X-Prize Space Elevator Race Ends With No Winners
Barry Chan demonstrates the University of Saskatchewan's climber, Friday, October 20, the first day of the Wirefly X Prize Cup.
Credit: SPACE.com/William Faulkner

The Beamed Power and Tether Challenges at this year's Wirefly X Prize Cup did not produce any prize winners, though teams came close in both competitions.

The winner of the Beamed Power Challenge had to create a crawler capable of climbing a 55-meter-long ribbon at a speed of at least one meter per second using external power (solar, infrared, microwave, laser, or other). The University of Saskatchewan (USST) crawler came closest, making the climb in 57 seconds, two seconds short, and it was unable to descend on its own power. However, USST can claim a first: they were the only team to hoist a cash payload aboard their space elevator: a Canadian $2 coin, a US $1 coin, a US $1 bill, and a tool tag.

Two other teams were scheduled to compete on Sunday, including "Punkworks," which was to use microwave power, but neither team succeeded due to wind problems. USST made another attempt off-site on Sunday, operating with solar power only, but then the crawler lost alignment with the sun and slowed down. The prize will roll over to $500,000 next year.

Roger Gilbertson of the Spaceward Foundation was master of ceremonies for the Games. He suggested at least one "lesson learned" from this year's competition. "This was the first time we held the competition in this environment [the middle of an airport]. We didn't have the wind problem last year, so we'll have to take that into account." Gilbertson was impressed by the way teams helped each other. "We've invented a new word: 'coopertition'." This was demonstrated by the German team offering to loan USST a generator to power their light source in exchange for a percentage of their prize money; in another case, the Kansas City Space Pirates offered to rent their mirrors to USST to assist with their lift.

The other part of the Space Elevator Games, the Tether Challenge, required teams to produce lightweight (2 grams or .07 ounces) two-meter tethers capable of exceeding the strength of a "house" tether. Only one team qualified for the competition, as the other three tethers were too short. These competed anyway, with the winner being the only tether longer than two meters.  In head-to-head competition with the house tether, the Astroaraneae tether broke at a force of 1,330 pounds. This year's house tether could withstand up to 1,660 pounds of force. If the winning team had run last year, they would have won; last year's house tether had a breaking strength of 1,240 pounds.

Dr. Brad Edwards of the Spaceward Foundation noted that "The house and Astroaraneae tethers both achieved over 80% of the expected theoretical strength of the raw material." This bodes well for future competitions. According to a report by the LiftPort Group, which is designing and developing space elevator technologies (and helped judge the Elevator Games), if material strengths continue to advance at the current pace, a functioning space elevator may be built as early as 2031.