What is a Space Elevator?
To put it simply, a space elevator is exactly what it sounds like: an elevator to space. Since its first proposal in the 1960’s by Russian engineer Yuri Artsutanov, several different elevator designs have been proposed. The one most commonly used today is that designed by Bradley Edwards, the former Director of Research for the Institute for Scientific Research (ISR).
In essence the elevator is a 62,000 mile long cable reaching into space. The cable is about 3 feet in width. It is anchored at the bottom aboard a ship, and has a counterweight at the top of the cable, beyond the earth’s orbit. The cable is kept taut and in place due to the rotation of the earth.
Specially designed machines called climbers (because they climb up the cable) then move up and down on the elevator, delivering payloads to the top before returning. It is estimated that these climbers could easily make one return trip a day on the elevator. They would operate on solar power as well as a ground based booster light source.
Once in place, the entire set-up would be fairly cheap to maintain and operate. It would provide a complete revolution in the area of space development, as it would dramatically reduce costs for getting materials out of the earth’s orbit. The primary resource used by currently used rockets is the fuel needed to escape the earth’s orbit. Eliminating this need would completely change the way that space exploration and development is run and understood.
Developments in the Space Elevator
When the idea of a space elevator was first introduced in the 1960’s, it was based on firm scientific and engineering principles. For all intents and purposes it could easily be done, save one factor: there was no material then strong enough that could be used in the manufacturing of such a massively long cable.
In 1991 a new discovery in the world of nanotechnology changed all that. Carbon Nanotubes (CNT) provided the answer. It is speculated that composite materials constructed from CNT would be up to four times stronger than would be required to build the elevator.
Despite this discovery, it is still some ways away from reality. Although composite materials made from CNT have begun to be manufactured (and there are even some products already on the market using these new materials), manufacture is still a slow and expensive process in no shape of constructing a project so massive as the space elevator.
In 2003 a private company known as the LiftPort Group came into existence. It is the first company whose goal is the achievement of a space elevator. According to the LiftPort Group’s optimistic timetable, they will have a working space elevator by 2018. If you visit their web site you will even see a countdown clock counting down to the event.
The Space Elevator Games
Although there have been some significant development in the idea of a space elevator, government funding in research has been minimal, and outside of the LiftPort Group there has been little major corporate involvement in the development of the technology.
In 2005 the Spaceward Foundation initiated its Elevator:2010 project. By encouraging research and development into ideas for viable climbers and a viable tether to provide the basis of the elevator, the project hopes to have overcome the fundamental problems of design by 2010 and be able to start towards construction of an elevator in that year.
The cornerstone of Elevator:2010 is the annual Space Elevator Games. The first Games occurred in October of 2005 at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. In conjunction with NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program, the Games offer cash prizes for the top working models of climbers and tethers totalling up to $400,000. Participants include members of universities, corporate researchers and elevator enthusiasts.
For 2006 the Space Elevator Games will be held in August. In order to win the grand prize now there must be a 50% improvement over the previous year’s winners. By sponsoring these games the Spaceward Foundation hopes to foster competition and major achievements into space elevator technology. If they have there way we will be seeing a space elevator