Handicapping the Space Elevator Games

How, exactly, does onehandicap a race for something that's rarely been done before, like building anelevator to go into space? Right now, the materials to support an elevatorcapable of traveling all the way to geosynchronous orbit are not available.However, it is believed that super-strong materials like carbon nanotubes, could open up a whole new means of space travel, one that couldeliminate the need for expensive rockets with dangerous propellants. Thetechnology, therefore, is worth researching.

Today, of course, the goalis less lofty: 13 teams are vying for the opportunity to prove that theirrespective "space elevators" can climb up a 200-foot ribbon which is suspended from a crane. The teams, staffedmostly by engineering students, have come up with a wide array of creativeideas. The teams participating in the Space Elevator Games sponsored by Elevator 2010 at the Wirefly X-Prize Cup are:

University of British Columbia(UBC)

UBC was still in the processof setting up when I spoke with them. Their structure was very light, withreversible solar cells that can face down to receive power from an arc lamp orupward to receive power from the sun. Today, they plan using the sun. Given thelight weight of UBC's design, their model is clearly built for speed. Theirsolar cell array appeared almost flimsy, as it sagged when carried.

University of Michigan (UM)

UM's big advantage came inthe form of high-quality parts donated by its sponsors, most especially thegalliium-arsenide solar cells donated by Lockheed-Martin. Other parts includedthe honeycombed aluminum frame and a high-powered motor. UM's entry has themost commercial-off-the-shelf parts. Rated for as much as 1,000 watts of power,after power transmission inefficiencies are taken into account, the UM climbermight receive two thirds of that--again, the goal is speed.

Kansas City Space Pirates

The Space Pirates have puttogether a crawler that features a curved array of mirrors to concentrate thepower their solar collector receives. The Pirates do not plan on launching apayload their first run, though they will later. How much, they didn't say.Most of the power is focused on speed.

University of Saskatchewan (USST)

The USST entry looksdeceptively simple and lightweight, looking like a set of gears and wheelsmounted atop an octagonal metal solar array. Nevertheless, this sturdy designis rated to carry 13 kilograms (approximately 28 pounds) and do so quickly.

Max Born College (Germany)

The German team'sTurbocrawler is by far the largest and most robust design. Deliberatelyoverdesigned, the Turbocrawler incorporates thick steel structures, aheavy-duty engine, and a four-square-meter solar array. It looks like aconceptual design for a space station. While most of the entries emphasizespeed, the German team is focusing on delivering the most payload--up to 50kilos (over 100 pounds)! It might not do so quickly, but it will, they hope,get the job done.

The first round of spaceelevator games is scheduled for later today. Place your bets!

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