Project Hyperion: The Hollow Asteroid Starship – Dissemination of an Idea

posted by Andreas Hein on May 13, 2012

David Hardy Astreroid Starship

Asteroid starship arriving at an alien world by David Hardy, from [4]


A large space mirror heats up an asteroid, slowly melting it. Water, which was injected into the center of the body expands, blows up the melted material,  creating the shape of a balloon. After cooling down, rotation is induced into the hollow body creating artificial gravity. An artificial fusion Sun brings daylight to the dark interior.  A team of bio-life-support system experts, urban planners, and ecologists starts to create an artificial world inside the balloon, preparing it for the first settlers. The small world is then provided with a propulsion system and launched to one of the next stars or used as a space colony.


Gatland - Astroid starship

Asteroid starship construction from [3]


Dandridge Cole imagined this vision of constructing a manned starship / space colony in the 60s in his book “Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids” [1]. His concept was picked up several times, for example in the book “Macrolife” by George Zebrowski [2]. One of the most popular accounts to the concept was made in the book “The World of the Future – Star Travel” by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis [3]. David Hardy also imagined how such a concept might look like in Carl Sagan’s well-known “Pale Blue Dot” [4]. Gerard O’Neill himself takes account on Cole when he introduces his idea of space colonies, although his colonies are made largely of material from the Moon [5].

Although the original concept of directly melting an asteroid is probably not very attractive, Cole created an important link between artificial space colonies and manned interstellar flight. This link was later recited by Gerard O’Neill and Gregory Matloff [5, 6]. Both see space colonies as a precursor to generation and colony ships, in order to gain experience with sustaining life in space over extended periods of time. Whether or not such a logical link between space colonies and manned interstellar flight exists, is currently assessed within Project Hyperion. This is a vital issue as its clarification helps to identify technology paths to realize manned interstellar flight.


[1] Cole, D. M., and Cox, D. W. “Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids”. Philadelphia, Chilton Books, 1964.  

[2] Zebrowski, G., “Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia”. Harper & Row, 1st edition, 1979.

[3] Gatland, K., Jefferis, D., “World of the Future – Star Travel”, Usborne Publishing, 1979.

[4] Sagan, C., “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space”, Random House, 1st edition, 1994.

[5] O’Neill, G.K., “The Colonisation of Space”, Physics Today, 27, No. 9, 32-40, September 1974.

[6] Matloff, G.L., “Utilization of O’Neill’s Model I Lagrange Point Colony as an Interstellar Ark”, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 29, pp. 775-785, 1976.

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27 Responses to Project Hyperion: The Hollow Asteroid Starship – Dissemination of an Idea

  1. Pingback: Remembering Dandridge Cole

  2. Pingback: Remembering Dandridge Cole | Light a Rocket

  3. Stephen Russell says:

    Awesome, do the R&D & capture some asteroid to build this megaship, wild.

  4. Stephen Russell says:

    Ideal stuff for SyFy movie or other Sci Fic or for another Star Trek movie alone.

  5. David says:

    Not a bad start. I would expect our technology would improve over the next century so we’ve long-range, low-cost robotic construction going on to build these huge ships. I also think it very unlikely they will be without human crews. But great enterprises all begin somewhere, so I am most pleased to see this under discussion. AD ASTRA!

  6. Steph says:

    My novel ‘Hollow Moon’ (a YA space opera) centres around an asteroid colony ship – in the book, I named the ship ‘Dandridge Cole’ in the hope it would rekindle people’s interest in Cole’s work.

  7. John says:

    It would fly apart from all the rotation as all of it would be subjected to the forces of the rotation. It would be better to coral a number of asteroids together, cabling and welding them together with thermite, nuclear bombs, lasers or a solar collector. Then support a manufactured rotating habitat inside the cavity formed by the asteroids. That way, the centrifugal forces are supported by non-rotating ( or slowly rotating ) mass which doesn’t have to support their own weight.

    • couple of years ago I thought of a solution to centrifugal forces overcoming an asteroids tensile strength.
      in the asteroids center of rotation from one end cap to another we place a structure from which we build multiple main cables and vertical suspenders ropes that anchor the end cap tubes to the walls of the rotating asteroid.
      Think of the Golden gate bridge with its main cables and suspension ropes that make up this suspension bridge design.The Golden Gate suspension bable system is bolted into the bed rock on both sides of San Francisco bay, so to would our “Sky suspension cable system” it would be suspended and bolted into the asteroids surface on the inside to counter the centrifugal force that would other wise destroy the world ship.
      The anchors/pilings would be hammered into the bed rock much like a skyscraper is.
      The visual effect from the “ground” would be 4 to 8 cable stays and vertical steel ropes spread along the central end cap axis in a “flower pattern” You see the cable stays are at an angle as they descend to the ground and are not vertical.

      We will paint these structures, international orange so as to look like our earthly Golden gate and possibly these structures have an elevator system from ground to Hub.

      a couple of years ago I shared with Mr Gilster a world ship with a weightless ocean in our central hub and the oceans in the end caps would swirl up like an ice cream cone in the center of the end caps, I called this my “Lava Lamp” world ship”

  8. Jack Ryder says:

    I concur that this is a practical idea. I also reckon that the life span of humans will be extended to ensure that the majority who start also arrive.

    I have technical query.

    A starship rotating producing an artificoal gravity of 1g makes sense. However, to go anywhere it must accelerate linearly so creating artificial gravity at right angles to the rotation. So what is the maximum percentage of g that would work without the effect causing real problems?

  9. GaryChurch says:

    I saw that book when I was a child and it probably wired my brain for space; I looked at it recently (45 years later) and find I have been thinking along his lines ever since. A sphere many miles in diameter is really a Bernal Sphere (proposed in 1929) except for spinning it for gravity. I think a sphere will be the shape of habitats, not O”Neill cylinders.

  10. Keith Pretzer says:

    I read both Cole’s and Zebrowski’s books as a young pre-teen many years ago, and have never forgotten them. I think the elliptical bubble world is an elegant use of space based resources. I do disagree on the use of a sphere except for extremely large constructions. As you travel up the “hill” of a rotating sphere the gravity lessens. For small construction, say spud shaped cylinders 10 miles long and five or so across, it is likely easier to do that than a sphere. Would have to do some engineering match to see if the material of a typical nickel-iron asteroid can handle that rotation.

  11. Kevan Coleman says:

    This same idea was in a book called Macrolife written by George Zebrowski in the 1990’s. FANTASTIC CONCEPT!

  12. Robert says:

    I agree with John above. The concept of spinning a ship to 1g… or even near to it… is IMPOSSIBLE. The asteroid would fly apart unless you reinforced it. Think of it in the following way: 1g “gravity” on the inside, pointing out, is greater than the surface gravity of any asteroid, and so the surface of the asteroid gets thrown out into space as the rotation overcomes its surface gravity. The asteroid eventually falls apart as various stresses losen and disloge its components. A smaller spin rate, that would stop the asteroid falling apart, would provide very small aparent gravity… probably insufficient to keep humans and other life healthy over the longe term. I’d suggest the following: 1. Keep the body of the asteroid hollow for storage and perhaps functions that do not require gravity… perhaps an algae farm, biological sample storage, computers, etc. 2. Build human quarters on top of towers tall enough and aligned with the spin in such a way that at the top they would be spinning fast enough to have 1g apparent gravity. 3. Evacuate humans to the interior of the asteroid if radiation increases, etc.

    • The original concept was to melt a large Nickel Iron asteroid, not a rocky one. This would create a giant stainless steel structure, probably quite neat and shinny on the outside, not at all what the illustrations usually show. And stainless steel would be strong enough for rotation at 1g up to very large sizes. Volatiles would come from other asteroids, such as comet remnants, than are mostly carbon, water and nitrogen.

    • Kevin R. says:

      If one were to heat up the surface of the asteroid with mirrors reflecting concentrated sunlight whilst slowly spinning it, then the surface material could melt together to form a more cohesive shell (preferably an asteroid containing many metals such as Pysche). This could then be hollowed out before spinning at 1g.

  13. Robert Lucas says:

    One thing here. It doesn’t get you to the stars, but your nuclear fusion stuff. This is relevant maybe for the near future. Orbit hte sun, charge your capacitors with solar energy, free energy, then even if your fusion is only partly successful the energy you do get from it is free. You could store this to release it at night maybe or for later in the capacitors, if your solar cells are in darkness. It may turn out useful, I don’t know. Why not just solar cells I suppose. Just an idea.

  14. Outstanding post it is definitely. I’ve been seeking for this info.

  15. Mark Taylor says:

    I have to think the structural integrity problem could be overcome by a combination of (1) selecting a dense solid-rock asteroid rather than one aggregated from loose materials, and (2) encasing the surface of the asteroid with a mesh of some advanced netting material with very high tensile strength.

  16. Tony Bittan says:

    “Landscaping the interior” of such a body would be a huge challenge in itself. A huge workforce of either humans or robots would be required. I think these concepts make for great sci-fi but as much as I am enthralled by them I can’t help feeling that they will always be beyond us.

  17. Kevin R. says:

    Also check out John Ringo’s books –
    The ‘Troy Rising‘ Series:

    – Live Free or Die (February 2010) (ISBN 1-4391-3332-8)
    – Citadel (January 2011) (ISBN 1-4391-3400-6)
    – The Hot Gate (May 2011) (ISBN 1-4391-3432-4)

    • Kevin R. says:

      …I should clarify that they describe the use of asteroids being hollowed out throughout each book. (just in case that isn’t mentioned in their synopsis)

  18. Pingback: ARE MASSIVE UNKNOWN CRAFT THE LEVIATHANS OF SPACE? – PART II | Very Top Secret Information


  20. Interesting article and fun to see the spread from my old World of the Future title here. I’m working on a fictional successor ‘Terror on Titan’ which includes the hollow asteroid as a space base for the StarCruiser X-1 et al.

  21. Pingback: Project 15: Future History, part 2 | Casual Obsession

  22. Pingback: Project 15: Build and Ark | Casual Obsession

  23. JH Byrne says:

    I mentioned in another section about an idea I had re: propulsion. It applies more readily to the Hyperion (asteroid colony) than to conventional hulled ships.
    The idea was something that I’m initially terming a ‘Gravity Helix Tandem’.
    Imagine TWO (or more) massive asteroids, which use the gravity of each other to repeatedly sling-shot each other, thereby gaining a slight gravity boost with each swing. Each of the pairs swings near the other, boosting its velocity just enough to escape from the other. They shoot out into space, where engines on each asteroid gradually adjust the shot into a parabola, guiding each asteroid back at each other, to repeat the procedure indefinitely.
    The utility of the notion is that gravity is ‘free’ — the asteroid colonies use each other to boost from, thereby gaining a little extra velocity without a constant drain on fuel. If the physics works out, then in theory the procedure could be used again and again, indefinitely — the result would be the colony ‘tandem’ moving through space on a flight path that would resemble a helix.
    There is an additional benefit: social redundancy. Each of the tandem must cooperate, and has an incentive to keep its own society in order, to enable continued cooperation with the other. If the curves of the helix result in a fly-by of the other every 3 months or so, it would have a constant leavening effect on the societies of each (ie, asteroid A and B ‘visit’ every 3 months).

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