Skip to main content

Space Elevator: Hoist to the Heavens

Space Elevator: Hoist to the Heavens
Teams are readying hardware to take part in a space elevator competition to be held at the X Prize Cup this October in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Image Courtesy: The Spaceward Foundation

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

Butnext month's X Prize Cup will host the Space Elevator Games, an unprecedentedchallenge for today's engineers looking at ways to alter the future of accessto space.

Teamsfrom 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--thespace agency's program of prize contests to stimulate innovation andcompetition in solar system exploration.

Nomatter how you look at it--from the top down or bottom up--building a full-scalespace elevator is an uphill battle. But at least physics is in your favor.

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

Visionarieslike 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, andthere are those who believe the innovations and breakthroughs needed, likenanotubes, might not work.

Flagship project

Elevator2010 is the flagship project of The Spaceward Foundation, based in Mountain View, California. In a partnership with NASA, the group is carrying out powerbeaming and tether strength challenges to be held during the X Prize Cupfestivities. The challenge is divided into two categories, each with their ownset 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

Adozen teams are showing up to take part in the space elevator competitionduring the X Prize Cup, said Ben Shelef, engineer and founder of The SpacewardFoundation.

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

Thecontest appears to be maturing quickly, said Brad Edwards, a leading spaceelevator architect, as well as a Spaceward Foundation Board member andcompetition judge.

"Thisyear we expect a dozen teams for the climber competition...some will struggle andsome will race up the ribbon. It will be a great show and it really willdemonstrate part of the technology needed for the space elevator," Edwardsexplained.

Combiningthe results from this year's competition with recent advances in carbonnanotube material, "we are definitely moving forward," Edwards added.

Elevator roadmap

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

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

Laine'sLiftPort Group has sketched out a soon-to-be-released roadmap to further thecause--a step by step elevated action plan.

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

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

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

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

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.