Comment »Posted on Friday 26 September 2008 at 9:36 am by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

If you’ve ever been to the Empire State Building, or any other similarly tall structure, you may have found yourself taking a rather long ride in a lift. Imagine then how long riding a lift into space might take. It sounds straight out of a sci-fi nobel, and indeed the concept of a “space elevator” (sorry for the Americanism, but “space lift” just sound a bit naff) was popularised by the great Arthur C. Clarke in his book The Fountains of Paradise.

A space elevator - it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'lift-off'!

Here’s how it works: a satellite is launched into a geostationary orbit at a height of 35,786 km above the Earth’s equator. This orbit is so-named because at this exact height the satellite appears to remain stationary above a fixed point on the surface of the Earth, making it perfect to run a space elevator up to. The main problem is producing a cable strong but light enough to send anything up. Scientists at Japan’s Space Elevator Association believe that they are close to producing such a material, and building a space elevator.

The JESA is holding an international conference in Japan to try and lay out a timetable to construction. They believe that carbon nanotubes could hold the key to making the all-important cable. These special particles are much thinner than they are long, meaning they can be woven to incredibly strong fibres whilst also remaining relatively light.

Yoshio Aoki, director of the JESA and professor of precision machinery engineering at Nihon University thinks that the cable would need to be four times stronger than current nanotubes, but is confident that this can be achieved since improvements of around 100-fold strength has been made in the past five years.

Carbon nanotubes - one 50,000th the width of a human hair, but several millimetres long

A space elevator would be an amazing sight to behold, and perhaps the greatest ever feat of human ingenuity. Who could not fail to be moved by the sight of a cable reaching from the ground, far into space? Not I, for one. A space elevator would have many other (and more practical) benefits: easy and cheap access to space. Solar-powered generators could bring cheap electricity down to Earth, whilst rocket ships such as the inefficient Space Shuttle could be completely replaced. In their stead, space ships could be built with parts sent up into orbit on the elevator, and then launched from there.

Its all impressive stuff, but can the Japanese pull it off any time soon? I’d love to say yes, but I fear their November conference might be a bit too ambitious. Still, if they can build it, I can’t wait to ride it – even if it does mean hours upon hours of muzak!

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