The Future of Space: A Space Elevator by 2050?

space_elevatorIn the ongoing effort to ensure humanity has a future offworld, it seems that another major company has thrown its hat into the ring. This time, its the Japanese construction giant Obayashi that’s declared its interest in building a Space Elevator, a feat which it plans to have it up and running by the year 2050. If successful, it would make space travel easier and more accessible, and revolutionize the world economy.

This is just the latest proposal to build an elevator in the coming decades, using both existing and emerging technology. Obayashi’s plan calls for a tether that will reach 96,000 kilometers into space, with robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors that will carry people and cargo to a newly-built space station. The estimated travel time will take 7 days, and will cost a fraction of what it currently takes to bring people to the ISS using rockets.

space_elevator_liftThe company said the fantasy can now become a reality because of the development of carbon nanotechnology. As Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, explained:

The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it’s possible. Right now we can’t make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more… we think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it.

Once considered the realm of science fiction, the concept is fast becoming a possibility. A major international study in 2012 concluded the space elevator was feasible, but best achieved with international co-operation. Since that time, Universities all over Japan have been working on the engineering problems, and every year they hold competitions to share their suggestions and learn from each other.

space_elevator3Experts have claimed the space elevator could signal the end of Earth-based rockets which are hugely expensive and dangerous. Compared to space shuttles, which cost about $22,000 per kilogram to take cargo into space, the Space Elevator can do it for around $200. It’s also believed that having one operational could help solve the world’s power problems by delivering huge amounts of solar power. It would also be a boon for space tourism.

Constructing the Space Elevator would allow small rockets to be housed and launched from stations in space without the need for massive amounts of fuel required to break the Earth’s gravitational pull. Obayashi is working on cars that will carry 30 people up the elevator, so it may not be too long before the Moon is the next must-see tourist destination. They are joined by a team at Kanagawa University that have been working on robotic cars or climbers.

graphene_ribbonsAnd one of the greatest issues – the development of a tether that can withstand the weight and tension of stresses of reaching into orbit – may be closer to being solved than previously thought. While the development of carbon nanotubes has certainly been a shot in the arm for those contemplating the space elevator’s tether, this material is not quite strong enough to do the job itself.

Luckily, a team working out of Penn State University have created something that just might. Led by chemistry professor John Badding, the team has created a “diamond nanothread” – a thread composed of carbon atoms that measures one-twenty-thousands the diameter of a single strand of human hair, and which may prove to be the strongest man-made material in the universe.

diamond_nanothreadAt the heart of the thread is a never-before-seen structure resembling the hexagonal rings of bonded carbon atoms that make up diamonds, the hardest known mineral in existence. That makes these nanothreads potentially stronger and more resilient than the most advanced carbon nanotubes, which are similar super-durable and super-light structures composed of rolled up, one atom-thick sheets of carbon called graphene.

Graphene and carbon nanotubes are already ushering in stunning advancements in the fields of electronics, energy storage and even medicine. This new discovery of diamond nanothreads, if they prove to be stronger than existing materials, could accelerate this process even further and revolutionize the development of electronics vehicles, batteries, touchscreens, solar cells, and nanocomposities.

space_elevator2But by far the most ambitious possibility offered is that of a durable cable that could send humans to space without the need of rockets. As John Badding said in a statement:

One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a ‘space elevator’ which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea,

At this juncture, and given the immense cost and international commitment required to built it, 2050 seems like a reasonable estimate for creating a Space Elevator. However, other groups hope to see this goal become a reality sooner. The  International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) for example, thinks one could be built by 2035 using existing technology. And several assessments indicate that a Lunar Elevator would be far more feasible in the meantime.

Come what may, it is clear that the future of space exploration will require us to think bigger and bolder if we’re going to secure our future as a “space-faring” race. And be sure to check out these videos from Penn State and the Obayashi Corp:

John Badding and the Nanodiamond Thread:

Obayashi and the 2050 Space Elevator:


News from Space: Space Elevator by 2035!

space_elevator2Imagine if you will a long tether made of super-tensile materials, running 100,000 km from the Earth and reaching into geostationary orbit. Now imagine that this tether is a means of shipping people and supplies into orbit, forever removing the need for rockets and shuttles going into space. For decades, scientists and futurists have been dreaming about the day when a “Space Elevator” would be possible; and according to a recent study, it could become a reality by 2035.

The report was launched by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), a 350-page report that lays out a detailed case for a space elevator. At the center of it that will reach beyond geostationary orbit and held taught by an anchor weighing roughly two million kilograms (2204 tons). Sending payloads up this backbone could fundamentally change the human relationship with space, with the equivalent of a space launch happening almost daily.

space_elevatorThe central argument of the paper — that we should build a space elevator as soon as possible — is supported by a detailed accounting of the challenges associated with doing so. The possible pay-off is as simple: a space elevator could bring the cost-per-kilogram of launch to geostationary orbit from $20,000 to as little as $500. Not only would be it useful for deploying satellites, it would also be far enough up Earth’s gravity well to be able to use it for long-range missions.

This could include the long-awaited mission to Mars, where a shuttle would push off from the top and then making multiple loops around the Earth before setting off for the Red Planet. This would cut huge fractions off the fuel budget, and would also make setting up a base on the Moon (or Mars) a relatively trivial affair. Currently, governments and corporations spend billions putting satellites into space, but a space elevator could pay for itself and ensure cheaper access down the line.

terraforming-mars2The report lays out a number of technological impediments to a space elevator, but by far the most important is the tether itself. Current materials science has yet to provide a material with the strength, flexibility, and density needed for its construction. Tethers from the EU and Japan are beginning to push the 100-kilometer mark, are still a long way off orbital altitude, and the materials for existing tethers will not allow much additional length.

Projecting current research in carbon nanotubes and similar technologies, the IAA estimates that a pilot project could plausibly deliver packages to an altitude of 1000 kilometers (621 miles) as soon as 2025. With continued research and the help of a successful LEO (low Earth orbit, i.e. between 100 and 1200 miles) elevator, they predict a 100,000-kilometer (62,137-mile) successor will stretch well past geosynchronous orbit just a decade after that.

carbon-nanotubeThe proposed design is really quite simple, with a sea platform (or super-ship) anchoring the tether to the Earth while a counterweight sits at the other end, keeping the system taught through centripetal force. For that anchor, the report argues that a nascent space elevator should be stabilized first with a big ball of garbage – one composed of retired satellites, space debris, and the cast-off machinery used to build the elevator’s own earliest stages.

To keep weight down for the climbers (the elevator cars), this report imagines them as metal skeletons strung with meshes of carbon nanotubes. Each car would use a two-stage power structure to ascend, likely beginning with power from ground- or satellite-based lasers, and then the climber’s own solar array. The IAA hopes for a seven-day climb from the base to GEO — slow, but still superior and far cheaper than the rockets that are used today.

Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp
Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp

One thing that is an absolute must, according to the report, is international cooperation. This is crucial not only for the sake of financing the elevator’s construction, but maintaining its neutrality. In terms of placement, IAA staunchly maintains that a space elevator would be too precious a resource to be built within the territory of any particular nation-state. Though every government would certainly love a space elevator of their very own, cost considerations will likely make that impossible in the near-term.

By virtue of its physical size, a space elevator will stretch through multiple conflicting legal zones, from the high seas to the “territorial sky” to the “international sky” to outer space itself, presenting numerous legal and political challenges. Attacks by terrorists or enemies in war are also a major concern, requiring that it be defended and monitored at all levels. And despite being a stateless project, it would require a state’s assets to maintain, likely by the UN or some new autonomous body.

space_elevator1In 2003, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that we will build a space elevator 10 years after they stop laughing. Though his timeline may have been off, as if often the case – for example, we didn’t have deep space missions or AIs by 2001 – sentiments were bang on. The concept of a space elevator is taken seriously at NASA these days, as it eyes the concept as a potential solution for both shrinking budgets and growing public expectations.

Space is quickly becoming a bottleneck in the timeline of human technological advancement. From mega-telescopes and surveillance nets to space mining operations and global high-speed internet coverage, most of our biggest upcoming projects will require better access to space than our current methods can provide for. And in addition to providing for that support, this plans highlights exactly how much further progress in space depends on global cooperation.