Forget robots on Mars -- how about an elevator to space?

Aug 24, 2012

It might seem like a space-age fantasy, but there will be a lot of a serious talk in Seattle this weekend about a “space elevator.”

You might think of it as a space railroad. In theory, the technology could make going into orbit as cheap and easy as buying a first-class airline ticket.

The idea calls for a cable that stretches from a spot on the equator out to an anchor orbiting thousands of miles in space. On that cable, a remote-controlled cabin or elevator zips up and down.

“That thing just takes off. Zoom – it just accelerates up that cable … really fast," says David Horn, organizer for America’s tenth annual space elevator meeting, held this weekend at the Museum of Flight. A few years ago, a company from Kent tested a model elevator, using a cable that went from the ground to a helicopter, hovering a kilometer above the ground.

“You could barely see it, and you couldn’t even hear it up that high. And there was just this cable was disappearing … so it gave you an idea of what this would look like in the future. You would see a cable start up, and then you couldn’t really see it any more.”

Nearly all the Space Elevator Conference meetings have been in Redmond or Seattle. Microsoft is a main sponsor, along with the International Space Elevator Consortium, and some key volunteers live in the area.

This animation shows one of the leading ideas for how it would work

The concept of a space elevator has been around for decades. The physics is all worked out. They’re already testing ways to propel it from Earth into the sky (the test using the helicopter was to demonstrate how well a high-powered laser could beam energy to the robotic elevator cabin).

Inventing a magical fiber

But it’s stymied by one simple problem – the cable itself. It has to be as light as a feather and strong as steel, or it’ll fall down. People have ideas for this – using carbon nanotechnology. But nobody has been able to make carbon nanotubes into a cable.

“I feel absolutely confident that this material is going to be developed,” says Michael Laine, who spent much of the past decade investing nearly $2 million of his own money into a space elevator company called Liftport. It could be next year, or it could be in 50 years, he says.

“I made the mistake about trying to put a timeline on it, and you cant do that. You cant forecast a breakthrough.”

Why the moon might be better for an elevator

Laine has resurrected Liftport, and he and his buddies have a new idea – build a space elevator on the moon. It could use existing Kevlar or Xylon, because the moon’s gravity is so much weaker. 

They say it would make it landing on the moon about as easy as putting a satellite into orbit today. The same rockets that routinely put satellites into orbit could instead just dock to the elevator, unload their cargo, and it would swoop over to the moon.

If that happened, Laine predicts you could have astronauts on the moon every month, from every country that launches satellites.

Liftport is still more of an idea than a company. Laine’s trying to raise $8,000 online through Kickstarter.

The space elevator meeting, at the Museum of Flight, includes family events for the public on Saturday.

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