October 22, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

NASA hosting space elevator competition

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.--Picture a ribbon stronger than steel that stretches from Earth into orbit and acts as a kind of space highway, on which robots transport materials back and forth.

That is what scientists call the space elevator. And long before it's ever a reality--if it is at all--scientists must discover the materials, mechanisms and wireless power source to make it work efficiently.

Considering it's no small feat of optics, electricity and mechanics, NASA and the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation are hosting the first-ever competitions this weekend offering $50,000 to teams with the best design of robot climber and ribbon. The competition, to be held here at NASA's Ames Research Center, is merely a conceptual demonstration of the space elevator.

Space elevator photos

"It's far out for us, but we're very interested in the technologies involved," said Brant Sponberg, NASA project manager for the "centennial challenges," a series of government-sponsored competitions that support space exploration. Sponberg was overseeing setup and tests of the competition on Friday.

The "Beam Power Challenge," which will kick off Saturday at 5 a.m. PST, will test the design and efficiency of robot climbers, machines that can ascend and descend a 50-meter tether ribbon while carrying a payload.

Seven teams from the United States and Canada will get three chances to climb the ribbon, having to travel at a minimum speed of 1 meter per second. For each climb, teams get a score that's a product of their payload mass and average velocity. The team with the highest score will win $50,000.

Many of the climbers are powered by solar cell panels. The Spaceward Foundation will cast a 10-kilowatt light onto the solar panels, if used, to give the bots power up the tether. As the ascent begins, the light will carry as much intensity as three to four suns, but toward the top, its intensity will equal only about one sun.

Steve Jones, undergraduate in the engineering physics department at the University of British Columbia, said his climber needs the equivalent of about two suns to make up the 50 meter tether.

He has been working on the team's climber for the last six months, along with 14 other students. Jones said he was excited about the competition because it isn't obvious how to solve the problem. It's a mixture of optical, electrical and mechanical questions that involve creating a climber, he said, and many teams are coming at the problem differently.

For example, some teams are using solar cell panels, like his, and others, like Starclimber, are relying on a Stirling engine, which can convert heat into mechanical energy with an efficiency of 30 percent to 40 percent, on par with a gas engine and superior to photovoltaic cells.

"This is a great platform for sharing because it's very open. We're seeing each other's designs, and it's accelerating the rate at which we learn," Jones said.

The "Tether Challenge" is designed to help foster the development of strong but lightweight materials that could support the space elevator. The contest requires teams to develop a tether that can improve on a commercially available one by 50 percent in breaking force. Teams will compete in a "pull-off," where each pulls against the other until one breaks, to find the lightest and strongest. Finally, the best-performing tether will compete against the "house" tether, or off-the-shelf material, and if successful, will win the $50,000.

Most people believe that the space elevator will be made of carbon nanotubes, but that technology is still in early development.

"We're trying to use prizes to encourage development of that technology," one project contractor for NASA said.

45 comments

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Wild idea....
.... but the lift to orbital distance is potentially possible given, as
noted, some spectacular materials technology breakthroughs.
But, so far, every concept seems to have missed the problem of
angular momentum. As the object is lifted, it must also acquire
lateral velocity to remain over the elevator site. (and the site
itself must be on the equator.) As far as I can tell, the lifting
mechanism can't provide that velocity.

Anyone figure it out yet????
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Angular Momentum and Geosynch
The comments so far assume geosynch orbit, but perhaps the imparting of angular momentum is solved with what the first paragraph of the story implies. The ribbon goes all the way to the moon. Tether it at the pole and get a strong enough tether to let the payload gain, lose momentum as part of the whole earth-moon system. I bet Arthur Clark had this one worked out in his head long ago.
Posted by (7 comments )
Link Flag
Yes, it should be at the equator and..
There could be a drop off point at Geosynchronous altitude, but the tether needs to extend high enough and have enough velocity to keep the it in tension. The top of the teather, with a dead-weight of some kind, needs to be orbiting higher than ~22236 mi. The more it weighs, the lower in orbit it can be, however its velocity would need to be more. So take your pick. Both require a lot of extra energy to get it there. When an additional mass goes up, the weight at the end will have to have some horizontal energy applied to keep it up. Sorry, there is no free ride.

pm
Posted by GabaJ (2 comments )
Link Flag
hmmm.. why make it climb?
Why make it climb? Why not have the robot inside of the tube and have a remotely controlled opening at the other end (in space) which would use the vacuum of space to suck the robot up and you can control the closing of the vaccum to affect the distance the robot travels. Wouldn't that remove the need to have it climb slowly?

Okay, i'm not a scientist, this may be a dumb idea
Posted by calbear--2008 (11 comments )
Link Flag
go to geosynch
Yes, the people who study this closely are very aware of this. Basically, you plan on bringing payloads up to geosynchronous orbit, not low-earth orbit. There's a lateral force on the base station as you lift/lower things, but it's inconsequential compared to the vertical force. See <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator" target="_newWindow">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator</a> or do a Google search for more details.
Posted by Harlan879 (130 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The link is lacking.
Goesynchronous orbital speed is about 5100 mph. Equator
speed is about 1000 mph. That means that any lifted object
must acquire the additional 4100 mph to keep from wrecking
the elevator. That velocity is a lateral velocity, while the elevator
forces can function only in the vertical direction. Unless the
elevator cable is allowed to depart significantly from a vertical
line, the lateral velocity change requirement is not provided by
the designs illustrated,

In other words, the inventors seem to have forgotten that this
concept exists within a rotating reference frame.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Missing One Thing, what holds the satilite up?
A satilite on orbit is held there by carefully balencing the force around it so that it move in relation to the earthand does fall back or shoot off into space.

Once you have it start hauling up a payload, then your gonna add a substantial force in the downward (towaed earth) direction and it not gonna take much befor you compleatly mess up its obit and bring the satilite down.

There are two schools of thought, the satilite pulls the mayload up, but what holds the satilite in it's orbit? you'll need fuel for it to main tain it orbit eeuql to if not more than the fuel required to just lift it the triditional way. The payload climbs the ribon up. The problem with that is that you need a ribon able of supporting a paylod 5100 miles, plus it must support 5100 miles of itsself and it must also be able to withstand any forces the weather applies to it and the payload.

So if anyone has any proctical solution for this, I'd love to hear it.
Posted by startiger (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sorry, quick correction
got my numbers wrong. Geosynchronous orbit is 22,241 miles up, not 5100. So please substitute that number into my previous comment.
Posted by startiger (50 comments )
Link Flag
A response...
A satilite on orbit is held there by carefully balencing the force
around it so that it move in relation to the earthand does fall
back or shoot off into space.
&gt;&gt; You bet. The satellite orbit is defined by it's velocity/distance
relationship and the local space-time curvature (gravity is
actually an illusion)

Once you have it start hauling up a payload, then your gonna
add a substantial force in the downward (towaed earth) direction
and it not gonna take much befor you compleatly mess up its
obit and bring the satilite down.
&gt;&gt; True, but with a satellite with a mass of millions of kilograms
the mess up is microscopic. But the mess up is also cumulative,
and eventually the elevator configuration will need adjustment.

There are two schools of thought, the satilite pulls the mayload
up, but what holds the satilite in it's orbit? you'll need fuel for it
to main tain it orbit eeuql to if not more than the fuel required
to just lift it the triditional way. The payload climbs the ribon up.
The problem with that is that you need a ribon able of
supporting a paylod 22,400 miles, plus it must support 22,400
miles of itsself and it must also be able to withstand any forces
the weather applies to it and the payload.
&gt;&gt; The satellite may be out at 100,000 miles, so the cable
problem is even more critical
&gt;&gt; The satellite's orbit, as noted above, is defined by its velocity
and distance and the local space-time curvature. (Old theory,
centrifugal force must balance gravity)
&gt;&gt;Once the cable exists, you'll find that the cable itself imposes
far more loads than weather or payload could create.

If the earth and the satellite were actually stationary, the elevator
would be strictly a strength of materials question. The rotating
reference frame of the earth and the rotating satellite adds many
more difficulties.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
proctical solution
i think you're gonna need a proctologist for that...
Posted by J_Satch (571 comments )
Link Flag
check my explination above
The satellite is not at geosynchronous altitude. It is higher. To orbit the earth this would normally require a slower orbital velocity (think how long it takes the moon to orbit). But the cable has to go through a point in space that is geosynchronous in order to be stable. The extra velocity on the satellite makes it want to fly off into space, but it can't because of the tether. You want it to pull so hard that it takes up all the weight of the tether plus whatever the typical cargo will be. Like you say, at some point it will be pulled down. That's when you need to give the satellite some more horz velocity.
Posted by GabaJ (2 comments )
Link Flag
Forget the Elevator, Use a Pulley instead
Create a SPACE PULLEY instead of Space Elevator.

We can have a pulley hanging form space just above the atmosphere. The pulley hangs from a geo-stationary Space Taxi Station.

A small Space Taxi is released up using a very very large helium balloons. A platform can be made that has large number of huge helium balloons below it. The Space Taxi is stationed on this platform before the whole platform is released.

When the platform reaches to the limit that it rise up in the atmosphere, Space Taxi takes off form the platform using jets propulsion and quickly reaches to the hook of the Space pulley which is just above the atmosphere and hooks itself to it. After this the Space Taxi station just pulls up the Space Taxi. The space station has a counter weight on its opposite side in space.

Note : All this is done with minimum fuel requirements compared to the other technologies, so what say ?

PS. A compressor can be used to bring the balloon Platform back on earth.
Posted by LogicallyGenius (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
SPACE ELAVATOR
Instead of a machanical accent, which would require over 62,000 miles of somekind of track,
wouldn't it be possible for some aparatus to
accend following a RAY from the earth to the satelite????
Posted by robfnog (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Outside the box
I don't you really can think about this one normally.

Heres my idea. You build a very large rail-gun(elctromagnetic) vertically in the ground somewhere on the equator. on the equator because the force required to leave the earth is least there. The rail gun shoots a heavy projectile of aluminum or some sort of metal that gets shot into a "metal parachute". Obviously the metal parachute would have to be strong enough so the round doesn't pierce the parachute but captures the vertical energy. One really nice property about this method is that no petrofuel is used at all. The energy is electricity which can be harnessed from many renewable forms if necessary.
Posted by (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What would that acheive?
Although it would be the ultimate toy, beyond the odd planetary defence job, how could you use this to work with? You'd need a massive railgun to fire freight into orbit, and getting materials down would be even more enjoyable, meteorites? i think the space elevator was chosen because it's a safeish way of getting people and freight around
Posted by steviesteveo (29 comments )
Link Flag
Problems with this idea
1) The system would be more efficient than a normal rocket (because it doesn't need to accelerate the fuel) but still has to fight with friction, so it's not as efficient as the elevator, which can run with very little energy, as it compensates lifting with stuff coming down.
2) It doesn't matter what the energy source is, the problem today is lack of enough energy. Petrofuels are just the cheapest way today to obtain energy (other than nuclear). Renewable sources are just too expensive, inefficient and unscalable today. By the way, most rockets today don't use petrofuels, they use either carbon based solid fuels or oxygen/hydrogen, obtained by using electricity as the energy source for electrolysis.
3) The accelerations on a railgun are so high that almost the only thing you can shot up are raw materials. Everything else would get smashed.
4) The parachute is completely unnecessary. Just calculate the right velocity and the stuff will stop at the right orbit.
Posted by Hernys (744 comments )
Link Flag
Before we jump on this, consider the downside
Before everybody gets excited over the idea of a space elevator, let's first consider the major, major drawback of the concept...

...having to listen to three days worth of elevator music as you ascend into orbit!
Posted by (402 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Certainly nobody would survive!
You make a very valid point. I doubt anyone would survive it. That would leave a lot of dead bodies in space.
Posted by zaznet (1138 comments )
Link Flag
April Fools?
Is this an early (or very late) April Fools Day gag?
Posted by J_Satch (571 comments )
Reply Link Flag
nope....
It's real. The idea has been floating around about it for quite a while now. I first heard of it two years ago when a company was seeking funding to build it.
Posted by sumwatt (69 comments )
Link Flag
A reference is missing
The author of this story should have pointed you to the <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.spaceelevator.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.spaceelevator.com/</a> where the history and the physics of the space elevator concept are explained in detail.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Lightning
Wouldn't the space elevator cable act as a giant lightning rod? I would think that this would create major problems with the cable, cargo, and people on board.
Posted by lyle-4967 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Unless
it's not conductive.
Posted by Hernys (744 comments )
Link Flag
Shout the moon
Theoretically, if we send enough electrons to the moon, we can pull the moon to Earth. This is, maybe a realistic solution for our over populated energy hungry near future. http;//shoutthemoon.com

If we start to beam electrons to the moon, it's only a matter of time before the moon starts to accelerate to Earth. The attraction force between the positive Earth and the negative moon causes the acceleration.



When we pull the moon closer and closer to the Earth, the moon will circle the Earth faster and faster in smaller orbits. Since the attraction force between the two bodies is always equal to the centrifugal force, there will be no impact to worry about.

Maybe we can arrange a controlled touch-down in some way, then, we will have two balls that bite into each other, ocean will form around the connecting ring and most sea bed will become dry land. There will be no month and a day will become about two hours long.



Maybe we can find a perfect orbit that keeps the moon some miles away from Earth and gives us the most benefit.

Maybe after NASA build up space elevator, we can borrow it to shoot some electrons to the moon by using lightning energy.

Once the moon begins accelerating to Earth, acceleration rate will build up aggressively, it is an one way street.

Look into the star sky, I wonder if somewhere someone is shooting electrons at the moon?

It's only a matter of time......till dogs dance on the moon.
Posted by (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
This will
surely take a lot of duct tape to complete.
Posted by Charleston Charge (362 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ok, the thing I see that may be a problem with the Space Elevator is the drive system that runs it up the ribbon. All the ones I see use wheels to pull it up. But would there be friction to pull it up. In space there is no friction, right?
Posted by pirategypsy (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
hi i have a awesome idea.
i want to talk about the space elevator.
we can use magnets to give a high speed to the elevator.
there would be a electro magnet in the base of the elevator.
there would be another one on the deck of launching.
thier same pole (n-n or s-s) would have to be near.
so there would be repulsion.
this would give the elevator a great speed for some times.
in this time we can give it the laser power.
this idea will save money & save time also.
Posted by Lakshya_shrungarpure (1 comment )
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