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.