October 22, 2007 10:40 PM PDT

Space elevator isn't going anywhere yet

Turns out it's not so easy to build and race a space elevator. Who knew?

For the third time in three years, no team has claimed the prize money in two NASA-sponsored technology challenges to build a robotic climber and a vertical tether that could one day comprise a workable space elevator. In theory, that elevator would transport supplies from the ground to space without expensive fuel or batteries.

Despite the letdown, proponents of the technology were hopeful, and the roughly $1 million in prize money will roll over to next year's events.

"The good news is that technologies to build a space elevator are possible and are being developed now," said Ted Semon, spokesman for the Spaceward Foundation, which hosted NASA challenges at the Spaceward Games 2007, which began Oct. 17 and ended Monday in Salt Lake City.

The first contest, called the Space Elevator challenge, required teams to build a robotic climber that could scale a tether 100 meters tall in less than a minute. The chief requirement also was that the climber received energy from a ground source, rather than fuel or batteries. The second challenge, the Strong Tether Challenge, called on teams to build a robust tether of materials that could one day be the conveyer belt into space. MIT, for example, built a tether of carbon nanotubes, a strong new material, but the university team still didn't win.

The contests are part of NASA's Centennial Challenges, a series of government-sponsored competitions that support space exploration by encouraging private industry and universities to develop related technologies for cash prizes. NASA doesn't officially plan to build a space elevator, but the underlying technologies could ultimately be used for future space missions. For example, scientists have discovered water ice in craters on the moon, but to explore these dark cavities would require technologies that don't rely on the sun, such as laser-tracking rovers.

NASA is also interested in developing carbon nanotube materials for other applications, Semon said. "In the next two to three years, the strength of carbon nanotube materials will increase."

Bad weather in Utah last week delayed the NASA challenges and could have caused technical glitches, according to organizers. But with clear skies Monday, three finalists for the climber challenge--the Kansas City Space Pirates, the University of Saskatchewan (USST) and the Technology Tycoons (high-school kids from California)--were scheduled to perform two tests each of their self-built robotic climbers. (The three finalists emerged from eight teams that showed up to compete.)

Over the weekend, the Space Pirates climber, which draws power from solar cells and mirrors, made it up the tether in one minute 18 seconds. That feat encouraged organizers to believe that they would name a winner Monday.

But the Space Pirates had technical problems and stalled half-way up the tether on their first attempt that day. Before their second try, the ribbon snapped and delayed the run. The team eventually completed the race, but over the allotted time of 2 meters per second.

The Technology Tycoons climber was also unsuccessful. "The wind caught (the climber) and flipped it on it's side when it was most of the way up," Semon said.

USST's climber, whose solar cells are charged by a laser on the ground, failed to move up the ribbon on its first try Monday, but later it had a solid run, according to Semon. It couldn't meet the allotted time limit.

"USST was just a few seconds too slow to claim the prize. But they greatly increased their speed over last year (approximately double) and are fulfilling NASA's and Spaceward's goal of advancing the state of the art," Semon wrote.

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12 comments

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Because it is a stupid idea
Rocket assisted airplanes are a much better idea and are currently being focused on right now.

KieranMUllen
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://360oregon.com" target="_newWindow">http://360oregon.com</a>
Posted by kieranmullen (1070 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not so stupid...
Actually, a space elevator would _likely_ be far less polluting,
require less (or possibly no) solid or liquid fuels, and would also
greatly ease wear-and-tear on re-entry. Space planes are a cool
idea, and they will definitely serve a purpose, but a space elevator
just makes more economic sense when it comes to heavy lifting.
Posted by mmirage (2 comments )
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Teleporter Prize
Why didn't they just have a StarTrek teleporter xPrize instead? The elevator thing just sounds like a lot of problems.
Posted by arluthier (112 comments )
Reply Link Flag
they got that already
although it can only teleport atomic sized packets
Posted by rnieves1977 (105 comments )
Link Flag
Waste of Time
We will not depend on this questionable technology that chews up valuable financial resources for future space exploration.

Here is an idea that would give a bigger bang for the buck.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://nlspropulsion.net" target="_newWindow">http://nlspropulsion.net</a>
Posted by grey_eminence (153 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Need both
It's not a waste of time; in fact, it's the first leg of the trip. You've got to get things into orbit, whether it's parts to build a craft or the craft's cargo. Either way, you've got to overcome the force of gravity. Space elevator gets it to a reasonable altitude with a reasonable cost, another technology takes over. The technology you point out completely ignores the first leg of the trip.
Posted by orphu (109 comments )
Link Flag
Needed to get to orbit.
The technology proposed on that site might be useful for interplanetary journeys, perhaps even interstellar probes, but is totally useless for getting from the earths surface up to earth orbit. Trust me, there are people far better versed in linear accelerators than what was shown on "nlspropulsion.net", and none of them think it would work to get off earth.

The space elevator is specially designed to get from the surface to earth orbit, and in the long run will be the only practical way to make space travel affordable - providing a few technical details can be worked out.
Posted by albizzia (103 comments )
Link Flag
Stupid?
It seems to me that this exercise teaches people how to work together and refine their learnings. How can that me stupid? What an experience for those involved. Maybe they should just sit back and watch football and drink a lot of beer.
Posted by spothannah (145 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"Refine their learnings"?
You need to refine your learnings of English syntax.
Posted by Hardrada (359 comments )
Link Flag
 

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