Saturday, June 25, 2011

Torus Wheels: Iconic Spinning Space Stations

The Stanford Torus or "wheel" is often regarded as the quintessential design template for orbiting space stations in that it provides microgravity via centrifugal rotation. That is, it spins and people stick to the floor.

While it's been popularized in comic books, science fiction novels, and film, the design has grounding in real-world physics. The concept was developed at Stanford University based on theories rocket engineers Wernher von Braun and Herman Poto─Źnik.

This scene is actually from a centrifuge area on the spaceship Discovery One, but the concept is the same.

NASA took the Torus further by using the design to help the public understand how people might live in space one day. The Torus is perhaps the closest approximation to Earth-like living--that is to say extended or semi-permanent residence--for humans in space.

During the Space Race, the wheel design achieved star status as a pop culture icon of human achievement in the marathon to establish a permanent orbiting settlement.

And now, for your viewing pleasure:

Real World Torus Wheel Concepts
NASA's Torus work
Article about recovered, long-lost scenes from 2001 A Space Odyssey

Next Time: Outer Space Colonies!


  1. I think Baylon 5 bears mentioning under this header. After all, it does use rotation to provide gravity.

  2. This is just the tip of the iceberg Harald! Stay tuned...

  3. Very cool. My favorite is the interior of the 2001 wheel. IIRC, the thing was a set piece Kubrick made that would rotate as Dullea jogs through it. It could split in half along the seam there between his feet.

  4. I don't see how spinning this spinning space station/wheel is going to create any artificial gravity action upon objects inside that are weightless.

    They'd be more apt to find themselves drifting downstream (counter the spin) against their will rather than somehow be magically slightly pinned to the floor..

  5. Hi Richard, I think this article about the design of the space station featured in the film Elysium might help explain the principals behind how gravity is supposed to work:

    "How Elysium is a Carnival Ride, and Why its Atmosphere is a Bucket of Water" from Scientific American

  6. Question, if you had a rotating space station with multiple levels all the way down to the hub, would they all have the same gravity (spinning at the same rate) or would they gradually lower in gravity until the hub which would be zero gravity?

    1. That's a great question! I imagine that would be the case. I can't be sure of course, but I do feel like I've seen designs that make the center of the torus the spaceport dock and powerplant systems.

    2. A bit late to the party, but still.

      The further you get from the hub the greater would be the effects of gravity. Depending on spinn and size of the centrifuge how much the effect would be varies.

      Another problem is the floors as us humans have a hard time adapting to curved floors (no one coped well with it in NASA's tests). But if you make them flat gravity will be weaker in the middle of the "room" - so if you released a marble at the corner of the room it would roll to the centre and stay there.

      There's also the question of which direction to spin. Generally humans cope best when facing the spin and "riding it". Sideways is the worst way and is likely to make you more ill. Things like turning your head to quickly can also affect your sense of balance and vision.

      It's a tricky subject, but intereting!