In a few weeks, scientists from across the world will gather in the New Mexico desert to compete for one of the strangest – and most ambitious – technological competitions ever devised.

Some researchers will unveil robots, powered by solar panels, that will climb long lengths of cable. Others will demonstrate materials so light and strong that mile-long stretches of the stuff could be hung in the air without snapping. And some will highlight their plans to launch satellites carrying sets of mini-probes tethered together, to discover how they behave in space.

All these different projects are united by one extraordinary goal: to build a stairway to heaven. Each of the groups that will gather in New Mexico is competing to win a Nasa prize set up to encourage entrepreneurs to start development work on the technology needed to create a space elevator. Such a device would involve constructing a 23,000-mile cable that could pull men and goods into orbit without blasting them there on top of expensive, and dangerous, rockets.

The key feature of a space elevator would be the use of a satellite that will orbit almost 23,000 miles above Earth. At this altitude, known as geostationary orbit, the orbital period of a satellite moving around the globe matches Earth’s rotation. The craft then hovers over a single spot on the equator.

However, a space elevator would have one extra key feature: a massive cable would be lowered from it to link it to the ground where it would remain fixed, like a tube line to the stars.

The prime reason for posting this, of course — is this is one of John’s all-time favorite cranky topics.



  1. Mr. H. Fusion says:

    I would be interested in seeing some of the engineers ideas.

    Although I don’t think we have either the materials or know how to build something of this magnitude at the present, this one of those areas I’m wishing to be proved wrong.

  2. ECA says:

    They have created Mono cloth, not mono fiber, YET.
    they are working on it…

    they want to extend a length from a platform to the Earth. And use a elevator type system to launch, or at LEAST get into space.

    Im waiting for the first crash. It should be Fantastic.

  3. JoaoPT says:

    I just can’t see it pull weight from the surface… maybe that satellite platform can fly at a slightly higher orbit and then the centrifugal force can balance the weight. Also, as you climb you pass several layers of atmosphere with very harsh climates, most notably temperature changes. And then there’s the ascent velocity. How fast this “elevator” would have to go to be pratical? if it travels at 1000 miles per hour, will take a day to climb there. How about friction?
    Just too many problems to solve. I’m with Mr. Fusion: let’s see some real ideas from technicians.

  4. sdf says:

    I want to hear what Dvorak himself really thinks about all this. I don’t think anyone has what it takes to make this a reality much less the technology.

  5. suppositious says:

    This is the future.

    To understand one of the consequences of this alarmingly excellent technological idea, look at this old story from the BBC: Brazil hunts yachtsman’s killers.

    The significance is:

    1. on the equator
    2. ocean to the east, like Cape Canaveral, for orbital vehicles.
    3. on the Amazon

    A very natural and powerful potential trading area, don’t you think?

    ‘sup!

  6. Simon says:

    Didn’t Arthur C Clarke come up with this idea a few years ago?

  7. suppositious says:

    Yes, check my blog:

    suppositio.us!

    or just click my name below!

    ‘sup!

  8. Dave Sanders says:

    Go see LiftPort.com – these guys are gonna get this done. Its time for us to actually think smart – not just use brute force – to get to space…

  9. suppositious says:

    Because we’ll have to use brute force to find a spot on the equator!

    sup!

  10. ECA says:

    6,
    A FEW???
    how about 60 years ago…

  11. sdf says:

    Arthur C Clarke blah blah. If you throw out enough ideas you’ve blueprinted thru the end times.

  12. BW says:

    Anyone remember that experiment where the Shuttle let out a long tether while in orbit and it was fried by a current surge?

    NASA says “Another technology NASA researchers are developing is the Electrodynamic Tether (EDT). As the long wire of an EDT passes through Earth’s magnetic field, it sets up a voltage along the tether. This voltage makes electrons flow down the tether, like water flowing down a pipe. If the tether has the right systems to allow it to collect and emit electrons, then an electrical current (the flow of electrons) will move through the tether. Any time an electrical current flows in a magnetic field, there is a force. This may sound strange, but it is the same principle that makes every electric motor on Earth work, from the motor in a blender to the motor that spins your CDs.”

    Isn’t the Earth’s atmosphere an insulator? And they want to penetrate this insulator with a conductor?

  13. Mike Voice says:

    I wonder how many of these technologies will have “military” or “defense” applications – and all future work on them will be shrouded in government secrecy.

    Reminds me of when US work on target geometry for laser-induced [inertial confinement] fusion ran into security issues because the research could also be used for design work related to the implosion-phase of Hydrogen bombs.

    http://www.llnl.gov/nif/dir_about.html

  14. Mike Borginis says:

    This is the way to go. Climbing out of the atmosphere rather than sitting on top of a tank of explosive fuel and lighting a match.

    Bradley Edwards seems to have all the problems worked out. Of course there is the pesky dilemma of developing technology to create thousands of miles of carbon nanotube ribbon…a huge hurdle for sure…but if they can get this process nailed, they can start on the first elevator. Once the first one is up, others will follow quickly, and there will be a safe, cheap way to get things into orbit.

  15. Smartalix says:

    11,

    You obviously don’t read very much, and definitely not anything Clarke wrote on space elevators (or space in general).

  16. Joao says:

    On your wet dreams pal…how heavy will the tether be? How to climb, what kind of vehicle? How heavy the payload? How many Newtons will the satellite holding the tether has to pull to make it more or less tense with the payload and the wind factor. How to insulate this coil in the magnetic field?( a surge on this tether will fry all the chips on a satellite) How to protect the tether from a phisical elements like a plane flying or a heavy storm? And then when things are lifted they need further boost to move them to the correct orbit too. And how about people? To hoist a crew of 6 or 7 people will need a pressurized cabin with some acomodations, since if it is a 23 000 mile long cable will take a day or to climb it, even at 500 MPH.
    The site of this company shows nothing in concrete regarding the technology.

    If someone has more juicy info on this, please post it, cos’ I can’t see this “Lift” happening any time soon…

  17. Joao says:

    #16 refers to post #14, not at you Smartalix…

  18. ECA says:

    16 the 23,000 niles is a trick.
    the trick is centrifical… And is a balance trick of force.

  19. JoaoPT says:

    ECA, you mean centrifugal force. But to acomplish that the satellite must be on a higher orbit, and moving faster to stay geosychronous. I can’t do the math involved, but that’s the way. but also it has to shift to a even higher orbit to balance the weight pull of the cargo. and readjust as the cargo climbs as it weighs less and less as it goes higher. As it adjusts itself, it will have to brake too, otherwise it happens the same as the iceskaters spinning faster and faster as they close their arms in a pirouette. Also, where is stored the energy to hoist things? Is the cargo to be pulled by the satellite or does the climbing mechanism do all the work?

  20. Smartalix says:

    Here’s a good article on the space elevator (AKA beanstalk).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator

    Larry Niven also wrote a good primer on the concept, and of course Arthur Clarke’s novel goes deeply into the details.

  21. ECA says:

    19, the mechanism Crawls UP…
    at first it will be slow moving, until they get up higher,and have less atmosphere to deal with. then it can accelerate.
    Even with a minor rocket boost.
    But you want to keep tension on the material. once you get past 50-75 miles, the Earths gravity well, is Neglegable, and you can ZOOM right along.
    But you are right, its a balancing trick…A BIG one…And controls on the bottom and top MUST be kept.
    The station, will PROBABLY, have the END of the cable, and Pull in/out as needed to keep the balance.
    YOU DONT want the cable to BOUNCE or whip…It could Yank the base right out of the EARTH, and send the Sat base, TO THE MOON, and beyond, or drop the cable, which would streatch around the world/planet… And as 1 person said…a short string dont weigh much, but 1 ton a string, weighs ALOT.
    Only problem, is that NASA, and our GOV, DONT build the best
    they still fly a space craft thats over 20 years old.
    HOw can we train for this??

    Fun part.
    this is like a GIANT scale.
    a 1 oz pull on 1 side could measure about 10+ tons of pull on the other. I dont know the Math for this, I dont think I want to comprehend the differences.

  22. Brian Dunbar says:

    12 – Anyone remember that experiment where the Shuttle let out a long tether while in orbit and it was fried by a current surge?

    Ya. Consider that the tether deployed by the Shuttle was slicing across the magnetic field and the proposed space elevator is moving with the field. Also – and it’s an area like all of this that needs research – if the cable in non-conductive that solves a number of problems in this regard.

    13 – I wonder how many of these technologies will have “military” or “defense” applications – and all future work on them will be shrouded in government secrecy.

    Al good reason to fun (ahem) private ventures. Hey, how much money has Dvorak made in the pundit business?

    16

    I didn’t see a website listed in 14′s post. However if you’re talking about Liftport, I agree the site appears to be heavy in marketing poofery and short on content. Blame that on the gee-whiz CMS our last intern got all excited about – fiddly thing in a nightmare to work with.

    See http://www.liftport.com/papers/ for our white papers and http://www.liftport.com/files for our ‘etc’ section. Check back in a month or so – I’m supposed to have the new web server online.

  23. JoaoPT says:

    Thank you, I’ll get into this.
    I personally don’t put much faith in this technology, but I try to keep an open mind…

  24. Brian says:

    I personally don’t put much faith in this technology, but I try to keep an open mind…

    That is all I can ask for. Take the data, read up on the source material and make up your own mind.

    I’ll take a handfull of informed citizens over a horde of true believers any day.

  25. Vern McGeorge says:

    Many flaws – but the real deal.

    First, the picture is the NASA elevator which ways trillions of tons and can maybe be built in the 300 years to never timeframe. If you look at the picture at about the 7:00 position relative to the cable there’s a cylinder with an American flag on it. The cylinder has yellow light coming out from three windows. If you look through those windows, you see dozens of people standing around. This outlandish design included a bunch of wacky stuff including a 50 kilometer tall tower at the base. It is, basically, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Fountains of Paradise” with the plot stripped out and a NASA logo on the cover.

    When he learned about the “300 years to never”, Dr. Bradley C. Edwards (then a researcher at Los Alamos Labs) went back to first principles to figure out if the materials he was studying (carbon nanotubes) could be used to build a space elevator in an economically plausible way. The design he came up with is nowhere near as cools as Clarke’s. It isn’t fast, it can’t lift megatons per climber and it doesn’t use a mag-lev, non-contact drive system. Edwards’ design does have three compelling features through:

    1. We can probably build it for on the order of 10 billion dollars.
    2. It will reduce the cost per pound to lift stuff into space to
    1/100th or even 1/1000th what it is today.
    3. We might be able to build in within 10-15 years.

    Considerably more data can be found in Edwards’ book (The Space Elevator) on in either of his NIAC funded study reports which are available on line.

    The most glaring error in the blog post is the “23,000-mile cable” reference. That’s just the distance to GEO. The ribbon will actually be 100,000 km (62,000 mi) long. The 2/3rds of the ribbon above GEO and the full mass of the counterweight are all pulling up and out. As long as this force is larger than the mass of the ribbon below GEO which is pulling down, the space elevator will dangle from the Earth into space like a pendulum.

    Now, the correct some of the errors in the comments:

    Re comment 2, the first crash will be boring. The ribbon weighs 10 kg/km so if it hits you, it will be like being body slammed by a sheet of newspaper.

    Re comments 5 and 9, finding a site will be no problem. The ideal sight is 1000 miles east of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. It will be like an oil platform well out in international waters and well away from air routes, shipping lanes and terrorist threats.

    Re comment 6, Clarke has been talking bout this since at least the early 70s. The idea’s not crazy – all we need is the material that light enough and strong enough to build it.

    Re comment 12, the interaction of the tether and the magnetosphere (which generated the high current) will but be an issue. NASA dragged their conductor the through the magnetic field at 7+ km/sec. The space elevator is, for all practical purposes, motionless. Also, piercing the atmosphere with a conductor is probably not an issue. The cross sectional area of the ribbon is very small, the plasma in the ionosphere at the altitude of concern is very rarified. The ribbon itself is a poor conductor. We’re not going to zap the Earth.

    Re comment 13, as far as military applications and implications go, I like the space elevator. Applications first. It’s not a good offensive platform. Why drop a missile from GEO (warning time ~ 4 hours) when and ICBM can deliver in

  26. Vern McGeorge says:

  27. Vern McGeorge says:

    …[bloody clipping algorithm!] …