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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Scientists Design Giant Elevator to the Stars

lego spaceman
Image: Splorp

Written by new contributor Cole Hendricks

Since time immemorial, we have imagined what it would be like to climb to the heavens. With the advent of modern rocketry, a few brave souls, and many more brave robots, have managed to slip the surly bonds of Earth.

But what if, instead of an expensive and perilous ship that only a few could find passage on, we built a bridge to the stars that anyone could cross. Imagine that, instead of having to strap yourself to thousands of tons of rocket fuel, getting into orbit was a simple as boarding a train, albeit a train that goes straight up for over 100,00km (62,000 miles) and happens to be by far the most ambitious structure humanity has ever imagined creating, but a train nevertheless. For the last several decades, this is exactly what many scientists, engineers and futurists have been not only imagining but designing and even, to a certain extent, testing.

space elevator
Image: Superm401

The first complete description of the possibility of a modern tower of Babel is attributed to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a nearly deaf Russian rocket scientist who is considered by many to be not only the progenitor of the idea of a space elevator or as he called it, the ‘heavenly funicular’ but also the father of the entire field of manned space-flight.

In his 1895 paper, ‘Day-Dreams of Heaven and Earth’, he wrote regarding his Funicular:

“As one went up such a tower, gravity would decrease steadily, without changing direction; at a distance of 36000 km, it would be completely annihilated, and then it would be again detected . . . but its direction would be reversed, so that a person would have his head turned towards the earth…”

nasa image
Image: NASA

Since the publication of Tsiolkovsky’s ideas, the concept was generally accepted as a fascinating thought but an engineering impossibility. No known material was strong enough to withstand the astronomical forces that such a structure would be exposed to. However, as material science has progressed enormously even to the point that we are able to build custom molecules and materials on an atom by atom basis, and particularly with the discover of the immense strength of fullerene carbon nanotubes, the difference between what we know how to do today, and what we would need to know in order to build the Heavenly Funicular, are small enough that engineers and scientists and governments around the world are taking a serious second look at what it would take to build a train to space.

Space Lift
Image: Superm401

The main reason that a space elevator is so compelling is the dramatic reduction in energy costs it would provide. It currently costs about $20,000 USD to put 1 kilogram into orbit, a space elevator could lower that cost down to an estimated $250/kg essentially opening the door to space wide open. Understanding this value, one nation has even taken the very recent step of claiming that it will build a space elevator and is setting aside a significant amount of money to do so. The Japanese government, has very recently stated that they are budgeting $9 Billion USD towards a concrete proposal to overcome the theoretical obstacles to elevator construction and eventually begin the assembly of the 100,000 kilometer tall device. This announcement is highly significant in that many experts estimate that a functioning space elevator with a budget of $10-$15 billion could be completed in as little as 12 years. The Japanese have scheduled a conference in November 2008, bringing together experts from around the world to further develop their plans for an elevator to the stars.