Elevator to the Top: Space Elevators Climbing Towards Reality

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Image From NASA MSFC, Artist Pat RawlingImage From NASA MSFC, Artist Pat Rawling

Image From NASA MSFC, Artist Pat Rawling

The legend that is Sir Arthur C. Clarke is formidable. As a science fiction author who knew how to mix imagination with scientific reality, Clarke left the world a legacy of wonderful stories as well as a firm contribution to science. In 1945, Clarke suggested the concept of utilizing geostationary satellites for communications, now a mainstay of our modern world. Another technology, described in his novel “The Fountains of Paradise“, is the Space Elevator. The concept was not new when Clarke used the construction of a Space Elevator as central element of his novel, but Clarke’s novel brought the concept to a larger audience.

The basic concept of a Space Elevator is rather simple. A satellite at geostationary orbit is anchored to the Earth at the equator by a long tether. This tether is then used to move payloads up and down the Elevator without the use of expensive chemical propellants or single-use launch vehicles. Simple in concept, difficult in execution. Between the need for extraordinarily high strength tethers, the construction of the climber with a way to power the climber over the 22,000 miles to geostationary orbit from the equator, and the construction of the anchor point itself, the Space Elevator has often seemed far off on the horizon. Now, this week, a competition at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in the desert in California is bringing the concept a Space Elevator closer to reality.

The competition, part of The Space Elevator Games seeks to award prizes that are funded by NASA, as part of the Centennial Challenges, and The Spaceward Foundation, for the development of technologies needed to build a Space Elevator. The competition taking place this week is pitting prototype climber elements. Yesterday, the group LaserMotive, successfully ran a climber up 1 kilometer of test cable at an average rate of just over 2 meters per second, qualifying for the 2nd place prize of $900,000. The craft is powered by a stationary laser beaming the power to operate to the climber. There are two other teams competing, The Kansas City Space Pirates and The University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team, and there is still a first prize of $1.1 million out there for climbing the kilometer at an average rate of 5 meters per second.

These are the kind of early developments that could lead to a revolution in space travel as well as spark the imagination of the next generation. A kilometer climb up a tether at a good clip with a remote power source beaming power to the climber is an important step forward. This is exactly the kind of jump needed to bring Space Elevators from the world of scientific and engineering papers, as well as science fiction, to the reality of our space fairing world. I hope somewhere, out there, Sir Arthur C. Clarke is smiling.

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