Thinking Tech

One small step toward a space elevator

One small step toward a space elevator

Posting in Government

A robot has taken the first small step toward the building of a real space elevator, soaring more than a half-mile above the Mojave Desert in four minutes.

A robot has taken the first small step toward the building of a real space elevator, soaring more than a half-mile above the Mojave Desert in four minutes.

Activists are over the Moon (as it were).

That feat put LaserMotive in line for a $900,000 prize from NASA, one of the first of many technological hurdles that must be crossed before a working elevator can happen.

(This picture of the LaserMotive weighing-in is from The Space Elevator Games.)

For those not up on their space geek, space elevators were first popularized by the late Arthur C. Clarke, whose novel Fountains of Paradise explored the idea of running a cable between the planet and geosynchronous orbit, then running freight up-and-down as on an elevator.

At the Space Elevator Games the LaserMotive robot was able to climb up a line dangling from a helicopter at a speed of 3.73 meters/second, powered by a laser beam tracking it from the ground. It's this "power beaming" that is the key technique on display, because an elevator will need power to climb, and any engine would add weight to the system.

Based on the results, LaserMotive says they're confident they can pass the tests necessary to win the full $2 million NASA has on offer for power beaming.

Now that they have something that can shimmy up the rope, of course, the test is making that rope strong. That looks like a job for carbon nanotubes, which appear to have a strength of 50 Million Yuri (a measure of tensile strength created just for this competition). Prizes are being offered for strands that last to 5 and 7.5 Million Yuri (MYuri).

Impossible? Boosters keep quoting the late Mr. Clarke. "New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!" We're fast approaching period two.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure