Space elevator

A space elevator is essentially a long cable extending from our planet’s surface into space with its center of mass at geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), 35,786 km in altitude. Electromagnetic vehicles traveling along the cable could serve as a mass transportation system for moving people, payloads, and power between Earth and space.

Might solar energy offer the power needed to send cars up a space elevator? Could you build one fat elevator and split it into two? Can as many as six cars travel up and down a space elevator? How strong are modern nanocarbons, and what issues do we need to be aware of to keep the carbon nanotube cables from breaking?



Those are just some of the questions that attendees at the annual Space Elevator Conference last Friday in Seattle wondered about.

“These are ideas we want to hear and we want people to follow-up on,” said Bryan Laubscher, one of the leading space elevator enthusiasts and principle at Odysseus Technologies, a company working on high-strength materials.

Similar to past years at the conference, Laubscher’s introductory talk spilled into a general brainstorming session where attendees discussed possible solutions to problems that dog the development of a space elevator.

The general idea of a space elevator, imagined first by scientists but popularized in science fiction, involves stretching a ribbon, probably made out of carbon nanotubes, from Earth into space. Elevator cars would travel up and down the ribbon. While it would cost perhaps US$18 billion to build a space elevator, carrying items into space would be far cheaper via an elevator than it is using current rocket technology, Laubscher said.



Still, there are many issues that still need to be studied. One attendee asked about the operational costs once a space elevator is built. “It’s been nine years we’ve been looking for someone” to study that, Laubscher said.

“We try not to be narrow-minded and say it won’t happen for 150 years,” stated one NASA program manager. We’ll just take the stairs, thanks.

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