Friday, September 7, 2012

BIG IDEA: The Space Elevator

NASA Space Elevator conceptOne of my favorite theoretical ideas out there on the collective drawing board right now is the space elevator, and it was back in the news this week. Scientific American reported on the ISEC -- that's the International Space Elevator Conference -- which just took place in Seattle, and other happenings that are afoot in the realm of this science-fiction-to-science-fact idea.

Of the amazing breakthroughs that have defined human space travel and the countless innovations NASA has given us, what's never changed is the method of overcoming Earth's gravity and getting stuff into space: Rockets. But rockets are still phenomenally expensive and inefficient, since so much of the weight they have to move upon launch is their own (heavy and again, very expensive) fuel. Enter the space elevator.

Space Elevator distance
By attaching a long (estimated between 22,000- and 62,000-mile) tether to the Earth's surface near the equator and a counter-balance on the other end way out in space, we could transport cargo beyond the Earth's atmosphere without the need of rockets. The infrastructure cost is huge, but imagine the stuff we could build out in space if it were easy and inexpensive to get the materials up there. Visions of lunar colonies and actual space shuttles ferrying materials and supplies back and forth from the elevator terminal and the moon get the imagination working and suggest countless possibilities.

But this awesome idea remains science fiction at the moment because we don't have any materials strong enough and light enough to support their own weight at that length.

NASA explored this idea seriously starting in 2000, and Michael Laine, one of the people involved on the project, has persisted in his quest to see the space elevator become a reality. His company, LiftPort, has raised over $60,000 on Kickstarter to get their doors open and is discussed in the Scientific American article. On the horizon for them are plans to build a lunar elevator with existing technology in order to pave the way for the eventual Earth-based elevator, which they believe can be constructed using carbon fiber nanotubes that will be climbed by cargo-carrying robots (which you can name, as a Kickstarter reward).

Well, here's hoping.

(And if you're planning on pitching in to name the robot, my vote goes for "Gort." He's my favorite.)