Shari Vialpando/AP
Members of the Max-Born school in
Recklinghausen, Germany, conduct last
minute adjustments to their space
elevator at the second annual X Prize Cup.

Broomstick Prototype Gives Boost to Space Elevator Project

January 07, 2009 02:52 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
An engineer says that his new model may hold the key to one of science’s most ambitious projects: an elevator that could propel people and cargo into outer space.

New Power Source Suggested for Space Elevator

Scientists say that someday, an elevatorlike structure that could be lifted into space riding on a very long cable could lead to cheaper space missions and great advances in space tourism. But they have yet to solve key technical challenges, such as what power source would propel the elevator up the cable.

At a space elevator conference in December, Age-Raymond Riise of the European Space Agency demonstrated a model using an electric sander and a broomstick in place of a cable to suggest that mechanical power could be the answer.

The sander created a rhythmic vibration at the bottom of the broomstick that demonstrated Riise’s idea that, by creating a physical jerk of the cable at its bottom, the vibration would allow the elevator to move upward against gravity. Riise’s approach could create a bumpy ride for its passengers, but he says it is a viable concept.

“It would be possible to make a suspension system that completely decouples the cabin where the passengers are,” he said to BBC News. “For them it would be a linear movement with very little disturbance.”

Background: The Great Glass Elevator

The concept of the space elevator was first imagined by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895. It has captured the imaginations of many ever since, including science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who described a space elevator in his novel “Fountains of Paradise.”

But the project will remain in the realm of fiction until scientists figure out how to overcome considerable technical challenges. The elevator would require that a cable at least 36,000 km long stretch from its anchor on the Earth’s surface to a satellite docking station orbiting in space that would serve as a balancing counterweight. The cable would be kept in place by the centripetal force that is created when an object moves in orbit.

Although it has been suggested that advanced materials such as carbon nanotubes could be used to build the cables, scientists are still debating whether a device of the requisite scale and strength could be produced.

If it works, the rewards could be great, as it has been proposed that the elevator could be used for varied purposes such as disposing of nuclear waste or placing solar panels in space to power buildings on Earth. Ted Semon, a retired software engineer who runs The Space Elevator Blog, believes that the device could pave the way for humanity to explore and colonize places outside the Earth.

Opinion & Analysis: “Will the Space Elevator Rise?”

Optimists say that it’s only a matter of time before a space elevator is built. Bradley Edwards, president of Black Line Ascension and a pioneer of the space elevator movement, predicts that one will be built in less than 50 years time, provided that $7–10 billion can be raised for the project. “It’s really a cost issue,” he told me. “If you could get the money, you could have one up in probably 12 years, 15 years,” he said to MSNBC.

But others say that the project’s technical and safety challenges are too daunting. “We don’t believe in the space elevator,” said Tom Nugent, project manager for Seattle-based LaserMove, to MSNBC. But he says that attempts to create one provide “a useful way to demonstrate our laser power-beaming technology.

The New Scientist reported in March 2008 on a controversial study that posited that a space elevator would require built-in thrusters to protect the device against dangerous vibrations.

Reference: “How Space Elevators Will Work”

A space elevator design made out of carbon nanotubes composite ribbon is described by HowStuffWorks, which also has available diagrams and a space elevator image gallery. PBS’s NovaScienceNOW has a video that discusses how one would work.

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