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?
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
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.