What would it be like to live inside an orbital space colony? A new online app lets you glimpse the possibilities. Created by author Joan Slonczewski to tie in with her new novel The Highest Frontier, Frontera 3D takes you inside a rotating cylindrical colony, similar to the O'Neill cylinders envisioned in the 1970s by NASA artist Don Davis.


Here's Slonczewski's explanation of how the app works:

Frontera, a cylindrical habitat 4 km long and 2 km across, contains colonial houses and farms. Rotating once a minute generates a centrifugal force of about one g. Within Frontera, looking "up" means looking "down" upon the terrain across the cylinder.

In The Highest Frontier, the Frontera colony draws power from an outer shell of photosynthetic microbes—not so far off from current research on hydrogen-producing bacteria. The story shows students attending Frontera College, a college designed to escape climate-threatened Earth. Other colonists include farmers, and casino workers from a tribal casino that financed the space habitat. Despite their travel through space, the colonial farmers belong to a religion that teaches geocentrism, a Biblical view that the entire universe revolves around Earth. Yet now that they live inside a rotating colony, does the universe still revolve around Earth—or does it now go around Frontera?

A cylindrical colony can be tough to visualize for people born after the "high frontier" era, many of whom are surprisingly unfamiliar with the old NASA paintings. So we commissioned a modest-budget model, Frontera 3D, that can be "toured" between points representing Frontera College and the village of Mount Gilead. This bare-bones model includes just a few of the landmarks from The Highest Frontier, but it demonstrates the space habitat's overall geometry. To create the model, MillieModels used3D Max 2011 for its excellent management of polimesh, incorporating satellite imagery of farm land. They stitched together a basic texture and applied it to the interior surface, then built up trees and buildings for the finished ground look. From a biological perspective, the model shows how much of such a habitat would have to be farmland—if it hopes to sustain an ecosystem independent from Earth.

The Highest Frontier treats the space colony as a metaphor for our own space ship Earth, and the challenges we face to maintain our home planet. But it also revives the Heinlein spirit of adventure, encouraging us to resume our ventures in space and explore new worlds.


You can view the Frontera 3D app here.

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