Thursday, July 16, 2009 5:12 PM cstanton

The Space Elevator May Become A Reality

 Traveling to space may be as simple as riding an elevator within the next decade or so. NASA's Centennial Challenges Program, Dryden Flight Research Center, and the Spaceward Foundation are announcing the next Space Elevator Games to be held on August 5th through the 7th at Dryden Flight Research Center's facilities. For the last few years, groups of scientists have been toying with the idea of building an elevator that can reach into space. I guess I should get into the concept before explaining what the teams will be required to do.

First of all, the concept of a space elevator is an elevator that rises along a structure that reaches so high off of the surface of the earth that it is in geostationary orbit. The first concept was made by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895, who proposed a tower so high that it would reach the outer limits of our atmosphere. Now, with many years of findings under its belt, science has come up with a better, more realistic way. The more modern proposition is that of a tether anchored to an object in geostationary orbit. This was first proposed by Yuri Artsutanov. First proposed was a tether launched to an asteroid, but Artsuntanov's thinking is that it would be much easier to just build a satellite loaded with a spool of ribbon that could be shot back down towards Earth, while a counterweight was extended further out past the satellite away from Earth, keeping the structure taut and motionless relative to Earth. More modern concepts have been developed where the satellite would suffice as the counterweight and the tether would be attached to a mobile platform floating in the ocean. Using this way, we would have more control over the anchor itself and we would be able to move the mobile platform if it were necessary. The elevators themselves are actually less complicated than fashioning a tether that will be light enough and durable enough to reach space and be able to support an amount of weight that would actually make the concept useful.

Here's a video explaining the concept of the Space Elevator:

In all honesty, this video literally cracked me up. I have no idea what they were doing with the soundtrack, but I think it gives a good idea of what we're trying to do with this technology. I also don't like how they say that the ribbon would go from "Earth to Space," because in all actuality it would probably have to go from space back to Earth. All that aside, I think it is a good video.

Finding a material that this ribbon could be made out of has posed the biggest problem in the development of the space elevator, since all of the other technology is pretty much readily available to us. What the experts say they should use is carbon nanotubes. The problem lies in the production of these microscopic fibers. Creating nanotubes that could be strung from Earth to space would not be cost-efficient, but once we figure that out, we may be able to make this concept a reality. The Space Elevator Games are concentrated on the nanotubes required to build the strong tensile structure and the climbers that ascend it.

 

In 2005, at the first Space Elevator Games, the contestants were required to build a platform that could rise 50 meters on a steel cable at the rate of 1 meter per second. The platforms used solar power and were powered by spotlights provided by the Spaceward Foundation. Now, at the 4th year of the competition, the contestants will be required to build a platform that is able to rise 1 kilometer at the rate of 5 meters per second. Right now, they are climbing tethers that are attached to helicopters hovering high above the ground. This year's elevators use different technology. While still retaining their solar powered roots, they have an additional power source from a laser beam shot from the Earth's surface. They call this transfer of energy "power beaming."

The climbers could be built to lift up to 1,000 tons, according to Spaceref.com, and would be very safe as they carry no fuel. Riding on the elevator would be similar to riding on a train. The trip up would be pretty slow until the climber got past the gravitational midpoint, and then it would accelerate due to the rotation of the earth. The development of a structure like this could greatly improve our space technology, allowing us to build bigger space stations and once we develop it enough, we may even be able to launch crafts from space, requiring much less fuel for launch.

Here is the Official Trailer of the Space Elevator Games: 

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