Science fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke, the originator of the concept of geostationary satellites, once said that “magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet”. While many of his ideas have become a reality today – think telecommunication and TV satellites, mobile phones, GPS, and artificial intelligence – there are still many of them (that he expected to be actually built further in the future) that still prove to be a hard case to crack for engineers and scientists around the world. One thing’s for sure: a famous early adopter, Clarke would have marveled at the sight of the smartphone, a miniature computer that fits into our pockets, capable of connecting us to the internet and do everything from placing bets at Betway Kenya to live streaming images from one corner of the world to another, using the satellites he helped put in the sky. But today, let’s take a look at some of his – and other scientists and science fiction writers – that science and engineering have yet to turn into reality today.
Launching a rocket to outer space is a pretty expensive endeavour, even for startups like SpaceX that has spent the last few years working on reducing the cost of space flight. And it’s not only the fuel that makes it expensive but all the other consumable components of the rocket itself. All these costs make space flight inaccessible to the masses – at least for the time being. An alternative to space flight would be a space elevator – it would significantly reduce the cost of getting payload (cargo or even humans) into orbit. The only problem is, we have no way of building it yet.
A space elevator is exactly what it sounds like – a cabin connected to a tether with one end in orbit (linked to a space station, for example), the other connected to Earth’s surface, in an area around the Equator (it makes it easier to leave Earth’s gravity, and the tether has to be shorter, too). The problem is the tether – right now, there is no material strong enough on Earth to be able to support its own weight, let alone the weight of the cabin carrying the payload. There are some promising results with carbon nanofibers but there is no way to know if they will indeed be a viable choice until the first prototype is made.
As human technology evolves, the need for energy constantly grows. The Sun provides us with a seemingly endless supply of energy but we use it in a pretty inefficient manner today – we can harness a tiny fraction of what our star emits. It’s up to future engineers to create a much more efficient way to harvest the energy of the Sun, rendering traditional methods of generation obsolete – and perhaps one day build the ultimate tool to do so, a Dyson sphere.
Proposed by American theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, the Dyson sphere is an artificial habitat enclosing the central star of a solar system, capturing most (if not all) the energy it emits. People could live on the sphere’s inner surface that would, this way, offer them a nearly inexhaustible source of energy and habitat as well. Today, the construction of a Dyson sphere is possible in theory – in practice, though, humanity lacks both the resources and the knowledge to actually create such a megastructure.