Top of the Elevator
Space Elevator model displayed at International Space Development Conference in May '006. As we mourn the tragic events elsewhere in the world this week, we should not forget that many things are looking up. Quietly, without fanfare, many people are working toward a better future. This week has much news about Space Elevators.
The Space Elevator was mentioned by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and described in detail by Yuri Artsutanov in 1960. (Arthur Cllarke noted that it was years before anyone took Artsutanov seriously.) The idea is so simple that it has been invented multiple times. We have become used to the geostationary satellites that bring us telephone calls and Direct TV. If a cable could be lowered from a satellite to the Earth, we could theoretically run payloads to Space like an elevator. The main ingredient needed is a strong enough cable. Carbon nanotubes present the best hope.
The Elevator is such an attractive idea that many private companies have formed hoping to profit from it. Liftport Inc. in February '006 tested a 1 km cable suspended from balloons. Unfortunately this week Liftport was unable to pay rent on its headquarters. This should not stop them, for many successful companies have begun in garages. Also this week, Tethers Unlimited launched their Multi-Application Survivable Tether (MAST) experiment into orbit. MAST will unreel a 1 km cable to tethered satellites, one small step for a cable but a giant leap for technology.
Most plans for Space Elevators have them based on large offshore platforms. For the moment we will assume that the United States chooses to stay ahead in Space. The best location would be on the equator at 100 degrees West, nearest the geographic centre of North America. This area of the Pacific is convenient to US cargo ports and patrol by the US Navy. (The biggest US seaport is Los Angeles/Long Beach.) If the US chooses not to be a leader in Space, they can always go the way of Rome.
100 West is also an ideal location for a power station. Electricity from Space has been studied since 1968, envisioning fleets of enormous solar arrays in orbit. This has been considered too expensive, but new physics may make it practical. Recently the US Defence Department has taken an interest in solar power satellites to power their hardware. This would not be the first time that the military has led in technological development. The technology for beaming electricity could be used for something even better.
As has been hinted here before, power generated from a singularity would be far more efficient then even nuclear fusion. Such a power station would not be located on Earth; geosynchronous orbit is best for multiple reasons. As with solar power, electricity would be sent to Earth via microwave or laser. From 100 West, electricity could be beamed to any part of the Americas. With a Black Hole in your pocket, you need just one satellite without solar panels.
As with ISS, these projects could be built with international partners. A second Station and Elevator could be sited at 140 degrees East, near the world's second biggest economy in Japan. Here it could also serve the needs of Australia and coastal China. As Arthur Clarke forecast, a location at 80 degrees East could serve the Indian subcontinent. All these nations would be encouraged to cooperate and share the benefits.
The Space Elevator faces many technological hurdles, starting with production of a strong enough cable. The promises are too great to ignore. It offers the possibility of routine travel to orbit without rockets. Many groups public and private are studying the concept. TOMORROW: We'll see what kind of world that could lead to.