Las Cruces, New Mexico -- Space elevators might be thenext big things in space transportation, but Saturday's Space Elevator Games atthe Wirefly X-Prize Cup showed that they are still a long way off.
After battling winds on Friday that twisted the elevator ribbon, on Saturday the teams faced mechanical andspeed challenges in getting their respective ribbon crawlers off the ground. Still, by the end of second day, several teams could not compete and had their attempts moved to today for a post-event make-up.
The cup was founded by the creators the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million prize package offered to anyone who could launch a re-usable sub-orbital spacecraft, capable of carrying passengers, twice in a two week period.
Building on the success of that competition, the WireFly X Prize Cup was launched in 2005. The two-day affair involves plenty of roaring rockets, privately-built spaceships, alternative technologires, like the space elevator, and cash awards.
Thesix-inch industrial belt substituting for a space elevator ribbon has as muchsurface area as a 50-square-foot sail, and fluttered just as briskly.Unfortunately, this wild twisting made it rather difficult to attach a fragilealuminum crawler, much less to have it climb up the ribbon. Despite thesedifficulties, students from University of Michigan (UM) managed to get their crawlerall the way to the top of the ribbon on day one, the only team to do so, but insix minutes, 40 seconds; the goal was one minute.
Each teamprovided its own power source, and the inventions were very creative. UM used acircle of arc lights around the base of the cable, which, when pointed upward,bathed the solar cells in enough light to power their crawler. The German teamfrom Max Born College used two large spotlights directlyunderneath their crawler.
The University of Saskatchewan placed angled mirrors directlybeneath the ribbon, and then pointed an arc light at the mirrors to direct thebeam upward. The Kansas City Space Pirates had perhaps the most ingeniousarrangement, with fifteen volunteers pointing a bank of mirrors at a movingtarget.
Most ofthe competitors managed two attempts each. The University of British Columbia's crawlercouldn't get traction; the Germans' motor didn't start on their first attempt.A high school team from California got their flimsy-looking crawlernear the top in about five minutes on their first attempt; their second made itall the way up in just over two minutes. The KC Space Pirates' crawler wasbuffeted by the wind, to the point where the team directing the mirrors couldnot keep their aim on the curved solar collector. And the games aren't overyet. One team qualified late; two other teams were using technology that Las Cruces International Airport did not allow: an infrared beam anda microwave beam, both of which have characteristics similar to radar.
On thepositive side, three teams managed to reach all the way or nearly to the top ofthe 200-foot ribbon; the best any crawler managed last year was 30 feet. USSTcame closest to reaching the goal, but their victory was still in doubt becausetheir crawler did not return to the ground under its own power.
Michael Laineof the LiftPort Group emphasized that space elevators are in their infancy,that it might be 30 years before a space elevator is actually built, and thatthese challenges were proof of the difficulties ahead. But Laine--and the teamsat the X-Prize Cup--have no doubt of the value of what they are trying toaccomplish.
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