Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Space elevators are go!

A cable anchored in the Pacific Ocean and reaching into space using a laser to power payloads, is an idea fast becoming a reality

DPA , Washington

After more than 100 years as an outlandish vision, the idea of a space elevator reaching 100,000km into the heavens is, well, inching toward credence.

Scientists are meeting in Washington this week to discuss the real potential for a project whose single most enthusiastic promoter, Bradley Edwards, has the backing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Institute for Advanced Concepts and other respected space outfits.

Edwards, a physicist, is convinced that an umbilical cord connecting a platform in the Pacific Ocean to goings-on in outer space will be a reality in 10 to 15 years, and a growing battery of the scientific community thinks so, too. Dozens of scientists are presenting their research at the conference.

"I'm convinced that the space elevator is practical and doable," he told the Internet service "In 12 years, we could be launching tonnes of payload every three days, at just a little over a couple hundred dollars a pound."

Yesterday, the third annual gathering of scientists and economists were brainstorming the idea and were to conclude their business at a hotel located appropriately enough just a stone's throw from the Air and Space Museum on Washington's green park-like mall.

The elevator calls for a ribbon-like cable, spun like rope from a new marvel of modern science, the carbon nanotube, to provide the "highway" that would be used to transport building materials and engine parts into outer space and transmit energy back to Earth from solar panels mounted along its length.


Poorer countries would be able to place satellites into orbit. Satellites already orbiting could be repaired and not always replaced with new ones. Even extraterrestrial settlements and space observatories would become possible, Edwards says.

"In 15 years we could have a dozen cables running full steam putting 50 tonnes in space every day ... including upper middle class individuals wanting a joyride into space," Edwards told

Edwards estimates that building the project would cost US$8 billion, but would reduce transport costs from the US$10,000 to US$40,000 it now costs to send 0.5kg into space to about US$100. The price would fall because expensive and dangerous rocket launches would become a thing of the past.

The idea flabbergasts with boldness: Build a huge platform about 1,600km west of the Galapagos Islands to serve as the anchor; spin 100,000km of tough ribbon from the carbon nanotubes; start sending payloads into space along the rope.

Much of the success depends on the nanotubes, which are tiny tubes of rolled up sheets of carbon hexagons about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair but 100 times stronger than steel. First developed in 1991, carbon nanotubes are just now being produced in enough quantity to serve industry, not just research.

rope to the stars

The bands would be held taut by the Earth's gravity on one end and the centrifugal force generated by the rotating planet on the other.

Edwards has a definite schedule: The first flat "rope" would be only 5cm broad and thinner than a piece of paper. Over the following two and a half years, the band would be spun to 1m wide, making it stable enough to transport 14 tonnes at a time.

The space dreamer even has a solution for propelling the space elevator. Because solar cells are not efficient enough, and nuclear technology is too heavy, he has hit upon the idea of a large laser to push the payloads into space.

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