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Space Elevator: Boon or Boondoggle?

Japan has announced that their long-term space development plans now include building a space-elevator.

The JSEA or Japanese Space Elevator Association believes it can build one for about 1 trillion yen or a little less than 10 billion US dollars.

So is this worth even attempting or is it way too premature for such a Sci-Fi concept?

A space elevator is kind of like a normal elevator only without any building around it and about 11 million times taller.


This elevator on steroids would have special cables that have one end tethered to the earth and the other end attached to a weight like a satellite beyond geosynchronous orbit over 22,000 miles away. Attached to the cable would be cargo climbers that can climb the cable using externally generated power.

This is not a new idea. It was 1st proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895 after pondering the Eiifel tower. In the 1960’s another Russian and 4 Americans all started seriously looking at this again.

It entered a broader cultural awareness thru the publications of Science Fiction books like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Foundations of Paradise” which prominently showcased these devices.

So why take on this futuristic, seemingly impossible, expensive, engineering mega-project?

2 reasons…..

Number 1–It’s feasible, in my opinion
Number 2–whoever builds this first…owns space…Game over.
Think about it.
It costs about 10,000 US dollars to put a pound of anything into space.
Using a space elevator, this cost could decrease 100 times or more. Imagine $100 to put a pound in orbit. That’s a literal game-changer.

Shuichi One, Chairman of the JSEA said: “Just tlike traveling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space”

It’s more dramatic than that though. The barriers for exploiting space would finally drop allowing us to actually do all those things we’ve talked about or imagined in science fiction movies like:

construct space habitats
zero-G manufacturing facilities
solar power collectors in space
space tourism
removal of man-made debris from Earth orbit

Anyone who wants to put anything into space would go through the country or multinational or consortium that builds one of these babies first. Also, if you build the first one, then you can use it to build the second and third ones faster and more cheaply than anyone else. The more that are built, the cheaper it is to put stuff in space.

  “The space elevator could be a catalytic step in our history,”

 

So Says Bradley C. Edwards, astrophysicist and Director of Research for the Institute for Scientific Research. If there’s one go-to guy for space elevators it’s this guy. He worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, researching advanced space technologies for 11 years. He spent 2 years working for NASA’s institute for Advanced Concepts on a $500,000 study on the space elevator concept.

“It’s the most detailed proposal I have seen so far. I was delighted with the simplicity of it,” says David Smitherman, technical manager of the advanced projects office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “A lot of us feel that it’s worth pursuing.”

In his travels, Bradley makes many 5 hour-long detailed presentations at places like the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Edwards is fond of saying that the room is packed because people have been saying, ‘Let’s go heckle this guy about the space elevator,’” “They say to me, ‘You didn’t think about this. You forgot about that,’ and I say, ‘Yes, we covered that,’ and I show them. At the end, they come up, give me their cards, and ask if they can help.”

So what are some of these objections? Is this really feasible within our lifetimes?

The biggest objection and the one most often mentioned for decades has been the strength of the cable itself. Once it was realized that the cable would have to be far far stronger than steel, it pretty much ended much of the serious discussion.

But in the 1991 Sumio Iijima of Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, discovered a little something called nanotubes. These incredibly strong cylindrical carbon atoms constructions are so strong that if a pure thread was made with a diameter like sewing thread, it could lift a car.

Steady progress has been made in not only the strength of the carbon nanotubes but also the lengths they’ve been able to make, It seems to many that we could soon make the lengths necessary for a space elevator. Japan is one of the global leaders in materials production; in fact their textile industry is now keenly focused on being able to produce the cable that would be needed for this project.

What about space debris colliding with the cable? (actually, the many strands of nanotube lines would be more analogous to ribbon than cable).

Edwards thinks that making the earth base movable would help prevent that from happening. We could also make the ribbon wider in low Earth orbit, where most of the debris orbits and regularly patch small gashes.

Other people have questioned the viability of probably the 2nd most complicated aspect of the space elevator…the elevator unit itself. In Edward’s plan, photovoltaic cells on the bottom of these cargo climbers would be energized by ground lasers. Still, we’re talking about 2.4 megawatts of power for each 20-ton climber. Can that much power be beamed? “Yes, absolutely,” says Neville Marzwell, advanced concepts and technology innovation manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “…the technology has made quantum jumps in the last 20 years.” In fact, he says that tests have shown it is possible to beam “five times as much power as the space elevator would need.”

As cool as that is I still wish people wouldn’t use the word “quantum” in that way.

What about more mundane potential problems like corrosion from atomic oxygen in the upper atmosphere? This apparently isn’t a deal-killer either. All that’s needed is a coating, a few microns thick, of gold or platinum…next…

What about terrorists? Wouldn’t the elevator be a prime target?

It probably would be a target but if it’s anchored in equatorial pacific waters it would be nigh impossible to sneak up on it. Military protection I’m sure would be quite considerable considering the investment and inherent value of such a thing.

One of the most common concerns I’ve come across involves the ribbon falling and devastating the surface of the earth. That would be a lot of falling stuff after all.

First of all, it’s not like you’d have tens of thousands of miles of cables falling onto the earth. Much of it would stay in space or burn up in our atmosphere. Considering that this stuff would probably weigh 26 pounds per mile, the rest would float down at the speed of a falling newspaper.

The bottom line then is that it seems the idea of a Space Elevator, after over 100 years, has finally come into its own. It should be noted that no laws of physics were broken in the planning of the space elevator.  The technological hurdles are great but they seem surmountable in the short-term. The benefits could be so bountiful to those that first build one that I believe we should commit ourselves to this project like Japan or even with them.

19 comments to Space Elevator: Boon or Boondoggle?

  • Drum Billet

    That’s pretty cool, but the ‘Space Fountain’ is cooler:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_fountain

  • Traveler

    How much mass needs to hang on the upper end, and how much will this elevator be able to lift?

  • John Powell

    $10 billion might be the estimated cost of engineering and building the elevator, but its going to take a lot more than that to develop the technology to make nanotube cables in sufficient length, strength and quantity.

    Fortunately this material would be revolutionary in just about all forms of construction from car bodies to bridges.

  • psiloiordinary

    Game changer it would definitely be. Do I correctly recall that in Cosmos Sagan used the existence of such an elevator as a key determinant of the the level of a civilisation in his Encyclopaedia Galactica?

    - – -

    $10b versus $700b for some dodgy bank deals – seems like a bargain to me.

  • JazzMac251

    10B isn’t so much. How much has that travesty of a space station cost?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station#NASA

  • RickK

    I wonder if they dealt with the implications of the Kessler Syndrome.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_Syndrome

    Whatever the obstacles, I sincerely hope the Japanese keep focused on the goal and actually do this. Lowering the cost of space travel is vital to our long-term viability.

    By the way, one would think that not only could a tether take objects into space, but could also bring energy down from space (though I suppose putting enough metal into the cable to carry a useful amount of electricity would make it too heavy.)

  • Shnakepup

    “First of all, it’s not like you’d have tens of thousands of miles of cables falling onto the earth. Much of it would stay in space or burn up in our atmosphere. Considering that this stuff would probably weigh 26 pounds per mile, the rest would float down at the speed of a falling newspaper.”

    What??? So Kim Stanley Robinson was WRONG?

    (who gets that reference? anybody? anybody?)

  • alexjbutterfield

    But if they are talking about beaming energy up to the elevator, then they could probably beam energy down to the elevator or even to the ground.

  • alexjbutterfield

    LOL – I was about to write:

    Bob, if you want to go crazy and talk about more stuff that this could enable I’d love to read it. Then I realised I hadn’t actually read the author – just assumed it was Bob.

    Anyway that still stands.

    Where can I hear more about the possibilities this offers – its an idea i find really exciting.

    I hope this happens in our lifetime.

    The Earth could end up looking like a pin cushion. (although I gather that it has to be tethered at the equator)

    Do you expect mass protest to such a skyline altering structure by environmentalists?

    How big around/wide would this carbon nano tube ribbon be?

    $10b – if I had 10b I’d buy one. bargain.

  • wastrel

    “This elevator on steroids would have special cables that have one end tethered to the earth and the other end attached to a weight like a satellite beyond geosynchronous orbit over 22,000 miles away.”

    This confuses me slightly. Wouldn’t the satellite have to be in geosynchronous rather than beyond it in order to stay inline with the base?

  • alexjbutterfield

    shouldn’t it be geostationary orbit, even. ie. relative to the position on earth at all times. geosynchronous just passes over each day at the same time.

    here’s an image that shows it above geosynchronous though.

    http://priceoffreedom.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/space_elevator_structural_d.jpg

    anyone care to explain where it is and why?

  • I think geostationary is the word we’re looking for. I remember this idea coming up a while back. They were planning to drag the tether through the atmosphere to generate power. And ff I recall correctly, there was even a contest as to who could build the first space tether. But nobody even came close. The air resistance on the earth end of the cable alone dashed any hopes of building one.

    I sure hope they make some headway with this. Luckily for us, Japan doesn’t spend billions of dollars on a military and can afford to move humanity in a forward direction. Best of luck to them!

  • wb4

    The satellite has to be beyond geosynchronous orbit because it’s the centripetal pull of the satellite away from Earth that holds the elevator up. If it were in geosynchronous orbit, then there would be no pull away from Earth, and the weight of the cable would pull it down.

  • petros

    Sigh.

    Just one fifth of the money the US has spent on squishing Iraq to make the world a poorer place, would have funded 100 such space elevators. Which, one muses, would have been the better investment?

  • Steve Page

    alexjbutterfield wrote:
    The Earth could end up looking like a pin cushion.

    Well, it is full of pricks. Sorry, I’ll get my coat.

    Great piece, Bob. Michio Kaku has mentioned this in his BBC series, “Visions of the future” and its companion book, “Physics of the impossible”, and it’s amazing that it may be happening within our lifetimes. As you said, the financial lure of “owning space” may be just the incentive necessary to make it happen.

  • RickK

    I didn’t realize in my earlier post, but carbon nanotubes conduct electricity. I’m surprised we even have to mess around with lasers – the tether itself could carry current, or even produce it! A wire that big will build up some significant potential all by itself.

    It’s so much fun when science fiction comes true.

  • I love the future. Let’s hope Japan throw billions of $ at this.

  • I’m ready to buy a ticket to ride an elevator to a hotel in space but I’m not sure that I can afford to tip the bellhop…

    In any case, I’m more enthusiastic about this technology than I was a couple of years ago though I wonder if Sony will jump in and try to develop their own nano-tube ribbon standard rather than join the consortium…

  • LittleGreenMan

    I am sure they have addressed all potential problems, but I wonder how they solved these two. First, a long line like this would conduct large currents from the upper atmosphere down to the surface. They would have to limit this some how. Second, any electrical storm going overhead is bound to strike this convenient lightning rod, and fry it.
    10B sounds like an overly optimistic price, but it would be worth it at ten times the cost.

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