Sir Arthur C. Clarke, British writer, inventor, explorer and television host was once asked, “when will a space elevator become a reality.” His response was “probably about 50 years after everybody quits laughing”.
Clarke, the well respected author of science fiction classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” was considered something of an expert on this topic after the release of his novel, “The Fountains of Paradise” in 1979. The focus of this book was the construction of an orbital tower, or space elevator, that would permanently link a station on Earth with an orbital satellite. Payloads could be raised into space at a miniscule fraction of the cost of today’s rockets.
Why am I talking about science fiction? Because researchers have stopped laughing. In truth, they stopped laughing more than 20 years ago. And just this year a Canadian, Nofel Izz, an United Arab Emirate expat, has claimed his new space elevator design can be built with materials available with today’s technology.
The concept is surprisingly old. Inspired by the then recently completed Eiffel Tower, self taught Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky proposed a freestanding tower reaching a massive height of almost 36,000 kilometres back in 1895. A more recent conceptualization in 1966 determined that no currently available material came close to having the strength to make a space elevator possible.
Then came the introduction of carbon nanotubes in 1991, a fantastically strong material that seems tailor made for a massive construction like an elevator into space. Carbon nanotubes are 32 times as strong as steel and considerably lighter due to their density. Carbon nanotubes are still difficult to manufacture though, particularly in long chains. But interested groups across the globe are keeping a keen eye on their further development.
Internationally, researchers are putting serious money and time into the elevator concept. Besides Izz, Washington state resident Michael Laine’s company Liftport is conducting research and development co-operatively with several other aerospace companies. There is even an international group dedicated to ideas like this, the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC). Formed after the Space Elevator Conference in Redmond, Wash. in July 2008, the consortium made an effort to unify world-wide efforts to develop a space elevator and just last year became an affiliate with the National Space Society.
So, besides the cool factor, why all the interest? What is the payoff? Current methods of delivering payloads to space cost upwards of $10,000 a pound. A space elevator, tether, sky hook, beanstalk or whatever else you want to label it could bring costs down under $500 a pound and removes the reliance on super refined fossil fuels. Besides the myriad benefits of space research that could be continued and expanded upon, once the cost is brought into a manageable range, we could easily start looking at bringing material back. And not just a few rock samples. Importing large amounts of raw materials like ores, including rare “earth” elements, from asteroids could suddenly become a cost effective option. Nice idea since we have a finite amount available on Earth. Also consider all of the regular traffic we have to space. The cost of launching a single satellite starts at $50 million and goes up from there. What could we accomplish if that cost dropped by a factor of 20 or more?
Jon Reid is an IT professional working in Corner Brook. His column appears every other Tuesday in The Western Star.