Sunday, May 14, 2006

Space elevator quickens reach to Mars

An area of technological advance with some exciting recent results is the space elevator industry. As the X Prize ignited interest in commercial space travel and the jet taxi industry is taking off, the Spaceward Foundation is inciting development of the space elevator and several organizations, including the LiftPort Group, are starting to show some promising results.

As prizes are now de rigueur for competitive technology development (X Prize, Methuselah Mouse Prize, DARPA Grand Challenge, etc.), the Spaceward Foundation has been extending the space elevator development in conjunction with NASA with the Centennial Challenges. In 2005, teams designed climbers to mount a 200 foot tether powered by laser. In the fall of 2006, at the X Prize Games in New Mexico, space elevator innovators will be competing in new tether design (which has a multiplicity of terrestrial civil engineering applications) as well.

The space elevator concept became technically feasible with the advent of carbon nanotubes as a material for tethers that will not snap under it's own weight. Space elevators could replace or supplement space shuttle and other rocket launch of satellites, missions and materials into space at a fraction of the cost. The current estimated cost is $10 billion to put the 62,000 mile long ribbon and 1500 ton space elevator fully in place; this translates to the bargain price of $2-$3 per ton to lift cargo into space.

In addition to improving existing applications, the space elevator can engender a host of new applications such as allowing the raising and positioning of solar energy collectors that beam the energy back to Earth (a concept initially suggested by Gerard O'Neill). Perhaps one of the most interesting and impactful new developments could be the Mars Express; once orbital, once a day, loads could be pushed off in a trajectory towards Mars. A similar space elevator on Mars (working offside the equatorial moon Phobos), could launch daily loads Earthward.


Brian Dunbar said...

several organizations, including the LiftPort Group, are starting to show some promising results.

Thanks, Melanie. It's hard, sometimes, to see how we're doing from the inside. Of course there are miles to go and many misteps we could make.

Bob Munck said...

I'm not sure about daily Mars launches, unless you're willing to have some of your packages take several decades to arrive at their destination. Sometimes the planets just aren't in the right positions.

On the other hand, SEs at Earth and Mars can combine with the Mars Cycler idea to give you extremely inexpensive mass transit there and back. Add a rotovator that sets you down and picks you up from the summit of Mons Olympus, and large-scale colonization starts looking possible.

Michael Anissimov said...

The space elevator is an okay idea, but the space pier is actually a less expensive and more convenient approach to the same goal:

I recently submitted an article to, "what is a space pier?" for a summary of the idea: