Beam Me Up Otis: Teams Getting Set To Take Another Shot At Space Elevator Prize

from the To-the-moon dept

Despite the fact that it sounds like something straight out of a bad sci-fi novel, there are a number folks who believe that space elevator technology represents that best way for humans to cheaply and conveniently explore outer space. As with other “out there” ideas, NASA has started holding contests to promote innovations in the area. The challenge for the teams isn’t to actually build a full-fledged space elevator (that probably won’t be for a while), but to build a robot that can hoist itself up 100 meters in the air on a thin carbon tether in 50 seconds. Last year, a team from Canada failed to hit the mark by just two seconds. This October, teams will have another crack at it, and assuming there’s been any innovation at all, some team is likely to take home the $500,000 prize. After reaching this goal, it’s just another 384,402,900 meters to go before they get to the moon!

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Comments on “Beam Me Up Otis: Teams Getting Set To Take Another Shot At Space Elevator Prize”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Please don't laugh at me

in the face of much ridicule, I still will vouch for the possibility of a space elevator, and I have been made fun of by plenty of my friends for it. I agree completely that it sounds like bad sci-fi, but assuming the technical challenges of manufacturing and implementing a tether and powering a climber can be overcome, an elevator would by far be the most efficient method of delivering people and supplies into orbit(especially if the whole operation can be powered by solar panels at the top of the elevator). Do i think it will be cheap or easy to put in place, no. but do i think it will happen within the next 15-20 years, absolutely.

Enrico Suarve says:

I always liked the idea

For a tech site you guys can be pretty quick to ridicule new ideas

I’ve always like the idea but as far as I’m aware the real problem has always been finding a material for the tether that doesn’t need to be miles wide at the top just to be able to hold it’s own weight

Still not impossible though – materials improve all the time

Still #3’s right – it wants to be fekking amazing elevator music

Mercurial says:

“After reaching this goal, it’s just another 384,402,900 meters to go before they get to the moon!”

I would just like to point out the obvious: the objective of a space elevator isn’t to get to the moon, but rather to get into orbit around the earth; about 100,000km. So calculate that, instead.

And yes- you can expect the trip to take more than a few days… so make sure you go to the bathroom before getting on. 😉

Matt says:

Surely they'd go to Geosynchronous Orbit?

Surely they’d go to Geosynchronous Orbit? Which is 42000 KM (roughly). And if they get a cable strong enough they can have bigger motors to go faster, and of course once air pressue starts decreasing and gravity is less of an issue they can go faster… still won’t be the shortest trip in the world, but I expect it’ll be no worse than longhaul around the globe once they’re done.

Jose Frio says:

even doing the math correctly...

Even doing the math correctly (queue the Grateful Dead), it’s a long, strange trip.

The FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) defines outer space as being above 100km (62 miles).


100,000/2 (100m in 50 sec = 2m/sec)
50,000 seconds
833.333 minutes
138.889 hours
5.787037037 days

assuming constant velocity…

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m fairly sure the real goal of this isn’t to make the final device, but to prove that it is possible. Once a winning design is developed you can bet that it will be taken by NASA (or someone) and developed extensively. And yes, as you increase the altitude the effect of gravity will decrease, and if the elevator extends beyond geosynchronous orbit, ‘gravity’ will begin to pull you towards the top (not actually gravity, just centripetal acceleration). I’d expect it to still take at least 2 days, so expect a really good elevator/hotel for the ride.

On the other hand, i doubt there would be significant delays from weather conditions, and the next ‘launch’ could probably happen as soon as the elevator came back down … so longer in transit, but less time in prep/delays … sounds fair to me

solak says:

check the math, watch the units

207.1 days, actually, but who’s counting?

geosynchronous orbit has a radius of 42,164 km

earth’s equatorial radius is 6,378 km

86400 seconds per day

100m in 50s is 2m/s is 0.002km/s

(42164 – 6378) / (0.002 * 86400) ==> 207.1 days

units: (km-km)/((km/s)*(s/d)) == km/(km/d) == d

So it’s slow but not pathetic, considering that we’re avoiding the dangers and stresses of the rocket ride, which would allow sending up items with far less weight wasted on ruggedization and more for productive payload. Also, I’m sure that once the proof-of-concept is passed, they’ll work on speeding it up. As Pagarodog suggested, the gravity will decrease along the way, becoming zero at the “top”, so the same power level can result in greater speed along the way up to the maximum that the drive can stably sustain.

The recomputation of ‘trip time’ considering the decrease of gravity and consequent increase of speed is left as an exercise for the reader. Be sure to allow for a braking maneuver as the elevator approaches the goal altitude?we generally want a geosynchronous orbit to be circular.

SailorRipley says:

Re: check the math, watch the units

True, for a geosynchronous orbit, but in the Mars trilogy (Red/Blue/Green Mars) (yes, I know, it’s sci-fi) they actually have this cable elevator, but the bottom part slides over the surface, (+/- anchored in a dug channel running over the equator)

Obviously, this also means the cable itself is not stationary but flings through the air, around the planet.
If that would be implementable, one could choose how high we want the top to be (hence how long the trip would last), provided of course the speed at which the bottom would slide around the world would be acceptible

Jae says:

Re: Re: check the math, watch the units

Are you sure? I thought it was attached in the Red Mars trilogy and there was just a channel left in the last one after it was destroyed. Since it’s a flexible cable, there would be no way to translate such a cable and you would end up just pulling it down as far as I can see. Plus, getting objects onto the sliding platform would require a very fast method of transitioning them from earth to sliding platform. I don’t think this is how they did it in the book.

4-80-sicks says:

Hey, I can’t even wrap my head around “a robot that can hoist itself up 100 meters in the air on a thin carbon tether” and how that would be done, whether it takes 50 seconds or 50 days. The fact that a team did it in 52 seconds says to me that it’s completely feasible to go higher once the basic method is proven. How this would work with the rotation of the earth is another thing I couldn’t ever understand, but…I’m pretty sure NASA has thought of that. I look forward to further developments of a space elevator.

Jae says:

self-assumed geniuses

You guys are missing the point. This contest is a stepping stone, a starting point on research devices. The speed of the first jet to fly and that of an F-22 or SR-71 are not very closely coupled.

I’d hope those of you who had Algebra I could figure out the trivial word problem, even though it contains metric units.

I guess it’s easier to tear something apart than to help define a new reality.

The elevator would be suspended by centrifugal force on the tether and upper platform. That’s all. So the platform, of course, is geosyncronous. Basic physics. As another poster said, the main issue is finding material for the tether, hence this project to look into propulsion systems on a carbon tether. To test the materials you need a tether and propulsion system. So there’s this contest.

Snark away or define the future. It’s up to you…

Kevin says:

That's not true at all

We just need to get out into orbit.. that’s the real benefit. It’s cheap to fly around in space once you’re there; it just sucks to get off the earth.

It’s not cheap to fly around in space once you’re there. It’s only comparatively cheap when you’re comparing sitting in orbit to getting into orbit. But the amount of energy required to travel even extremely short interplanetary distances (like to Mars, for example) in anything approximating a timely fashion is absolutely tremendous.

stevew says:

Re: The Fountains of Paradise

Clark’s story was great. As for Science Fiction, the geosynchronous orbit idea is credited to Clark himself.

Check the Wiki for more than you can absorb The big thing about getting into space is the cost to geosynchronous orbit. Projected costs for an elevator are about $200/lb. versus $20,000/lb. for NASA.

JaneWithersteen says:

WTF is this supposed to do?

The design is not so much for an elevator TO space as an elevator IN space. The prize is for a device which pulls itself up the tether while being POWERED WIRELESSLY. The winning design must beam the power from the ground to the device in the air via microwave or other technology. The future uses could include excavation on the moon or other planets: think of taking things up a mineshaft on a moon of Jupiter, for instance, where direct solar power is not possible.

BTW: Kudos to NASA for enticing amateur and professional inventors. The device which enabled widespread ocean navigation centuries ago was also the result of a similar contest. The winner was a clock which could keep consistent time on the rolling ocean, enabling accurate measurement of longitude.

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