Riding the Wire: Space Elevators

Brenda Cooper @ 28-07-2010

The 2010 space elevator conference is coming soon to Microsoft. It turns out there is also a space elevator event coming to The Seattle Library (on getting a space elevator to the moon). Coincidence? Probably not. But it got me researching, and thinking I might just see a wire to orbit in my lifetime.

What is a space elevator? In short, it’s a long thin cable that guides a vehicle or payload or amusement ride or anything else into space. The hope is that it reduces the cost of getting weight off of Earth. The most common current theory seems to be use carbon nano-tubes as a guidewire, robotic assemblies to climb, and light to provide the power.

What’s Happening

First off, the space elevator is like flying cars and casual manned space travel: touted as coming soon for a long time, but never quite becoming real. But there is a lot of actual work. This remains a physics and materials challenge.

Most of you are aware of the Ansari X-prize which helped drive SpaceShipOne by Scaled Composites skyward, and drove a lot of innovation in the commercial space program in the United States. That’s old news now. And while there is no X-Prize I found for space elevators, there are space elevator games that result in cash prizes. In fact, the Seattle team from LaserMotive took home $900,000 last year for building a robot that could climb a cable suspended from a helicopter. To see a great video on power beaming, drop by their blog and listen to Jordin Kare and Tom Nugent describe the company, the technology, and their hopes and dreams (which go beyond the space elevator). And for those of you who also do the science fiction convention circuits, Jordin in as active filker and one of his songs is on my favorites list on my ipod.

The space elevator games aren’t all there is in development: here is a lovely amateur YouTube video documenting a successful concept (light driving a small test vehicle UP a cable) made in Saskatchewan, CA. There was a student space elevator competition as part of the Earth and Space 2010 event in Honolulu last March.

On the international front, there has been talk about India and China and even the EU doing a space elevator, but I couldn’t find anything to suggest that any space elevator program or even large chunk of research is being funded by any government. There has also been talk about Dubai (why not – they are reaching for the world’s tallest building), but I suspect the economy will have slowed all attempts there for a while. While I’m couldn’t see what is going on with it now, last year there was much chatter about an inflatable space tower from Canada.

My prediction?

Looking at LaserMotive, for example, I am reminded how much the effort to get to space benefitted other technologies. I am hopeful that our next big engineering effort on a national or international scale is about energy, and I’m coming to believe that finding new sources of energy we need right here and right now will benefit both commercial and government space programs.

Space elevators will be hard to fund for other reasons. Frankly, a lot of humans are afraid of falling, and of having things fall into them. This will be harder to site than a spaceport, and a lot of work will have to go into selling it, especially if it’s first built in America the risk-averse.

So we’ll probably have to wait awhile before we see serious money for a space elevator, but I do think it may eventually happen – both the funding and the project. Some of the breakthroughs will be driven by energy, others by the fact that people like Kare and Rutan and many other excellent engineers are fascinated with space.

Note that there are some wildcards that could push this development. If we decide to get a lot of power from space, we may need the space elevator to move building materials up cheaply, and so more funding may go that way.

Will I see a space elevator in my lifetime? If I live to be a hundred. And both of those things are more likely than jet packs, and less likely than flying cars. But possible.

Science Fiction and Space Elevators

Space elevators have been written about so much in fiction that there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to the list. The one I remember the most is from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, where a space elevator falls. Space elevators are so ubiquitous they are like rockets and space stations: a technology which has become assumed for advanced space-faring societies. Space elevators are background rather than foreground to hard science fiction.

If you want to look deeper:

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

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3 Responses to “Riding the Wire: Space Elevators”

  1. Chad says:

    We will probably have to wait a while for an elevator, but it does seem to be the best hope for getting is out into our solar system (because the biggest expense is getting everything off the ground).

    This is slightly off topic, but you mentioned it, “…in America the risk-averse.” This is the U.S.’s biggest problem. We have forgotten how to take good risks. Brenda, I’m not sure what nationality you are, but it would be interesting if this comment was coming from outside of the U.S. It would suggest the problem is even worse than I feared.

  2. Nelson says:

    Your description describing a space elevator is somewhat limited to the centrifugally turning tether made from carbon nanotube which is perhaps very sexy but not even some of those mentioned (LaserMotive) in your article believe possible due to the vast distance.

    In fact a true space elevator need not be of such design, which is just one of the possibilities. Although you mention Professor’s Quine tower, such is not a space elevator since it cannot reach the Karman boundary at 100 km in altitude, but admittedly goes very high and could be used for the assisted launch of rockets at mid-height atmospheric regions. The other, somewhat less sexy system due to the limited resources available for PR, is the SpaceShaft.

    Below you will find hyperlinks will further document my description

    http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/2009/07/01/space-shaft-or-the-story-that-would-have-been-a-bit-finer-if-only-one-had-known/

    http://groups.google.com/group/sri-committee-internal—restricted-to-official-members/browse_thread/thread/736c32218abd6046

    and of course the website http://spaceshaft.org which at this time is being redesigned and you will then be redirected to a temporary page after a few seconds.

    Best regards

  3. Brenda Cooper says:

    Hi Chad — I’m from the US. And we are scary scared of damage these days. I pretty much think our space program has been withering on the vine of fear for a long time. I suspect that’s a fault in our legal system. Pretty hard to take risks when the downside is not only failure but lawsuits. 🙂
    Not that we should abolish lawsuits – but maybe we need to rethink some parts of our legal system and tune them to survival of the species instead of some odd sense of fairness that tries to rectify the unfairness of the universe. And I’m a liberal.
    Off my soapbox, now. Back to my regularly scheduled activities…