7

Since they are related ideas (many times an orbital ring depends on a space elevator, though not always a space elevator has an orbital ring, neither always an orbital ring has a space elevator , apparently) and since we have one of those questions here, Which was the first story to feature space elevators I guess we should have the other. Even when an orbital ring depends many times on a space elevator, apparently they were theorized 25 years before space elevators (Nikola Tesla would have theorized an orbital ring in 1870 and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky would have theorized a space elevator in 1895)

Several sci-fi animes and sci-fi movies feature an orbital ring. Some of them are, Starship Troopers (1997) , Mobile Suit Gundam 00 (2008) and Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 TV series) . But almost for sure none of them was the first one. Which was the first sci fi story to feature orbital rings?

2
  • 4
    The answer is possibly the same as the that of the space elevator question, since Clarke's "Fountains of Paradise" (1979) ends with the space elevator being connected to what is effectively an orbital ring.
    – user22478
    Feb 20, 2019 at 19:43
  • @NathanGriffiths, Nivens Ringworld was 9 years earlier. I guess there's an open question if we're looking for a ring around a planet or a ring around a star.
    – The Photon
    Feb 21, 2019 at 17:50

2 Answers 2

8

Arthur C. Clarke but the idea was older.

Here's a quote from the Wikipedia page.

In the 1870s Nikola Tesla, while recovering from malaria, conceived a number of inventions including a ring around the equator, although he did not include detailed calculations. As recounted in his autobiography My Inventions (1919):

Another one of my projects was to construct a ring around the equator which would, of course, float freely and could be arrested in its spinning motion by reactionary forces, thus enabling travel at a rate of about one thousand miles an hour, impracticable by rail. The reader will smile. The plan was difficult of execution, I will admit, but not nearly so bad as that of a well-known New York professor, who wanted to pump the air from the torrid to the temperate zones, entirely forgetful of the fact that the Lord had provided a gigantic machine for this very purpose.[1]

Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) is about space elevators, but an appendix mentions the idea of launching objects off the Earth using a structure based on mass drivers. The idea apparently did not work, but this inspired further research.

Paul Birch published a series of three articles in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1982.[2][3][4] Anatoly E. Yunitskiy, author of string transport idea, also published a similar idea in USSR in 1982[5] and later explored it in detail in his book published in 1995.[6]

Andrew Meulenberg and his students, from 2008 to 2011, presented and published a number of papers based on types and applications of low-Earth-orbital rings as man's "stepping-stones-to-space". An overview [7] mentions four applications of orbital rings.
- Orbital ring - Wikipedia

So, the idea was a fantasy back before Arthur C. Clarke but he was the first to use it in a story.

2
  • 1
    The (probably too obvious) Ringworld by Niven was 9 years before Fountains of Paradise.
    – The Photon
    Feb 21, 2019 at 17:49
  • @ThePhoton post it as an answer
    – Pablo
    Feb 21, 2019 at 18:57
6

This answer argues that, so far, no story has really "featured" a full orbital ring and only one or two have featured partial orbital rings. To appreciate this perspective, we need to first need to establish a working definition of an orbital ring.

Paul Birch and Anatoli Yunitski both wrote articles about orbital rings at around the same time in 1982. (I don't think that Nicola Tesla, while recovering from Malaria, was really onto this idea.) Birch's ring was american-football-shaped with two space elevators that connected to the pointy ends.

Diagram: orbital rings connected at 2 skyhooks by Jacob's Ladders

Birch's paper was supported by good math; therefore, I think this is the best original definition of what I would call a non-fictional and perhaps technically viable orbital ring. It is an inertially supported active structure, or rather, a megastructure.

Yunitski's design was circular and published in a soviet youth magazine. I believe that, even to this day, its proposed operation relies on some flawed momentum transfer math, but it is still fine as a sci-fi concept and he still appears to be promoting it.

Illustration (Russian): "Great transport ring" arcing around earth, showing cross section

Paul Birch also talked about "Partial Orbital Rings Systems" in his article. Keith Lofstrom published on the Launch Loop around the same time, and the Launch Loop fits within Birch's broad mathematical definition of a Partial Orbital Ring System. However, the Launch Loop (aka Lofstrom Loop) is a more refined and concrete engineering proposal.

Diagram: Two bases connected by two parallel arches with arrows, one in each direction: "A Partial Orbital Ring System."

My answer will, therefore, cover both full and partial orbital rings as defined by Paul Birch, and include the Lofstrom Loop, which was proposed by Keith Lofstrom. It will not include ring-shaped orbiting structures if they do not use active support or if they appear to just be structures that are supported by, or make use of, an unspecified form sci-fi magic, such as artificial gravity, impossibly strong materials, force fields, etc.

With these constraints in place, there are limited references.

Fred Pohl used launch loop in two of his Heetchee novels (note: this is second hand information as I haven't personally read these novels).

Arthur C Clark and Frederik Pohl wrote a novel called "The Last Theorem" in which a student askes a professor about the Lofstrom Loop...

Even Artsutanov’s lift wasn’t the only game in town. What (asked one of the students one day in astronomy class) about something like the Lofstrom loop? For that you didn’t have to start by putting some humongous satellite into orbit because the thing just sat on Earth’s surface, from which it flung your space capsules into orbit. But there Dr. Vorhulst began to rein in the class’s speculation. “Friction,” he said succinctly. “Don’t forget friction. Remember what reentry did to a lot of the early spacecraft. If you used a Lofstrom loop, you’d need to accelerate your capsule to that seven miles a second of escape velocity that I was talking about the other day before you let go of it, and then the air friction would burn it right up.”

Of course, the part about "air friction would burn it right up" is nonsense but at least the technology got a nod from two of science fiction's great authors.

Robert G. Williscroft featured the Lofstrom Loop in his 2015 novel entitled "Slingshot". I'm thinking that this might actually be the first story to feature an orbital ring - albeit a partial one.

The Wikipedia article on Orbital Rings provides several examples of orbital rings in fiction that I disagree with (at the time I wrote this, that is). For example, the ring-shaped settlement in Neal Stephenson's 2015 book Seveneves. This is an orbiting ring-shaped settlement, but not an "orbital ring" by the definition I provided above. Similarly, while Arthur C Clark's 1979 novel "Fountains of Paradise" features a space elevator, it predated the 1982 publications on Orbital Rings and did not really feature them either. Rather, on page 254 a character name Morgan contemplates the idea of connecting geosynchronous satellites together to form a ring.

enter image description here

Later, in the epilog on page 260, the story mentions briefly a "ring city" in the far future.

Excerpt from "Foundations of Paradise"

In this mention, the inhabitants of the ring city "opted for a permanent zero-gravity life" which clarifies that the ring city is not an orbital ring according to this answer's working definition.

Even the Orbital Rings around Trantor depicted in Season 2 of Apple's Foundation TV show look like they must make use of artificial gravity, so I do not think that these qualify either.

Obviously this may not be a complete list...

5
  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. This is a very nice and complete analysis of the 1982 papers, but neither of them really qualifies as a "story," and the 2015 novel seems like it would have trouble claiming priority over Fountains of Paradise unless you can demonstrate the latter as not really matching. Still, very interesting.
    – DavidW
    Dec 12, 2023 at 15:54
  • The papers were included in the answer to help establish a working definition for the term "orbital ring", since there seems to be a wide variety of opinions on what that term refers to. I added some more text and a screenshot to my answer to clarify why Fountains of Paradise doesn't match the working definition.
    – phil1008
    Dec 13, 2023 at 0:09
  • I have no objection to the papers; as I said, they're very interesting. If I might make a suggestion, though, it would be to lead with your answer and then put the supporting information. That way you won't get downvotes from impatient people who don't bother to read all the way to the end. :D
    – DavidW
    Dec 13, 2023 at 0:11
  • This is probably a stupid question, but does a ring in geosynchronous orbit count as an orbital loop? It would be at zero-g, I think, but it doesn't rotate relative to the Earth.
    – DavidW
    Dec 13, 2023 at 0:40
  • 1
    Orbital loop is an undefined term for this answer, but if you meant orbital ring, I don't think a ring at Earth GEO counts. The orbital ring came about because Paul Birch and others realized that space elevators on Earth are not possible with the materials we have at our disposal. So, it was conceived as a solution that is technically feasible because it does not rely on materials with sci-fi levels of strength. A geosynchronous ring wouldn't solve that problem since its space elevators would be just as infeasible as regular space elevators are.
    – phil1008
    Dec 13, 2023 at 0:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.