An annual conference and the “Space Elevator Games” with a prize sponsored by NASA and the Spaceward Foundation are growing events, and the next European conference will be in December in Luxembourg. Eurospaceward!
What is the space elevator? Well, we old-timey sci fi folk will recall the idea of a “skyhook” which was always envisioned as a giant constructed structure reaching above the earth’s gravitational influence, thereby allowing access to space without expensive, costly, intensive and potentially dangerous rocket launches. What’s more, such a structure would provide “payload potential” far in excess of anything we could engineer/do via rocket launch technology, no matter what the fuel.
In a great example of “next generation” thinking, the Space Elevator of today uses technologies that weren’t known to the concept originator, one of the world’s most brilliant, original scientists, thinkers – and a science fiction real Grand Master of prose and thought – Arthur C. Clarke. I (and several others privileged enough to know the “Star Wars” group that also included Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven – can you say “Ringworld” – I can – could not love them more if I tried – know another interesting side note that sidesteps the politicians of the world completely . . . but for another day). Anyway, long story short, the Space Elevator was first thought up by Arthur C. Clarke ages ago in his spare time after he finished inventing the satellite communications system that makes this blog, your satellite TV, your iPhone and your GPS possible . . .
Oh! OK, today’s Space Elevator that all these brilliant, fun, cool creative students and scientists from all over the world are working on is this: An extremely thin, long ribbon or strip of ultrastrong material (currently envisioned to be constructed from carbon nanotubes) will be built between a platform in the Pacific Ocean and a point that could be as far away as 62,000 miles above sea level. An “anchor” or counterweight will be at the top of the strip of ultrastrong material, that is currently envisioned as being about a foot wide, less than the thickness of a sheet of paper, and . . . well . . . up to 62,000 miles long. The top of the elevator can be anywhere from LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to several other orbital points – each has its own advantages and disadvantages. So far, the point with the most advantages and least disadvantages is the one that’s farthest away – 62,000 miles.
A “lifter,” carried by “climbers” is a moving platform capable of carrying a worthwhile payload (5 to 20 tons, possibly more). The “climbers” will move the platform up and down the “ribbon” using powerful lasers positioned on platforms surrounding the ribbon’s earthbound Pacific Ocean platform. The lasers will be trained on photovoltaic cells on the lifter and it is estimated to be able to travel up to about 118 miles an hour. This is about a 3 week trip. You know what that tells me? I got that 118 MPH figure from “How Stuff Works” and . . . the most recent contest test runs were referring to an approximate 2-week trip, so they just shaved 7 days off this total – or increased speed approximately 50%.
Right now, the “ribbon” teams have gotten ultra strong material of fairly long lengths (not 62,000 miles . . . gosh), and the laser teams are beaming their test lifters pretty far. It’s “Beam Me Up, Scotty,” but different.
Now, what’s the point? Right now, our technology for reaching space kind of sucks. Rockets are expensive, dangerous, and pretty much one-use items. The elevator overall, no matter how they choose to construct it, is much less expensive, much less dangerous, and given current plans, I totally believe them when they say they’ll have this going in less than 10 years.
What do we get? A real space station! And space commerce – you name it, anything that needs to be done in zero-g, from new medicines to chemistry to materials fabrication – and building big ‘ol much farther-traveling spaceships than our first- and second-generation rockets and shuttles. Our minds picture rockets going to the stars, or at least to the moon. But “in space” – i.e. beyond the Earth’s gravity and above our atmosphere, projects that seemed almost insurmountable, like a real trip to Mars with real people, and a colony or actual stuff being done on the Moon (mining, what-have-you) suddenly becomes DOABLE. And, once constructed, there can be more than one Space Elevator.
Now – let’s see. What if a plane hits the “ribbon”? I haven’t read about that problem yet. What if one of the existing or future communications or other satellites hits the ribbon? They have a plan. How about the radiation dangers for bodies going up and down, especially at that 2-week trip time? They have a plan. How about terrorism or destructive human behavior? You got it – working on a plan.
Is everything going perfectly so far? Well . . . there are over 100 schools and teams all over the world working on different aspects of the Space Elevator project/s.
For some reason, this totally cracked me up, and still does. DO turn sound on to hear the “climber” on its very rapid descent. This is the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team suffering a disappointment at this year’s Japanese Space Elevator competition. I know they’ll figure it out very soon.
Why am I into all this? Aw, well you know. Uses for the Space Elevator, stuff like that! (every picture tells a story, don’t it . . .)