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Canadians Vie for Space Elevator Victory 99

Posted by Zonk
from the to-the-moon-alice dept.
unc0nn3ct3d writes to mention a CBC article about some plucky Canadian teams planning to go for NASA's space elevator challenge. From the article: "Teams based in Saskatoon, Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto are among thousands of space enthusiasts expected to converge on a desert site in Las Cruces, N.M., on Friday and Saturday for the X-Prize Cup, a festival mounted by the X-Prize Foundation ... The competitors are gearing up for the Spaceward Foundation's Space Elevator Challenge, which requires them to surmount technical obstacles in the development of a new type of vehicle that would take people and cargo from Earth into space."
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Canadians Vie for Space Elevator Victory

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  • by Channard (693317) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @05:37AM (#16534818) Journal
    'Hey, how come there's no 'call space elevator' button at this end of the space station?'
    • by aussie_a (778472) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @06:01AM (#16534934) Journal
      Sounds like my father. He's always more then happy to explain how to get somewhere (with instructions like "go to the end of road X and then turn left." And yet he never gives me instructions on how to get home, I think he's been trying to give me a hint for some time now.
    • They have a list of candidates for a one way trip.
      George Bush, Tony Blair ....
    • The Vancouver team will win, I have no doubt. Their best minds will be hard at work trying to design not only the space elevator, but also the world's first orbital growhouse. This will lead to a boom in the Canadian space industry, as the sale of..ahem..alternative tobacco products skyrockets them into superiority.
      • by Tsian (70839)
        When the great grow-house minds from Surrey combine with the scientists from Vancouver... actually I'm not sure what will happen, but I'm reminded of the advertisement for the New Westminster Condo that read "Living here means never having to say you're Surrey"

        Seriously though, I wish them all luck. If Canada wins this it will be an nice addition to producing the Canadarm.
  • Canadians Vie for Space Elevator Victory: The competitors are gearing up for the Spaceward Foundation's Space Elevator Challenge, which requires them to surmount technical obstacles in the development of a new type of vehicle that would take people and cargo from Earth into space.

    Who knew that Willy Wonka was Canadian?
  • by iendedi (687301) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @06:06AM (#16534966) Journal
    From TFA:
    The machine is being entered in one of the two parts of the elevator competition, known as the Power Beam Challenge, in which competitors build a machine that can climb at a rate of at least one metre per second up a ribbon suspended nearly 61 metres (200 feet) from a crane. The climber must be powered by a light source.

    "We developed a high-powered laser to power our climber," Ruszowski said.
    Which is all good and well, I suppose, for a cable suspended from a crane. But what happens when the space-elevator ribbon has to cut through the entire atmosphere of the earth, weather and all? Tracking the lateral movement of the elevator precisely in unpredictable weather does not seem trivial to me.

    Do any of you actually believe we are close to being able to produce one of these monsters? I am guessing we are still thirty years away from the appropriate tech.
    • by oldelpaso (851825) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @08:21AM (#16535702)
      I'm highly sceptical about articles making optimistic claims about space elevators, of which there have been several of late, usually involving carbon nanotubes. Most of the time the theoretical strength of a cable constructed from carbon nanotubes is used, but this ignores the fact that the cable will inevitably have construction defects, as it would need to be about 10^5 km long. A decent analysis is provided in a recent paper I read: http://www.iop.org/Select/abstract/-group=subject/ -groupval=100/0953-8984/18/33/S14 [iop.org]
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        That paper starts with the assumption of 100 nm long nanotubes, which we may be able to improve on, and predicts a 70% strength reduction from the theoretical maximum.

        Which just means the cable has to taper more. No matter what, any sane civil engineer would have designed it with at least a safety factor of 3.
    • by h2g2bob (948006)
      The main problem with building one of these things now is the lack of suitable materils for the cable. ALL currently known materials would break under their own weight.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        ALL currently known materials would break under their own weight.

        Which is why one length of cable simply will not do. Instead the cable must get thicker as you move upwards, so that each strand only carries a small enough amount of weight. Honestly, a 1000km cable of this kind is more than within ourability to construct, but getting all 1000km of its ever increasing frame into space will be the trickiest part. Keeping it up there will be the next.

        Space elevators are a "look good on paper" plan, as long as i

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by christoofar (451967)
        You're assuming a space elevator needs a cable for the entire length of the elevator.

        It's an engineering problem like the World Trade Center. It was impractical to have elevator shafts running up the entire building (in the WTC, I believe there was only one shaft that did so).

        In the case of a space elevator... why not temporarily "lock" the car at a certain height, then have a mechanism unhoist the cable and change it to another hoist motor? (repeat as necessary)

        The net effect that the elevator would hav
        • by mdfst13 (664665) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @01:24PM (#16537578)
          The difference between an elevator in a skyscraper and a space elevator is that the elevator in the skyscraper has a building around it while the space elevator is just a big cable. The space elevator is held up by the fact that part of the cable (possibly with a counterweight at the end) is actually far enough away that angular momentum is pulling it *away* from the earth. It's the tension between gravity pulling it down and angular momentum pulling it up that makes it work. Break that into segments and some segments will go away from the earth while others go down. If you tie the segments together, then you just have one long cable again (with joins that are either heavier or weaker than the rest of the cable; if we had a lighter and stronger material, we'd just make the whole cable out of it).

          The World Trade Center system worked because the building was there and they attached the segments to the building. A space elevator is problematic because we simply don't have the ability to build a building that tall to hold up segments (if we did, we'd just make the building the cable and crawl up the side). Each segment would have to be self-supporting.

          The minimum cable length (to be self supporting) is determined by the angular velocity of the earth, the radius from the center of the earth to the cable mount, and the mass of the earth. There is no way to make a shorter cable that is self supporting.

          Your solution requires something to hold up the segments. We don't have that something. We are somewhat closer to being able to build a single cable of that length than we are to building a segmented solution (which requires something like anti-gravity). Further, if we did have the tech to build a segmented solution, we probably wouldn't need to do so. With anti-gravity, we'd just float up -- no elevator cable needed.

          I think that what's confusing you is that in buildings, the cable pulls up the car (which is just a big box). In a space elevator, the "cable" has a role more like that of the elevator shaft or the rails of an incline. The elevator "car" is propelled by something else. Maybe they should change the name to something more static, like pillar, shaft, or stem.
          • This is a good point, which is why purists often refer to these devices as "Beanstalks".
    • I don't think many people are suggesting it's close. It's a medium term investment. One thing's for sure, if we don't try, it won't happen. It's like lots of other technology, you try it out and maybe it turns out feasible after lots of incremental improvements, or maybe it doesn't.

      And on tracking a laser to a climber? Sounds pretty doable actually, given that modern optical telescopes compensate optically for air movement, without the luxury of a close physical object which can tell you it's position and b
      • by iendedi (687301)

        And on tracking a laser to a climber? Sounds pretty doable actually, given that modern optical telescopes compensate optically for air movement, without the luxury of a close physical object which can tell you it's position and be designed for easy targetting.

        Please remember, we aren't talking about a laser that makes pretty lights. A laser that imparts power for a climber would be downright dangerous if it misses the power collector on the elevator. combine that with the very considerable lateral movem

    • by afxgrin (208686) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @12:58PM (#16537434)
      The solution for powering a space elevator by laser certainly won't be trivial. It's not like you can just point a laser straight up and it'll hit the receiving dish/antenna/panel ... there will be lateral movement the climber will be undergoing. So there will need to be some type of optics required to guide the beam. These optics have existed for a long time, they just need to be adapted for higher powers and probably wider laser beams. To compensate for refractive index changes in the atmosphere, some form of adaptive optics [wikipedia.org] will be needed. This type of research was done in previous atmospheric studies, and projects like the Airborne Laser [boeing.com].

      Right now the largest disadvantage for lasers is the inefficiency in creating electricity from photovoltiacs. The team i'm on - Punkworks [punkworks.ca] is hoping to use a microwave rectenna [wikipedia.org] array to convert 2.4 GHz RF energy into a few hundred watts of electricity. Right now we're lending our transmitter to another team, and have reached a deal to split the prize 50/50 if they win with our transmitter. The reason we're using microwaves is due to the conversion efficiency, there's lots of journal papers on microwave rectenna design indicating a maximum efficiency of 85%. This is a huge improvement over the ~30% you'd get from a solar panel.

      My team has yet to compete, and I'm eagerly waiting to hear how our climber performs. Right now they made us move to another location at the test site despite our approved application from the FCC. Apparently the airport doesn't like the idea of us beaming 13 kW of microwaves into the sky ...

      unfortunately I'm not in New Mexico for the competition, but a number of my teammates did the 44 hour drive.
    • >Tracking the lateral movement of the elevator precisely in unpredictable weather does not seem trivial to me.

      Not trivial, true, but we do have billions of dollars worth of R&D results lying around about how to track movin objects with lasers, and that was for the harder problem of tracking objects that didn't want to be tracked.

      Quick idea: medium-power guide laser on the car, aimed in the general direction of the power laser. Power laser has a pulsed cycle where it periodically turns off and "listen
    • Do any of you actually believe we are close to being able to produce one of these monsters? I am guessing we are still thirty years away from the appropriate tech.

      It looks like the tech is there, really, but there is no commercial backing for it, and without money it is a no-go. Current tech can probably produce carbon nanotubes appropriate for this kind of project, but it would be VERY expensive, and no government is willing to pay for it, so it won't happen within the next 20 years (or more). Lots of gr

  • by kbox (980541)
    So they are going to concieve, design and build this space elevator over the weekend?
  • by KuRa_Scvls (932317) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @06:30AM (#16535098)
    How long will it take for me to be able to press all of the buttons on that elevator as a prank?
  • Welll..... (Score:5, Funny)

    by MrAnnoyanceToYou (654053) <dylan.dylanbrams@com> on Sunday October 22, 2006 @06:30AM (#16535102) Homepage Journal
    If you lived next to 300 million Americans, you'd want off this stupid rock too.
  • Gravity Kite (Score:2, Interesting)

    Forget space elevators, I'd use gyroscopes so as to use the earth's angular interia to leverage them and a payload into space. Leverage being the key word here. You'd need some tethers or boons to control the contraption and keep it from precessing in the wrong directions. Of course once it's up there, it might look a lot like a space elevator.
  • There are two failure points in the "space elevator" idea. The first is a flaw in the theory, the other is a danger that is known but ignored. The theoretical flaw is exposed by the name "space elevator". Almost everybody tends to assume that getting into orbit is a matter of gaining altitude. It is not. A ship can orbit as low as 60 miles or so, but but it has to accellerate to about 17,000 miles per hour to do it. To get into a geosychronous orbit requires a much higher velocity. Space nerds call that "d
    • Re:Space elevator (Score:4, Informative)

      by GTMoogle (968547) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @10:09AM (#16536262)
      Uhm, you can put the rockets on the earth side, actually, and by rockets I mean a large mass sitting on the earth's surface. The other end of the tether can have a constant outward pull that is more than capable of counteracting any and all mass sent up the line.

      As for the ionosphere, they've actually done a lot of research entirely unrelated to the space elevator including physical tests. From what I've read on it, they're not ignoring the problem, it's just not significant. The proposed carbon nanotube cable isn't really conductive and would only be affected by the very local area anyway. That doesn't ammount to much. They've even bothered to calculate whether having a conductive cable could generate any useful power. The answer was no, there's just not enough energy there to do anything useful with. Even if the cable could act as a lighting rod, lighting is the result of built up potential. Having a lightning rod to the clouds would prevent any potential from building!

      A concern you didn't raise, that's nonetheless of interest (to me anyway) is the scale of the project. IIRC, the individual wires that make up the cables of the golden gate bridge if placed end to end would actually be as long as the space elevator. Probably heavier as well. Since the cable has so much surface area, and most likely would be cut very very close to the ground (ie still in atmosphere), the cable would flutter harmlessly to earth. So disaster situations are unlikely.
      • The proposed carbon nanotube cable isn't really conductive

        Would that be the same carbon nanotubes that are being used for MIT's super capacitors as well as being looked at for super conductors?

        • Re:Space elevator (Score:4, Informative)

          by GTMoogle (968547) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @11:33AM (#16536796)
          No, the structure of carbon nanotubes (there are many variations) determine its electrical properties, as well materials that the tubes can be doped with. You can make them insulators or conductors.

          In addition, the current idea is that the cable will be made of short filaments of carbon nanotubes glued together in some as-yet-to-be-developed fashion. The glue alone would probably make the cable non-conductive.

          As a material, nanotubes have very flexible properties. By the time we're able to produce the quality and quantity necessary to make a feasible cable, we'll probably have the technology to pick and chose its attributes.
          • Take the weight of photovoltaics off the car and put it directly on the cable, with big solar arrays at intervals (optionally lit up from the ground) and car power through the cable.

            With no atmosphere to create corona discharge, you could transmit power over remarkable distances by going to really high voltages.
    • I'm not sure you quite understand how this works -- space elevators have absolutely NOTHING to do with orbiting. If the tether is pulled towards earth by its payload, if it loses some velocity as momentum is transferred to the payload, it immediately re-extends and accelerates back to the full angular velocity of the earth. That's the whole point of this: the tether is tied to the planet, so it's the planet that loses a small amount of angular momentum and gets pushed away from the payload.

      Nice try tho

  • A few thousand people gathering in the desert to make a space elevator. Sounds good in theory but in reality the guy at the bottom will never be able to support the weight of all the others on his shoulders.
  • I was there! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by apsmith (17989) * on Sunday October 22, 2006 @09:50AM (#16536136) Homepage
    It was pretty cool seeing the teams trying to climb the tether. I only saw a couple make it to the top (200 ft), but several got part way. I don't believe anybody beat the 1-minute time limit to meet the goal.

    One interesting thing is that, having to power the climbers from beamed power, they had to make them as light as possible, relative to the area of solar panels trying to capture energy. So these were pretty flimsy looking devices, and you could see wind causing trouble. Stripped bolts and computer glitches also caused their share of failures...

    It was also nice to see all those young teams of excited people trying to do this - mostly undergraduate engineering students, but there were even some high school students participating.

    And having John Carmack hanging out chatting with the crowd while his crew was trying to get his "hover" craft back in shape was fun. They had jumbotron displays for their challenge attempts, but you could also see it just hovering there a hundred feet up (not too close to the crowd, but quite visible). Of course the crashes had a bit of a car-wreck interest too... The most successful things seemed to be some straightforward high powered rocket launches. But there was a big enthusiastic crowd, and lots of sideshows. Definitely worth a trip to the El Paso area if they do this again!
    • Indeed, seeing this first hand was quite interesting (I was there both days, and spent some time in neighboring Truth or Consequences, Aguirre Springs Recreation Area, and White Sands National Monument). I was really impressed with the high school space elevator team, as their device made it all the way up without much of a problem. I wish I was able to get more videos of the Tripoli rockets firing, as those were really neat. I was a bit under-whelmed by the lunar lander challenge though, if only because
    • by jshazen (233469)
      John Carmack ...get[ting] his "hover" craft back in shape...

      What happened? Was it full of eels?
  • So... (Score:3, Funny)

    by christoofar (451967) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @10:03AM (#16536228)
    So, when the elevator gets stuck... how is the Otis repairman supposed to pry you out?
  • Space Elevator and the X-Prize competition, or the Canadian participants of it?

    "Oh, look, Canadians — how cute"?

  • Enthusiasts are hoping ot have a working flying car to take people to the PROPOSED space elevator. Says G Pangloss, ceo, we expect a working elevator protype to be built sometime in the next 20 years, and our flying car will allow you to get priority status by going directly to the landing station at 15,000 feet...

    In other news, /.ers continue with wierd offf the wall fantasys..
    • by Jeremi (14640)
      In other news, /.ers continue with wierd offf the wall fantasys..


      No, no, no, you're doing it all wrong. A curmudgeonly rant must always start with "If man were meant to $(ACTIVITY), God would have given him $(POWER)". Then you should follow that up by complaining about some perceived shortcoming of "kids these days", and conclude with a demand that they get off your lawn.

    • In other news, /.ers continue with wierd offf the wall fantasys..
      ...like heavier-than-air flight and more than 640k.
      • that is a really interesting point, which gets to the heart of the discussion: certain things can be solved by technology (bits/$/square mm) and some things can't - safety of flying cars, or the amount of energy required to lift someone into orbit, or they require really new technologies (automated safety systems, fusion power)

        I think as older americans like myself, there was a bit of jingoism in what we were taught about the history of heavier then air flight, the brave wright brothers battling the doubter
  • by duh P3rf3ss3r (967183) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @10:32AM (#16536390)
    'Cause if there's one thing Canadians are good at, it's getting an entire carload of people high.
  • Can the elevator be built at the poles? There were issues with animals and insects making homes on the test cables in friendlier climes. I don't think the rotation of the Earth is what keeps the elevator up...
    • The rotation of the earth is exactly what keeps the elevator up, much like swinging a weight on the end of a rope. Although it would be theoretically possible to anchor the cable at the pole, the additional problems would far outweigh the benefits.
      • > The rotation of the earth is exactly what keeps the elevator up, much like swinging a weight on the end of a rope. Although it > would be theoretically possible to anchor the cable at the pole, the additional problems would far outweigh the benefits. I am amazed at the many incorrect comments here, this is a typical one which doesn't make any sense. I thought we were supposed to be nerds who know about this sort of stuff? It is almost completely unlike swinging a weight on the end of a rope. A spa
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        > The rotation of the earth is exactly what keeps the elevator up, much like swinging a weight on the end of a rope. Although it
        > would be theoretically possible to anchor the cable at the pole, the additional problems would far outweigh the benefits.

        I am amazed at the many incorrect comments here, this is a typical one which doesn't make any sense. I thought we were supposed to be nerds who know about this sort of stuff?

        It is almost completely unlike swinging a weight on the end of a rope. It's the r
    • It's EXACTLY the rotation of the earth that holds it up. It's like swinging a rock on a string around your head. The only difference is that the hypothetical rock will be help in its circular path by the balance of the string's tension against the centripetal acceleration, whereas the space elevator is held in place by the balance of the string's tension AND gravity against the centripetal acceleration.
  • a massive structure of granite rock up there, and once we get close then build something people in the X-Prize have thought of. By massive, I mean... (everast height)*X = height to space, X times the size of everast Big.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You don't seem to appreciate the orders of magnitude involved.

      Eventually they need a 100,000-kilometre tether. A tower 10 times Everest is 88 km up. 99,912 km to go.

      Now, they might actually build a tower for some odd reason (say, to prevent wildlife from nesting on the tether) but the reason is NOT going to be to "get close".
  • Didn't good 'ol George just say something about attacking anyone that tried to walk "on his turf"?
  • by JoshJ (1009085)
    The space elevator isn't the only thing required to get to Alpha Centauri. Noobs.
  • Excellent! (Score:3, Funny)

    by deadhammer (576762) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @02:16PM (#16537952)
    Great! As a Canadian, I can tell you it's about time we got some decent beer into space! Our first experiment shall, of course, be the effects of alcohol in microgravity!

    Now then, while we're up, there's a few things we could dump off in orbit that we've been meaning to for a while now. Celine Dion will be taking the first trip up. She won't be coming back down.

    • by Beefslaya (832030)
      I for one would like to see Tim Horton's at every Mile interval.

      I'm sure with the nanotube design, they can have Labatt's taps there too.
  • by Ingolfke (515826) on Sunday October 22, 2006 @04:57PM (#16538992) Journal
    I love all of this talk about space elevators... it's like witnessing people saying the world is flat or the moon is made of cheese back when thsoe ideas weren't considered to be hilarious. Space elevators are the sort of thing that our kids/grandkids are going to look back on and laugh and laugh and laugh.

    We need a new X-Prize. An X-Prize for coming up with a psuedo-science "flying car" of the future and selling it to a uneducated and unwitting public. The first person to get 10 million believers wins.

    I'm working on developing a space catapult that we can use to launch payloads into space. We haven't developed the supertension springs and bands we need but with advances in carbon nanotubes, the human genome, and nanobots we should have that technology in full production in the next 30 years so I'm going to focus on the catapult "cup" used to hold the payload.

    And if that doesn't work I'm also developing plans for a capsule that will burrow to the center of the earth using two simple principles weight and edginess (meaning sharp not hip but disturbing). The capsule will use nanobots (which will be commonplace in 15-20 years) to farm bacteria that will sharpen and resharpen a super-carbonnanotube-alloy shell to the finest point ever known in the universe. A point capable of cutting through any material known to man. The capsule will use an EOD (extremly dense object) attached to the opposite end of the point to provide weight to push the point into the ground. This EOD will use new alloys and atomic manipulation techniques that will only be available in 10-15 years. Since we know we'll have these things I'm going to focus on creating a comfortable chair, probably made of leather with a racing stripe, to be installed into the capsule.
    • The space elevator might be the next flying car, or it might be the next aeroplane. Either way, we'll find out in the nest 10-20 years.
  • It's actually very cost effective to offer the X-Prize for the climber now. By the time we can actually make the cable, in 50-100 years, hopefully all the good ideas for the climber design will have become public domain. Spend a few million now, and you don't have to spend billions to license the technology later.

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