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NASA Still Wants Space Elevator 394

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the buying-a-stairway-to-heaven dept.
Jerry Smith writes "The Guardian reports 'Each of the groups that will gather in New Mexico is competing to win a NASA prize set up to encourage entrepreneurs to start development work on the technology needed to create a space elevator.' It still might take a while though, progress is slow, so slow."
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NASA Still Wants Space Elevator

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  • What happens (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ClaraBow (212734) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @11:55AM (#16032829)
    when a plane runs into the elevator? It only takes one crazy pilot.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      How would the stress of a plane hitting it compare to the stress of just being there in the first place and not breaking under its own weight?

      The debates purely academic of course - NEVER GONNA HAPPEN.
    • Re:What happens (Score:5, Interesting)

      by legoburner (702695) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:03PM (#16032862) Homepage Journal
      Since carbon nanotubes are so strong, I would assume it would be sheared apart (see jet crashing into concrete [youtube.com].)
      • Re:What happens (Score:5, Interesting)

        by VoidEngineer (633446) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:51PM (#16033066)
        it depends on what stage of construction the space elevator is at. the long term goal would be to build additional layers onto the elevator until it's a megastructure in every sense of the word, and it would be many times the diameter of a skyscraper. during the first 50 years or so, it would undoubtably fall apart if an airplane ran into it. after sufficient mass is added, even a 747 shouldn't really affect (in the same sense that airplanes occassionally fly into skyscrappers without knocking them down, ala 9/11...)
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Wait, I thought they are building a "stairway"?

      I'm having bad high school flashbacks; desperately seeking a partner for the last dance.
    • It only takes one crazy pilot.

      Very doubtful. More likely it was an accident or a suicide bomber (who are not crazy, just devoted).

      The simple answer to this, is to place it someplace where lots of planes do not fly. A Pacific ocean atoll comes to mind.

      • by bcmm (768152)
        Doesn't it have to be on the equator?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by tomhudson (43916)

        "The simple answer to this, is to place it someplace where lots of planes do not fly. A Pacific ocean atoll comes to mind."

        So how do you get crew, workers, and passengers in and out? Submarine? Cruise ship?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          We are talking about a space elevator here, something thats so far beyond our current capabilities its like the Wright Brothers talking about building a 747 (in both cases the concepts and capabilities exist, but in severe infancy). When we have the capability to actually build one of these things, a thousand mile multilane undersea highway or mass transit system will be childs play.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:15PM (#16032906)
      when a plane runs into the elevator? It only takes one crazy pilot.

      That's where the frickin' laser beams come in.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Gilmoure (18428)
        That's where the frickin' laser beams come in.

        With sharks attached to them!
    • Re:What happens (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jeremi (14640) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:17PM (#16032913) Homepage
      when a plane runs into the elevator? It only takes one crazy pilot


      Most likely, the cable would break, the 99.999% of the cable above the impact point would start to drift upwards, and the 0.001% of the cable below the impact point would fall harmlessly to earth. It would then be a bit of a chore to repair the cable, but not impossible. Fortunately this wouldn't happen, because the cable's base station would be located somewhere in the middle of the Pacific ocean, in the middle of a no-fly zone several thousand miles in diameter. For a crazy pilot to get to the site of the cable, they'd have do evade detection by radar for several hours, and avoid getting shot down by the SAMs or military aircraft whose sole job is to guard the cable against this sort of attack.


      Now a question for you: What happens when a plane runs into the Space Shuttle during launch? It only takes on crazy pilot.

      • The Space Shuttle is only in that part of the atmosphere for a short time, and it is only at one point. The elevator is always there, and stretches from the earth to space.
        • Re:What happens (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Jeremi (14640) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:58PM (#16033081) Homepage
          The Space Shuttle is only in that part of the atmosphere for a short time, and it is only at one point.


          Yup, and for those reasons, such a collision is extremely unlikely to occur. Just as for the reasons I stated above, a collision with a space elevator is extremely unlikely to occur.


          There are many unsolved problems to deal with before we can create a Space Elevator. Terrorism (or incompetent piloting) isn't really one of them -- except possibly as a political problem, caused by an American public which has been intimidated into losing confidence in its ability to create anything new.

      • how do you get there to go into outer space?>
      • Re:What happens (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Alaria Phrozen (975601) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:58PM (#16033086)
        I was going to pick on your math for the 99.999% thing, but that's actually decently accurate (at least according to the article). I thought satellites were much much closer to earth (600ish miles) but after a little research I found out those are the asynchronous orbit ones. For true geosynchronous orbit you need an altitude of 22,223 miles. Roughly 1/10th the distance to the moon! Space is a wee bit bigger than I thoguht ;-)

        The one thing that does seem far-fetched is the several-thousand-mile-diameter-no-fly-zone-idea... isn't that a significant portion of the earth (neighborhood of 1% of the surface area)? Maybe I'm just tired, but these differences in scale are just insanely hard to get my head around.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by MrLogic17 (233498)
        >Most likely, the cable would break, the 99.999% of the cable above the impact point would start to drift upwards,

        Umm, no. Real answer: It depends, and none of the answers are good. See also:

        http://www.mit.edu/people/gassend/spaceelevator/br eaks/index.html [mit.edu]
        • by chriso11 (254041)
          Actually - the breaking at the anchor point is the least damaging. Breaking at the counterweight is the worst (based on looking at the simulations). But a terrorist attack/plane attack is most likely to be close to the anchor point (since the counterweight is 23000miles up).

    • Or a tornado... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by shrtcircuit (936357)
      Tornado's, earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding... Mother nature probably poses a very large threat to this thing. And it isn't like you can just let it float or move it around as the need arises, it has to be firmly attached to the planet. Granted a flood doesn't threaten it much, but high winds (hurricane, tornado) could damage the strand. An earthquake could damage the foundation that keeps it there in the first place.

      And yes, an aircraft could just aim for it - though I'm sure there would be a lot of r
      • by krell (896769) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:34PM (#16032991) Journal
        "Tornado's, earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding... Mother nature probably poses a very large threat to this thing"

        History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of man. You know that once Godzilla gets a bus caught between two gargantuan fangs that he just can't pick out with his silly T-Rex claws, he's going to be looking for some good dental floss.....
      • by linguizic (806996) *
        Three words:
        unbreakable diamond fillament.
      • And it isn't like you can just let it float or move it around as the need arises, it has to be firmly attached to the planet.

        Not true, some designs call for a floating tether point, which can be moved as necessary when the need arises for the cable to dodge space debris. It may not be possible to move it quickly enough to dodge, say, a hurricane; but it need not be absolutely fixed either. On the other hand, it does need to be sufficiently massive to not get picked up out of the ocean and flung into spa

      • by grimwell (141031)
        Tornado's, earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding... Mother nature probably poses a very large threat to this thing. As opposed to space debris huddling along at 17000+ mph?

        And yes, an aircraft could just aim for it Oh, noes!!!!11 the terrorist are coming.

        I'm still waiting for a giant slingshot. Don't the same hazards apply to your slingshot?

        Success is never final and failure never fatal. It's courage that counts. --Abraham Lincoln

        We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not becaus
  • Moo (Score:5, Funny)

    by Chacham (981) * on Sunday September 03, 2006 @11:56AM (#16032832) Homepage Journal
    I know a man named Otis who invented a room,
    And his heart was filled with pride.
    I said to Mr. Otis, "What does your room do?"
    He said, "It goes from side to side."
    So I said, "Mr. Otis, if you take my advice,
    You'll be the richest man in place.
    You gotta take that room that goes from side to side,
    And make it go to outer space."

    And that was good advice, good advice.
    Good advice costs nothing, and it may win a prize.
    NASA
    offered me
    Four-hundred-thousand dollars, whee!
    For good advice.
  • 12m (Score:3, Informative)

    by Ricken (797341) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @11:57AM (#16032834)
    FTA: As New Scientist magazine reported last week, the best performing robot last year managed an ascent of only 12 metres up a cable before it stalled, while no material came close to meeting the standards needed for building a space elevator.

    Hopefully won't be too hard beating that, my mindstorm robot can do better!
  • Money is expensive, so expensive.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by maxwell demon (590494)
      Money is expensive, so expensive.

      Well, fortunately the NASA can use US Dollars, which are somewhat cheaper than Euros, or even British Pounds. :-)
    • The government just prints more money when it needs some. Simple... Ok it's not that simple, really they usually borrow it, that's why you're 8.5 trillion USD in debt.

       
  • slow, so slow (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lightyear4 (852813) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:00PM (#16032853) Homepage

    It still might take a while though, progress is slow, so slow.


    There is of course truth in that statement, especially considering the effective infancy of CNT materials science. Many gains have been made in the past 15 years or so, but it takes time...and thus the quote from the summary. We are today seemingly obsessed with instancy; however, this is to our detriment. Patience, patience!


  • by 192939495969798999 (58312) <infoNO@SPAMdevinmoore.com> on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:10PM (#16032882) Homepage Journal
    I just don't understand what would take a long time about developing a nanotube ribbon countless miles long, and then suspending it in space... what's so hard about that? I think I have enough leftover cables from old pc's to about get there, if only they were thinner.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by VoidEngineer (633446)
      the tension on the initial cable is going to be extremely high, and this is an application where microfractures of the nanotubes will introduce unacceptable points of failure. modern ropes and wires are constructed by a weaving process, of sorts, that take shorter strands and weave them together to make a longer piece. that weaving process creates micro failure points. so, not only does the space elevator project have to create a ribbon that is at least 100 miles long, it's very likely they're going to n
  • by krell (896769) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:13PM (#16032895) Journal
    If they want a space elevator, they'll have to earn it the old fashioned way: buy enough candy bars to get a golden ticket, and by all means RESIST all temptation to snack on that scrum-diddly-umptious confectionary cornucopia when touring the factory.
  • by oaklybonn (600250) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:21PM (#16032931)
    If we are some day able to create this elevator, the distance involved means it will take several days to complete a journey from ground to earth orbit.
    I have a hard enough time avoiding contact with "other people" in elevator cars -- but the real tragedy will be the music. Girl from Impenema for 72 hours straight? [wikipedia.org]
    Aaaraargh.
    The only way I could see this working is if they piped in aerosol (-)-delta9-trans-Tetrahydrocannabinol and phillip glass...
    • Girl from Impenema for 72 hours straight?

      Dude. iPod. Get with the program. :)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by VoidEngineer (633446)
      actually, slow accent is one of the goals of the space elevator. instead of the challenger and columbia accidents, imagine if the astronauts had had a big red 'emergency' button that they could have pressed which would have stoped the shuttle in mid-air, while an emergency tech crew could have sent up spare parts, or gotten the astronauts to safety? one of the design goals of the space elevator is to have sufficient tensile strength so that a shuttle car could actually *stop* and suspend on the elevator,
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ArsonSmith (13997)
      Yea, the biggest problem this faces is not the cost of making the nano tubes, but the cost to license music that will last 72 hours and not drive people nuts. Once Nasa Engineer was quoted saying "It's easy in a short elevator ride of less than a minute. Most people can handle even the worst music for that log. A ride into space will have to have good music." Of the 900 Trillion estimate for the project more than 75% is in license fees to the RIAA.
  • Jesus, why the hell not just buy one?
  • by macdaddy357 (582412) <macdaddy357@hotmail.com> on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:22PM (#16032941)
    In geostationary orbit, a LED ZEPPELIN will be holding up this STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. They will probably outsource much of the work to KASHMIR. I hope the isn't a COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN that makes the whole thing come crashing down OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY.
    • Personally, when I think of Space Elevators I think of Jacobs Ladder not Stairway to Heaven. Must be because I'm a Rush fan....
  • Just climb a rope up into space. The only trick would be to keep the anchor in orbit, less it become an Earthly anchor while you're climbing the rope.
    • The only trick would be to keep the anchor in orbit, less it become an Earthly anchor while you're climbing the rope.

      The trick is to spin the earth fast enough so the rope will be kept in space under the centrifuge force. You only have to put some sortof breaking system on the rope so you don't fly from earth. Hence the function of the rope.

  • Slow? No kidding! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:48PM (#16033054) Homepage
    Build a 40,000 km cable out of nano-parts that haven't quite been invented yet, and then stand the entire thing straight up.

    Yeah, I'm not going to hold my breath on this one.
  • by SEWilco (27983) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @12:50PM (#16033058) Journal
    though, progress is slow, so slow.
    Yup, but just keep stacking the mud bricks, and it will eventually reach up there, even if it is many cubits high.
  • Doubtful (Score:3, Informative)

    by eebra82 (907996) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @01:02PM (#16033096) Homepage
    I doubt we will ever see a space elevator. Not only is it incredibly difficult to create. The article clearly states that this technology is nowhere near and it would probably take at least a decade to create, if not two. By the time this is actually a reality - which is unlikely going to happen within 30 years - we will probably have way more efficient space travels as even commercial space tourism has started to kick in as well.

    Point is, it would probably not take long before such elevator would be completely useless due to its slow speed and low capacity.
    • Re:Doubtful (Score:5, Interesting)

      by VoidEngineer (633446) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @01:15PM (#16033149)
      Try reading 'Fountains of Paradise' to understand the scale at which the space elevator is envisioned. It's not an elevator in the sense you may be thinking of. The idea is to build an initial small elevator, and then use that elevator to lift extra mass onto the elevator itself, and to build up its size until it's a megastructure. The goal isn't to build an elevator with a single shaft that can handle 10 people at a time. The goal is more like having a vertical subway system that can handle a million passengers *per day*. Think of the New York City subway system... only vertical. *Thats* the long term dream/goal of people who are into the concept of the space elevator.
      • by Colin Smith (2679)
        The goal is more like having a vertical subway system that can handle a million passengers *per day*. Think of the New York City subway system... only vertical. *Thats* the long term dream/goal of people who are into the concept of the space elevator.


        Right... And the mods didn't mod you "Completely Insane"... BTW where is the "Completely Insane" moderation option. I think Slashdot would benefit hugely from that particular one.

         
    • Re:Doubtful (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jeremi (14640) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @01:39PM (#16033216) Homepage
      Point is, it would probably not take long before such elevator would be completely useless due to its slow speed and low capacity.


      It's true that we may never see a space elevator -- it's entirely possible that the engineering problems involved in deploying one a simply beyond our ability to solve. But assuming for the sake of discussion that it is possible to deploy one, then there's no question that it would be an order of magnitude more useful than any imaginable rocket-based delivery system. Rockets are a good (if risky) way to get small amounts of material into orbit, but they completely fail to scale up past a certain size. The reason for that is because they have to carry their fuel up into space with them.... the more mass the payload has, the more fuel it has to carry, and the real killer is that you also have to carry more extra fuel to lift the extra fuel. So as the mass of your payload increases linearly, the mass of the fuel you'll need to launch it increases exponentially. At some point there simply isn't enough money in any nation's budget to acquire the amount of fuel they would need (never mind building a rocket big enough to hold it all).


      That's why (barring the invention of some near-massless rocket fuel) you'll never see massive amounts infrastructure being lifted into space on rockets. With the space elevator, on the other hand, the problem is neatly bypassed: the elevator "car" carries no fuel at all. Instead, the energy needed for lift is beamed to photo cells on the bottom of the car via ground-based lasers. If you want more lifting power, you simply point another (or a bigger) laser at the bottom of the car... there is no exponential increase in fuel requirements, just more equipment (and more power consumption) back on the ground.


      So yes, rockets can get us a nice little "lift the rich tourist into low-Earth-orbit for a few days" industry. But if you want to do Big Stuff, like large spaceships capable of carrying a crew to Mars and back, or solar power satellites, then you'll either need a Space Elevator to bulk-lift all that mass, or some way of finding pre-existing mass already in space and building all the components there.

  • Would be required to make a space elevator economically viable? Bearing in mind that a simple tin can in space cost around 100 billion up to around 2000.

     
    • "How many "launches" per day would be required to make a space elevator economically viable? Bearing in mind that a simple tin can in space cost around 100 billion up to around 2000." Economic feasibility studies of the space elevator show that it could be orders of magnitude less expensive than current methods of getting into space. The trick to understanding the economics of the space elevator is to view it as a reusable infrastructure. Say it costs 1 trillion dollars to build. The first ride up wou
      • by Colin Smith (2679)

        Say it costs 1 trillion dollars to build. The first ride up would cost $1T. The second ride up would cost $500B

        Really. And, there are no running costs, no infrastructure to be maintained, no personnel costs. No repairs to the structure of the elevator? Nothing has to be replaced over the 20, 30, 100 years of daily use? And you have to remember this is a 35,000km rail line. How long does it take to get to orbit, how many simultaneous launches are running? And remember it's only going to be able to lift thing

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Martin Blank (154261)
          I don't understand why you think loading or unloading would take weeks, unless you're comparing it to the current processes which involve special packaging to handle the vibrations of rocket liftoff, which would be largely unnecessary with an elevator.

          With an average speed of 50km per hour, it would take about ten hours to get to 500km, which could be a waypoint for transfers to other LEO objects. Getting out to 35,000km would take much longer at that velocity (about a month), but even if the cars were lim
  • by Millenniumman (924859) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @01:18PM (#16033159)
    Are they too lazy to take the stairs?
  • An artist's concept (Score:4, Informative)

    by pcx (72024) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @02:17PM (#16033370)
    and a rather good image (I use it as my wallpaper)

    http://www.mondolithic.com/06Gallery08.htm [mondolithic.com]
  • Pluto! (Score:2, Funny)

    by KC1P (907742)
    I just read an article claiming that Pluto and its largest moon have their days synchronized with the moon's orbit so they're always facing each other with the same side. If that's true, why waste our tax money providing yet another way to get into Earth orbit -- that's been done to death. We should build a bridge between Pluto and Charon! Or at least a tether. I mean we all know the real reason Pluto got demoted as a planet was because it was discovered by an American (hasn't cleared its orbit because
  • by infolib (618234) on Sunday September 03, 2006 @02:37PM (#16033456)
    At least that's the conclusion of Nicola M. Pugno [arxiv.org]:

    the megacable strength will be reduced by a factor at least of ~70% with respect to the theoretical nanotube strength, today (erroneously) assumed in the cable design.

    For this reason I've become quite skeptical. But please, prove me wrong, boy would that be cool.
  • by QuantumFTL (197300) * <justin,wick&gmail,com> on Sunday September 03, 2006 @06:48PM (#16034385)
    This is only tangentially related, but I thought /.ers would enjoy seeing this space elevator [youtube.com] concept video, made by my friend Alan Chan. He's done special effects for LOTR and Harry Potter, so the production values on this video are much nicer than your standard NASA flick.

    There is also a very good companion article [ieee.org] on IEEE Spectrum, and a fun interview [newtek.com] explaining how it was made (short answer: lots and lots of Lightwave).

    No, I'm not getting paid to promote this or anything, I just enjoy sharing it with friends/family, and thought a few of you would like it as well. Alan Chan's a ridiculously cool guy, I mean anyone who could make a short film entitled 12 Hot Women [atomfilms.com] and get people to play it at pretentious movie festivals... wow.
  • by mysticgoat (582871) * on Sunday September 03, 2006 @10:08PM (#16035049) Homepage Journal

    I am feeling SO disappointed with my fellow slashdotters.

    I've read through every comment on this thread that is scored 2 or above, and every one of you is seeing less than half of the space elevator's potential. You are all so one-way in your thinking.

    Let me try to prime the pump of your imaginations...

    Visualize a one pound iron ball, sitting in your hand. How much energy would that ball release on impact if you are on an airplane at 5,000 feet and you drop it out the window? Do you think it might break a car's windshield? Do you think it might put a heck of a dent in a car's roof?

    Now drop it from 23,000 miles....

    So long as we move enough mass down the space elevator, we can capture enough energy using existing regenerative braking technologies to power lifting side. If we move more mass down than that, the space elevator becomes a power generator. And the beauty of this is, it isn't important what we move downward, so long as we can put some kind regenerative braking on it.

    As we begin to explore space elevator technologies, we should also begin to think about how to start nudging a near Earth asteroid into a position where we can get at it easily when we are ready to start dropping things down the elevator shaft. Ion engines might be the ticket. At first it won't matter much what we drop down the shaft, but eventually we'll get more picky.

    At some point we'll want to build a solar powered distillery at the end of our string, so we can deliver bottled water mined from comets or icy asteroids to the thirsty. We'd do the bottling at the surface, after running the water through 23,000 miles of water wheels and turbines. And we'd probably build a solar furnace at Strings End to reduce nickel iron asteroids to ingots that would fit special drop tubes.

    Well, that's it. I'm tired of playing Heinlein. Somebody else can imagine the distribution system for the surplus power.

  • by Goonie (8651) * <robert,merkel&benambra,org> on Monday September 04, 2006 @01:19AM (#16035762) Homepage
    There are some alternative methods to get things out of the Earth's gravity well besides the space elevator that don't rely on the creation of unobtanium.


    There's the idea of laser launch [wikipedia.org] - instead of providing the energy to vapourize propellant with chemical reactions, you aim a laser at the spacecraft to do the job.


    Secondly, there's a variety of space tether schemes that don't go all the way down to the surface; instead, they dip down to an altitude and relative velocity where they could be met by hypersonic rockets. These have the rather large advantage of not requiring super-nanotubes. here [usra.edu] is a NASA-funded study on the idea.


    And, of course, there's always Project Orion [wikipedia.org] - explode nuclear bombs beneath a gargantuan steel plate to push the thing along...but somehow I don't see that one getting approved any time soon :)

  • by tgrigsby (164308) on Monday September 04, 2006 @01:50AM (#16035904) Homepage Journal
    Here's a no-duh sort of idea: Why not attach an inflatable ring to the payload when climbing the ribbon and fill it with helium? I mean really, is there some limitation on the contest for climber robot designs that says you can't send your robot zooming up the first quarter of the distance into space using helium to lift the payload? Your climber, for that distance, is really just tasked with keeping a firm grip on the ribbon so it doesn't float away. When the climber gets to the point where it's carrying the balloon instead of the other way around, it would deflate and stow the balloon, or send it back down, and continue on its merry way. A whole lot of lift on the cheap.

    Just thinking out loud....

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