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Going up? Take an elevator ride to space

Going up? Take an elevator ride to space

Posting in Aerospace

A Japanese firm announced that they will build an elevator to space by 2050. Is such a project either feasible or desirable?

Last week, the Tokyo-based construction firm Obayashi Corporation announced in the Daily Yomiuri that they intend to built an elevator to carry passengers and cargo 22,000 miles above the earth's surface by 2050.

The space elevator would be ferried up a cable made of carbon nanotubes, a material thought to be the strongest in the world by weight, with one end pinned to the seafloor, reports CNET, and the other reaching a space station. The station itself would house labs, living space, and solar panels that could transmit electricity back the the ground.

And one more thing: the trip up would take a full week.

However, is such a project even possible? io9's Robert Gonzalez is skeptical:

Getting carbon nanotubes into this ribbon configuration [required for Obayashi's set-up] is a significant technical hurdle. Translation: we can't do it yet, and it's possible that we never will; for the last five years, NASA has offered $2 million dollars to anyone who can can come up with a carbon nanotube tether strong enough to bring us significantly closer to making space elevators a reality. The prize money has gone unclaimed. That's not saying it never will, but the challenge may call for a brand new material altogether — maybe even one we haven't discovered yet.

However, the group has given themselves 38 years worth of wiggle room to develop the technology. And while it certainly seems fantastical, in the long run, such an elevator would be much cheaper space access than shooting up rockets. As SmartPlanet's own Reena Jana explains:

[I]t’s a cheaper alternative to launching a spacecraft from Earth to transport supplies to crews mining the Moon for energy resources, such as Helium-3, which is rare on Earth but could be used in creating clean energy.

And a 2005 piece in IEEE Spectrum by Bradley Carl Edwards doesn't seem to think the idea for such a project is so crazy.

[I]f we want to set the stage for the large-scale and sustained exploration and colonization of the planets and begin to exploit solar power in a way that could significantly brighten the world's dimming energy outlook, the space elevator is the only technology that can deliver.

What do you think? Is this just another example of trying to create science fiction fantasies in real life? Or would such an elevator have real value?

Photo: Obayashi via CNET

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure