Space Elevator: Hoist to the Heavens

Admittedly, at least for now, the idea of a beanstalk-like space elevator connecting Earth and space is a stretch.

But next month's X Prize Cup will host the Space Elevator Games, an unprecedented challenge for today's engineers looking at ways to alter the future of access to space.

Teams from around the country will gather October 20-21 in Las Cruces, New Mexico to compete for $400,000 in prize money as part of NASA's Centennial Challenges--the space agency's program of prize contests to stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration.

No matter how you look at it--from the top down or bottom up--building a full-scale space elevator is an uphill battle. But at least physics is in your favor.

The concept is a system utilizing an ultra-strong ribbon that extends from the surface of the Earth to a point beyond geosynchronous orbit. The ribbon is held in place by a counterweight in orbit. As the Earth rotates, the ribbon is held taut. Vehicles would climb the ribbon powered by a beam of energy projected from the surface of the Earth. [See video animation here.]

Visionaries like science fact/fiction writer, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, are space elevator advocates.

Still, wordsmithing the technology is a far cry from hammering it out for real, and there are those who believe the innovations and breakthroughs needed, like nanotubes, might not work.

Flagship project

Elevator 2010 is the flagship project of The Spaceward Foundation, based in Mountain View, California. In a partnership with NASA, the group is carrying out power beaming and tether strength challenges to be held during the X Prize Cup festivities. The challenge is divided into two categories, each with their own set of contest rules.

  • $200,000 Power Beam Challenge with teams designing and building a "climber" - a payload-carrying device capable to moving up and down a tether ribbon that is energized via a transmitter/receiver beam of power.
  • $200,000 Tether Challenge whereby teams showcase very strong tether material for use in various structural applications - but also a key material in linking terra firma with space.

Race up the ribbon

A dozen teams are showing up to take part in the space elevator competition during the X Prize Cup, said Ben Shelef, engineer and founder of The Spaceward Foundation.

"What I've been able to learn so far, there are several serious contenders. This is the first full-form competition--where we do not provide the beam source--and we're already seeing interesting and varied approaches," Shelef told SPACE.com.

The contest appears to be maturing quickly, said Brad Edwards, a leading space elevator architect, as well as a Spaceward Foundation Board member and competition judge.

"This year we expect a dozen teams for the climber competition...some will struggle and some will race up the ribbon. It will be a great show and it really will demonstrate part of the technology needed for the space elevator," Edwards explained.

Combining the results from this year's competition with recent advances in carbon nanotube material, "we are definitely moving forward," Edwards added.

Elevator roadmap

While the elevator games spotlight the tenacity of teams to bring about such an uplifting technology, it also demonstrates how much tough work is ahead.

That's the outlook of Michael Laine, President of the LiftPort Group in Bremerton, Washington. He is also on the board of The Spaceward Foundation.

Laine's LiftPort Group has sketched out a soon-to-be-released roadmap to further the cause--a step by step elevated action plan.

Today, high-altitude balloon test systems, the elevator games with their ribbon and power beaming competitions, along with the dedicated research partners--these are all "mile-markers" that show where the concept is now, Laine suggested, with many more miles yet to go.

"The LiftPort roadmap stakes out the path we will take into the future," Laine told SPACE.com.

"It's going to be hard...a lot harder than anyone imagined. But it is achievable in our lifetime," Laine said. "And the time to start is now, with small robots, balloons in the sky, strong string and courage enough to try."

The Space Elevator Games will be held next month in conjunction with the X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Tickets are available for the Space Elevator Games and the X Prize Cup at: http://www.xprizecup.com