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Space habitat

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Title: Space habitat  
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Subject: Space colonization, Dyson sphere, Space station, Bishop Ring (habitat), McKendree cylinder
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Space habitat

A pair of O'Neill cylinders
Interior view of an O'Neill cylinder, showing alternating land and window stripes

A space habitat (also called a space colony, space settlement or orbital colony) is a type of space station, intended as a permanent settlement rather than as a simple way-station or other specialized facility. No space habitats have yet been constructed but many design proposals have been made, with varying degrees of realism, by both engineers and science fiction authors.

The term space habitat is sometimes used more broadly to include colonies built on the surface of a body other than Earth, such as the Moon, Mars or an asteroid. This article concentrates on self-contained structures built in Micro-g environment.


  • Motivation 1
  • Advantages of space habitats 2
    • Access to solar energy 2.1
    • Outside gravity well 2.2
    • In-situ resource utilization 2.3
    • Asteroids and other small bodies 2.4
    • Population 2.5
    • Zero g recreation 2.6
    • Passenger compartment 2.7
  • Requirements 3
    • Atmosphere 3.1
    • Food production 3.2
    • Artificial gravity 3.3
    • Protection from radiation 3.4
    • Heat rejection 3.5
    • Meteoroids and dust 3.6
    • Attitude control 3.7
  • Considerations 4
    • Initial capital outlay 4.1
    • Location 4.2
  • Engineering studies 5
    • The High Frontier 5.1
    • NASA Ames/Stanford 1975 Summer Study 5.2
    • Space Studies Institute 5.3
    • In Fiction 5.4
  • Designs/solutions 6
    • NASA designs 6.1
    • Other designs 6.2
  • Gallery 7
  • Current projects 8
  • History 9
  • See also 10
  • Notes 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13


A Stanford torus interior
Stanford torus exterior

Several motivations for building space colonies have been proposed:

  • Survival of human civilization and the biosphere, in case of a disaster on the Earth (natural or man-made)[1]
  • Huge resources in space for expansion of human society
  • Expansion without any ecosystems to destroy or indigenous peoples to displace
  • It could help the Earth by relieving population pressure and taking industry off-Earth.

(See: Reasons for space colonization.)

Advantages of space habitats

A number of arguments are made for space habitats having a number of advantages:

Access to solar energy

Space has an abundance of light produced from the Sun. In Earth orbit, this amounts to 1400 watts of power per square meter.[2] This energy can be used to produce electricity from solar cells or heat engine based power stations, process ores, provide light for plants to grow and to warm space colonies.

Habitats would have constant access to solar energy up to very large distances from the Sun. Weightlessness allows the construction of large flimsy structures. The ECHO-1 satellite was a balloon for reflecting microwaves that weighed 66 kg and was 41.1 meters in diameter. It also reflected sunlight.[3] Concentrating sunlight with mirrors is a source of power.

Outside gravity well

Earth-to-space habitat trade would be easier than Earth-to-planetary colony trade, as colonies orbiting Earth will not have a gravity well to overcome to export to Earth, and a smaller gravity well to overcome to import from Earth.

In-situ resource utilization

Space habitats may be supplied with resources from extraterrestrial places like Mars, asteroids, or the Moon (in-situ resource utilization [ISRU];[1] see Asteroid mining). One could produce breathing oxygen, drinking water, and rocket fuel with the help of ISRU.[1] It may become possible to manufacture solar panels from Lunar materials.[1]

Asteroids and other small bodies

Most asteroids are a mixture of materials, virtually all stable elements on the periodic table can be found in the asteroids and comets and more importantly, because these bodies do not have substantial gravity wells, it is very easy to draw materials from them and haul them to a construction site.[4]

There is estimated to be enough material in the main asteroid belt alone to build enough space habitats to equal the habitable surface area of 3,000 Earths.[5]


Habitats may be constructed to give an immense total population capacity. Using the free-floating resources of the solar system, current estimates extend into the trillions.[6]

Zero g recreation

If a large area at the rotation axis is enclosed, various zero-g sports are possible, including swimming,[7][8] hang gliding[9] and the use of human-powered aircraft.

Passenger compartment

A space habitat can be the passenger compartment of a large spacecraft for colonizing asteroids, moons, and planets. It can also function as one for a generation ship for travel to other planets (see: Space and survival) or distant stars (L. R. Shepherd described a generation starship in 1952 comparing it to a small planet with many people living in it[10][11]).


The requirements for a space habitat are many. They would have to provide all the material needs for hundreds or thousands of humans, in an environment out in space that is very hostile to human life.


Air mercury vapor, and noble gases that cannot be catalytically burned.

Food production

mass spectrometry, and added in appropriate amounts to the fertilizers and industrial stocks. This method's only current existence is a proof considered by NASA studies. It's likely that methods would be greatly refined as people began to actually live in space habitats.

Artificial gravity

Long-term on-orbit studies have proven that zero gravity weakens bones and muscles, and upsets calcium metabolism and immune systems. Most people have a continual stuffy nose or sinus problems, and a few people have dramatic, incurable motion sickness. Most colony designs would rotate in order to use inertial forces to simulate gravity. NASA studies with chickens and plants have proven that this is an effective physiological substitute for gravity. Turning one's head rapidly in such an environment causes a "tilt" to be sensed as one's inner ears move at different rotational rates. Centrifuge studies show that people get motion-sick in habitats with a rotational radius of less than 100 metres, or with a rotation rate above 3 rotations per minute. However, the same studies and statistical inference indicate that almost all people should be able to live comfortably in habitats with a rotational radius larger than 500 meters and below 1 RPM. Experienced persons were not merely more resistant to motion sickness, but could also use the effect to determine "spinward" and "antispinward" directions in the centrifuges.

Protection from radiation

Some very large space habitat designs could be effectively shielded from cosmic rays by their structure and air. Smaller habitats could be shielded by stationary (nonrotating) bags of rock. Sunlight could be admitted indirectly via mirrors in radiation-proof louvres, which would function in the same manner as a periscope.

For instance, 4 metric tons per square meter of surface area could reduce radiation dosage to several mSv or less annually, below the rate of some populated high natural background areas on Earth.[12] Alternative concepts based on active shielding are untested yet and more complex than such passive mass shielding, but usage of magnetic and/or electric fields to deflect particles could potentially greatly reduce mass requirements.[13]
If a space habitat is located at L4 or L5, then its orbit will take it outside of the protection of the Earth's magnetosphere for approximately two-thirds of the time (as happens with the Moon), putting residents at risk of proton exposure from the solar wind.
See Health threat from cosmic rays

Heat rejection

The colony is in a vacuum, and therefore resembles a giant thermos bottle. The sunlight to radiated energy ratio can be reduced and controlled with large venetian blinds. Habitats also need a convection would raise hot air "up" (toward the center), and cool air would fall down into the outer habitat. Some other designs would distribute coolants, such as chilled water from a central radiator.

Meteoroids and dust

The habitat would need to withstand potential impacts from space debris, meteoroids, dust, etc. Most meteoroids that strike the earth vaporize in the atmosphere. Without a thick protective atmosphere meteoroid strikes would pose a much greater risk to a space habitat. Radar will sweep the space around each habitat mapping the trajectory of debris and other man-made objects and allowing corrective actions to be taken to protect the habitat.

Attitude control

Most mirror geometries require something on the habitat to be aimed at the sun and so attitude control is necessary. The original O'Neill design used the two cylinders as momentum wheels to roll the colony, and pushed the sunward pivots together or apart to use precession to change their angle. Later designs rotated in the plane of their orbit, with their windows pointing at right angles to the sunlight, and used lightweight mirrors that could be steered with small electric motors to follow the sun.


Initial capital outlay

Even the smallest of the habitat designs mentioned below is more massive than the total mass of all items ever launched by mankind into Earth orbit. Prerequisites to building habitats are either cheaper launch costs or a mining and manufacturing base on the Moon or other body having low delta-v from the desired habitat location.[4]


The optimal habitat orbits are still debated, and so orbital stationkeeping is probably a commercial issue. The lunar L4 and L5 orbits are now thought to be too far away from the moon and Earth. A more modern proposal is to use a two-to-one resonance orbit that alternately has a close, low-energy (cheap) approach to the moon, and then to the Earth. This provides quick, inexpensive access to both raw materials and the major market. Most colony designs plan to use electromagnetic tether propulsion, or mass drivers used as rocket motors. The advantage of these is that they either use no reaction mass at all, or use cheap reaction mass.

Engineering studies

Description of a rotating wheel space station in Hermann Noordung's The Problem of Space Travel (1929)

The High Frontier

Around 1970, near the end of Project Apollo (1961-1972), Gerard K. O'Neill, an experimental physicist at Princeton University, was looking for a topic to tempt his physics students, most of them freshmen in engineering. He hit upon the idea of assigning them feasibility calculations for large space-habitats. To his surprise, the habitats seemed feasible even in very large sizes: cylinders 8 km (5 mi) in diameter and 32 km (20 mi) long, even if made from ordinary materials such as steel and glass. Also, the students solved problems such as radiation protection from cosmic rays (almost free in the larger sizes), getting naturalistic sun angles, provision of power, realistic pest-free farming and orbital attitude control without reaction motors. O'Neill published an article about these colony proposals in Physics Today in 1974.[6] (See the above illustration of such a colony, a classic "O'Neill Colony"). He expanded the article in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.

NASA Ames/Stanford 1975 Summer Study

The result motivated NASA to sponsor a couple of summer workshops led by Dr. O'Neill.[14][15] Several designs were studied, some in depth, with sizes ranging from 1,000 to 10,000,000 people.[4][16][17]

O'Neill's proposal had an example of a payback scheme: construction of solar power satellites from lunar materials. O'Neill did not emphasize the building of solar power satellites as such, but rather offered proof that orbital manufacturing from lunar materials could generate profits. He and other participants presumed that once such manufacturing facilities had started production, many profitable uses for them would be found, and the colony would become self-supporting and begin to build other colonies as well.

The proposals and studies generated a notable groundswell of public interest. One effect of this expansion was the founding of the L5 Society in the U.S., a group of enthusiasts that desired to build and live in such colonies. The group was named after the space-colony orbit which was then believed to be the most profitable, a kidney-shaped orbit around either of Earth's lunar Lagrange points 5 or 4.

Space Studies Institute

In 1977 Dr. O'Neill founded the quieter and more targeted Space Studies Institute, which initially funded and constructed prototypes of much of the radically new hardware needed for a space colonization effort, as well as producing a number of paper studies of feasibility. One of the early projects, for instance, involved a series of functional prototypes of a mass driver, the essential technology for moving ores economically from the Moon to space-colony orbits.

In Fiction

The space habitats have inspired a large number of fictional societies in science fiction. Some of the most popular and recognizable are in the Japanese Gundam universe, the space station Deep Space Nine and the space station Babylon 5.


NASA designs

Designs proposed in NASA studies included:

  • Bernal sphere: "Island One", a spherical habitat for about 20,000 people.
  • Stanford torus: A larger alternative to "Island One."
  • O'Neill cylinder: "Island Three" (pictured), an even larger design.
  • Lewis One:[18] A cylinder of radius 250 m with a non rotating radiation shielding. The shielding protects the micro-gravity industrial space, too. The rotating part is 450m long and has several inner cylinders. Some of them are used for agriculture.
  • Kalpana One, revised:[8] A short cylinder with 250 m radius and 325 m length. The radiation shielding is 10 t/m2 and rotates. It has several inner cylinders for agriculture and recreaction.[19][20]
  • A bola: a spacecraft or habitat connected by a cable to a counterweight or other habitat. This design has been proposed as a Mars ship, initial construction shack for a space habitat, and orbital hotel. It has a comfortably long and slow rotational radius for a relatively small station mass. Also, if some of the equipment can form the counter-weight, the equipment dedicated to artificial gravity is just a cable, and thus has a much smaller mass-fraction than in other designs. This makes it a tempting design for a deep-space ship. For a long-term habitation, however, radiation shielding must rotate with the habitat, and is extremely heavy, thus requiring a much stronger and heavier cable..[21]
  • Beaded habitats:[21] This speculative design was also considered by the NASA studies, and found to have a roughly equivalent mass fraction of structure and therefore comparable costs. Small habitats would be mass-produced to standards that allow the habitats to interconnect. A single habitat can operate alone as a bola. However, further habitats can be attached, to grow into a "dumbbell" then a "bow-tie," then a ring, then a cylinder of "beads," and finally a framed array of cylinders. Each stage of growth shares more radiation shielding and capital equipment, increasing redundancy and safety while reducing the cost per person. This design was originally proposed by a professional architect because it can grow much like Earth-bound cities, with incremental individual investments, unlike designs that require large start-up investments. The main disadvantage is that the smaller versions use a large amount of structure to support the radiation shielding, which rotates with them. In large sizes, the shielding becomes economical, because it grows roughly as the square of the colony radius. The number of people, their habitats and the radiators to cool them grow roughly as the cube of the colony radius.

Other designs

  • Bubbleworld: The Bubbleworld or Inside/Outside concept was originated by Dandridge M. Cole in 1964.[22] The concept calls for drilling a tunnel through the longest axis of a large asteroid of iron or nickel-iron composition and filling it with a volatile substance, possibly water. A very large solar reflector would be constructed nearby, focusing solar heat onto the asteroid, first to weld and seal the tunnel ends, then more diffusely to slowly heat the entire outer surface. As the metal softens, the water inside expands and inflates the mass, while rotational forces help shape it into a cylindrical form. Once expanded and allowed to cool, it can be spun to produce artificial gravity, and the interior filled with soil, air and water. By creating a slight bulge in the middle of the cylinder, a ring-shaped lake can be made to form. Reflectors will allow sunlight to enter and to be directed where needed. Clearly, this method would require a significant human and industrial presence in space to be at all feasible. The concept was popularized by science fiction author Larry Niven in his Known Space stories, describing such worlds as the primary habitats of the Belters, a civilization who had colonized the Asteroid Belt.
  • Bishop Ring: a speculative design using carbon nanotubes, a Bishop Ring is a torus 1000 km in radius, 500 km in width, and with atmosphere retention walls 200 km in height. The design would be large enough that it could be "roofless", open to space on the inner rim.[23]
  • McKendree cylinder: another speculative design made of carbon nanotubes, a McKendree cylinder is paired cylinders in the same vein as the Island Three design, but each 460 km in radius and 4600 km long (versus 3.2 km radius and 32 km long in the Island Three design).[24]


Current projects

The following projects and proposals, while not truly space habitats, incorporate aspects of what they would have and may represent stepping stones towards eventually building of space habitats.

The Nautilus-X Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV): this 2011 NASA proposal for a long-duration crewed space transport vehicle included an artificial gravity compartment intended to promote crew-health for a crew of up to six persons on missions of up to two years duration. The partial-g torus-ring centrifuge would utilize both standard metal-frame and inflatable spacecraft structures and would provide 0.11 to 0.69g if built with the 40 feet (12 m) diameter option.

The ISS Centrifuge Demo, also proposed in 2011 as a demonstration project preparatory to the final design of the larger torus centrifuge space habitat for the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle. The structure would have an outside diameter of 30 feet (9.1 m) with a 30 inches (760 mm) ring interior cross-section diameter and would provide 0.08 to 0.51g partial gravity. This test and evaluation centrifuge would have the capability to become a Sleep Module for ISS crew.

The Bigelow Commercial Space Station was announced in mid-2010. The initial build-out of the station is expected in 2014/2015. Bigelow has publicly shown space station design configurations with up to nine modules containing 100,000 cu ft (2,800 m3) of habitable space. Bigelow began to publicly refer to the initial configuration as "Space Complex Alpha" in October 2010.


The idea of space habitats either in fact or fiction goes back to the latter 1800s. "The Brick Moon", a fictional story written in 1869 by Edward Everett Hale, is perhaps the first treatment of this idea in writing. In 1903, space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky speculated about rotating cylindrical space colonies, with plants fed by the sun, in Beyond Planet Earth.[25][26] In the 1920s John Desmond Bernal and others speculated about giant space habitats. Dandridge M. Cole in the late 1950s and 1960s speculated about hollowing out asteroids and then rotating them to use as settlements in various magazine articles and books, notably Islands In Space: The Challenge Of The Planetoids.[22]

The 2013 science-fiction movie Elysium (film) takes place on both a ravaged Earth, and a luxurious Rotating wheel space station called Elysium.[27]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^ "Limits to Growth", Chapter 7, Space Settlements: A Design Study. NASA, 1975.
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ April 26-30, 1998.
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Mass Shielding", Appendix E, Space Settlements: A Design Study. NASA (SP-413), 1975.
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Heppenheimer, Fred, Dr. Habitats in Space.
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b 11-15 February 2007. Retrieved 18 December 2010
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^
  24. ^ 9-11 November 1995.
  25. ^ K. Tsiolkovsky. Beyond Planet Earth Trans. by Kenneth Syers. Oxford, 1960.
  26. ^
  27. ^


  • NASA's table of contents for the studies See the "online books" about halfway down the page.

External links

  • Lifeboat Foundation Space Habitats, a space habitat advocacy group.
  • Paul Lucas (2005), Homesteading the High Frontier: The Shape of Space Stations to Come, Strange Horizons
  • NPR visualization of a large-colony space habitat, May 2011.
  • NASA video about space habitats and space settlements construction as seen around 1970"s (5 min)
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