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30th September 2022

Stanford Torus by Mark A. Garlick

Last year, we featured Mark A. Garlick in our gallery. Now he's back with another futuristic visualisation – this time depicting interior and exterior views of a Stanford Torus.



NASA first proposed this concept in 1975 as part of its Summer Study, conducted at Stanford University, with the purpose of exploring and speculating on designs for future space colonies. A Stanford torus, according to that study, would be capable of housing between 10,000 and 140,000 permanent residents in a completely self-sufficient environment. The 1.8 km doughnut-shaped ring could rotate once a minute to provide between 0.9g and 1.0g of artificial gravity on the inside of the outer ring via centrifugal force. A system of mirrors, including a large non-rotating primary solar mirror, would enable the interior to be kept at natural levels of sunlight.

A Stanford torus is designed to connect its outer ring to a central hub, via a number of "spokes", which function as conduits for people and materials travelling to and from the hub. Since the hub is at the rotational axis of the station, it experiences the least artificial gravity and is the easiest location for spacecraft to dock. Zero-gravity commercial activity could be performed in a non-rotating module attached to the hub's axis.

Unlike smaller space stations, the sheer volume of a Stanford torus would allow the creation of entire natural landscapes – including farmlands, rivers, and lakes, alongside dense urban areas. This might be a haven for those wishing to escape from the increasingly ravaged environments on Earth. But aside from "emergency" uses, it could also be a place for tourism and leisure, where people might want to experience wholly new cultures and ways of life. These habitats could become independent settlements with their own laws, customs, and architectural themes.

The concept is now almost 50 years old, but continues to fuel the imaginations of writers, artists, and space enthusiasts. The 2013 movie Elysium featured a luxurious orbiting habitat based on the Stanford torus design, which presented a stark contrast to the poverty and overcrowding on Earth. Set in 2154, the film had parallels with our world today – exploring themes such as immigration, overpopulation, transhumanism, healthcare, worker exploitation, the justice system, and social class issues. Meanwhile, the video game Elite: Dangerous allows players to dock at space stations with habitat rings, again based on a Stanford torus.

Mark A. Garlick is a freelance illustrator with a strong scientific background, who has illustrated press releases for a wide range of institutes. In addition to scientific realism, his work also includes science fiction – artwork and videos that imagine humanity's distant future among the stars. We spoke to Mark about his latest piece, the Stanford torus seen above.

1. Hi Mark. Perhaps you could start by telling us about the inception of this video. For instance, what motivated you to depict a Stanford torus in such detail? Was it something you'd been wanting to create for a long time?

First off, thanks for inviting me to this interview. I created a Stanford Torus animation originally about four or five years ago, but only modelled the exterior. I just found the entire concept absolutely fascinating, and I am always looking for interesting things to illustrate and/or animate. At that time, I did not have the necessary skills (I had just started learning Blender) or computer power to effectively do the interior, but I finally decided three months ago to give it a stab.

2. Did you encounter any difficulties during the production? Were there any parts you found particularly challenging to work on?

Working around Blender's hiccups! The trees and bushes you see in the animation were all originally placed using particle systems. I use two machines to render, working in unity with each other so they didn't render the same frames. The trouble is, on one PC the particles appear in one place, but in the other they got shifted. So they 'flicker' as you move through the rendered frames. Frustrating and annoying. I have had this trouble before with other scenes featuring particles. The only workaround, if I was to render on two machines, was to convert all of the tens of thousands of trees into separate instances, rather than particle systems. This bumped up the file size to 1.6 GB which made it slow to work with.

I also struggled with the lighting. I am still not entirely happy with it as I feel it doesn't look quite 'real'. In reality, the scene should be lit by a single light (the Sun) and the mirror system. But it then required well over 2,000 samples to render, which was just taking way too long – around 20-30 minutes per frame, multiplied by a couple of thousand frames. In the end I cheated and created a ring of point lights above the glass roof.

3. What software, hardware and other resources did you use? How long did it take to render?

As mentioned above, I used Blender, version 3.3.0 to be exact. I've been using Blender for about four or five years, while previous to that (and contemporaneously) I used 3DS Max. I switched to Linux a year ago, having been a Windows user forever. That meant no more 3DS Max. So now I use Blender exclusively for 3d modelling/animations, and DaVinci Resolve for video editing and compositing. The landscape and other bitmaps were hand-created in Photoshop (which just about runs on Linux). The render took about 60 hours using an RTX 3090 on my main machine and an RTX 3080Ti on the other, both in Optix mode with motion blur enabled. It's 2,160 frames at 24 fps. I used between 128 and 256 samples with Optix denoising depending on what I could get away with for the various bits. It could have used a uniform 512 for the interior but then I was looking at a seven-day render.

4. Here on Future Timeline, we like to predict the arrival dates for new technologies. So, just for fun, if you had to predict when the first Stanford torus (or a similar sized habitat) may become a reality, what would be your best guess?

I am afraid I am somewhat pessimistic in regards to this. I can't see this happening in my lifetime (I'm 54), or even my daughter's, who's almost 17. The pessimism comes not from our lack of engineering or scientific prowess; it's mostly because of the way the world is right now. Unparalleled inequality, rampant capitalism, racism and misogyny, greed, and corruption. Until we can all learn to live in peace, harmony and respect for each other and this precious planet of ours, and perhaps find something other than capitalism, this will remain a pipe dream. That's just my opinion and I hope I am proven wrong.

5. Do you have any other projects in the pipeline? What are you hoping to work on next?

Yes, it's time to up the ante. I am going to try to make time to create an O'Neill Cylinder. These are far bigger constructions, a few kilometres in diameter and tens of kilometres long. Fans of Arthur C Clarke's Rama sequence will realise that the eponymous spacecraft is actually a variant on an O'Neill Cylinder, as is the hollowed-out asteroid in Greg Bear's Eon.

In addition to the above video, Mark has produced The Future of Space Tech on his YouTube channel, which includes several other scenes. So please subscribe to him there if you enjoy his work. He can also be followed on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


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