Space Elevator Contest Heats Up
The University of British Columbia entry makes its way skyward during NASA's first Centennial Challenge competition, which challenged competitors to build robots capable of climbing a ribbon using beamed energy.
Credit: R. Gilbertson.

Pull me up, Scotty. At least one team has qualified for part of a $2 million prize up for grabs in this year's Space Elevator Games, a NASA-sponsored contest to build machines that can climb a cable in the sky ? precursors for a futuristic transit system to space.

On Wednesday, an entry by the Washington state-based team LaserMotive climbed a 3,000-foot (900-meter) tether suspended by a helicopter at a speed of about 8 mph (13 kph). The feat was the best performance yet of a miniature space elevator prototype, though still a long shot away from what would be needed to carry humans to Earth orbit, as proponents envision.

The competition, called the Power Beaming Challenge, is being held this week at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert. It requires competitors to beam power from a remote source to propell their vehicles upward.

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. Today offers a second chance for more climbers to compete, and any team that can power their entrant for an average speed of 11 mph (18 kph) will 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. The climber from USST (University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team) is slated to compete today.