thought experiment. They wanted to come up with a space home concept that didn’t require vast amounts of resources to be launched into space.

A Manhattan-sized asteroid space habitat

They eventually came up with the notion of using materials already in space in vast quantities, such as asteroids.

One issue remained. Asteroids are far from massive enough to produce adequate gravity for a space settlement. Furthermore, if they are spun around quickly enough to generate artificial gravity, as in the O-Neill cylinder concept, they will simply disintegrate because they were not created and engineered to have structural integrity like a spaceship.

The answer to this difficulty is where the “wildly theoretical” aspect comes in. The authors proposed that future space settlers may wrap a large mesh bag composed of carbon nanofibers around an asteroid around the size of Bennu, with a diameter of 300 meters.

“Obviously, no one will be building asteroid cities anytime soon, but the technologies required to accomplish this type of engineering do not violate any physical laws,” explained physics professor Adam Frank, who worked on the project with a number of Rochester University students during the lockdown.

They would then spin the asteroid until it broke apart. The nanofiber mesh would catch all of the rubble from the space rock, forming a hollowed-out outer layer that may serve as the outside construction for a space home. Crucially, the layer of asteroid rubbish would operate as a radiation barrier. A cylinder used to spin the asteroid would provide enough artificial gravity on the inner surface to support a working space home.

“Based on our calculations, a 300-meter-diameter asteroid just a few football fields across could be expanded into a cylindrical space habitat with about 22 square miles of living area,” Frank estimates. “That’s roughly the size of Manhattan.”

The space industry is preparing for human exploration of Mars and beyond, so we should expect the actual world of space science and science fiction to intersect.

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