How, exactly, does one handicap a race for something that's rarely been done before, like building an elevator to go into space? Right now, the materials to support an elevator capable 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 could eliminate the need for expensive rockets with dangerous propellants. The technology, therefore, is worth researching.

Today, of course, the goal is less lofty: 13 teams are vying for the opportunity to prove that their respective "space elevators" can climb up a 200-foot ribbon which is suspended from a crane. The teams, staffed mostly by engineering students, have come up with a wide array of creative ideas. 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 process of setting up when I spoke with them. Their structure was very light, with reversible solar cells that can face down to receive power from an arc lamp or upward to receive power from the sun. Today, they plan using the sun. Given the light weight of UBC's design, their model is clearly built for speed. Their solar cell array appeared almost flimsy, as it sagged when carried.

University of Michigan (UM)

UM's big advantage came in the form of high-quality parts donated by its sponsors, most especially the galliium-arsenide solar cells donated by Lockheed-Martin. Other parts included the honeycombed aluminum frame and a high-powered motor. UM's entry has the most 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 climber might receive two thirds of that--again, the goal is speed.

Kansas City Space Pirates

The Space Pirates have put together a crawler that features a curved array of mirrors to concentrate the power their solar collector receives. The Pirates do not plan on launching a payload 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 looks deceptively simple and lightweight, looking like a set of gears and wheels mounted atop an octagonal metal solar array. Nevertheless, this sturdy design is rated to carry 13 kilograms (approximately 28 pounds) and do so quickly.

Max Born College (Germany)

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

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