Seattle Team Wins $900,000 in Space Elevator Contest
Dave Bashford of the LaserMotive team makes final adjustments to its robotic climber prior to one of its ascent attempts during the Space Elevator Power-Beaming Challenge Games at NASA Dryden in November, 2009. The team won $900,000 of the total $2 million prize.
Credit: NASA/Carla Thomas

This story was updated Friday at 9:50 p.m. EST.

A Seattle-based team has won $900,000 in this year's Space Elevator Games, a NASA-sponsored contest to build machines powered by laser beams that can climb a cable in the sky.

The homemade cable-climber built by the team LaserMotive of Washington state climbed a 3,000-foot (900-meter) tether suspended by a helicopter at a speed of about 8 mph (13 kph) during a Wednesday attempt. The entry ultimately managed to climb the cable four times in two days, with a best time of about 3 minutes and 48 seconds.

The feat was the best performance yet of a miniature space elevator prototype and qualified LaserMotive to win the second-level prize of NASA?s $2 million Power Beaming Challenge this week at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert. The contest requires competitors to beam power from a remote source to propel their vehicles up a 1/4-inch thick steel cable dangling from a helicopter.

The 2009 Space Elevator Games are the first in which prize money has been awarded and has "been a very successful competition," said NASA's Centennial Challenges director Andy Petro. "Power beaming is truly a 21st century technology."

Despite LaserMotive?s success, it is still a long way away from what would be needed to carry humans to Earth orbit, as proponents envision.

Space elevators were first popularized in the 1970s by the science fiction novels of Arthur C. Clarke, as a means to reach space without using a rocket. Instead, a ship could climb along a fixed structure, like a beam or cable, suspended in space by a permanent geostationary satellite 22,000 miles (35,000 km) above Earth. The sticking points are the need for a super-strong, yet light, material for the tether, and a good way to anchor the other end securely. Not to mention the vehicle to climb it.

That's where the Space Elevator Games come in. Any team that can power their entrant for an average speed of 11 mph (18 kph) can qualify for a portion of the total $2 million prize purse on offer. The competition is sponsored by the Spaceward Foundation and NASA's Centennial Challenges program aimed to spur development in space exploration.

An attempt by the Kansas City Space Pirates on Wednesday fell short of the speed requirement and got stuck partway up the cable during a Friday climb attempt. A climber built by the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team was unable to compete during the three-day contest because of a series of technical glitches, NASA officials said.

Had LaserMotive's entry managed to climb the entire length of the cable in under 3 minutes, it would have won the entire $2 million prize. As it stands, the remaining $1.1 million in prize money remains available for future competitions, contest organizers said.