September 24, 2003
Space Elevator Conference Held

The Space Elevator: 2nd Annual International Conference was recently held in Santa Fe New Mexico.

Said conference organizer Bryan E. Laubscher of the Los Alamos Space Instrumentation and System Engineering Group, "With the discovery of carbon nanotubes and their remarkable strength properties, the time for the space elevator is at hand."

"The promise of inexpensive access to space is so important to the human race that we are ready to meet these challenges head on. Viewed in one way, the space elevator will be the largest civil engineering project ever attempted," Laubscher said.

For online information, visit http://www.isr.us/spaceelevatorconference.

...

"In order to be ready with the required technologies, those scientists and engineers interested in the space elevator must begin now to identify and solve the technical challenges involved in constructing and operating a space elevator. The Second Annual Space-Elevator Conference is being held to discuss these challenges and their solutions."

NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) granted funds to Dr. Bradley Edwards, ISR's director of research, to investigate the feasibility of designing and building a space elevator. Once relegated to the realm of science fiction, the space elevator is now the subject of scientific research by ISR. The discovery of carbon nanotubes and the ongoing development to implement them into a composite is the key to space elevator viability being achieved in the future.

Researchers estimate that a space elevator capable of lifting 5-ton payloads every day to low Earth orbits could be operational in 15 years. From this first orbit, the costs to go on the moon, Mars, Venus, or the asteroids would be reduced dramatically. The first space elevator is projected to reduce lift costs immediately to $100 per pound, as compared to current launch costs of $10,000-$40,000 per pound, depending upon destination and choice of rocket-launch system. Additional and larger elevators, built utilizing the first, would allow large-scale manned and commercial activities in space and reduce lift costs even further.

Terrorism and space debris are two big worries for a space elevator.

With so much orbiting clutter, including spent rocket stages, dead or dying satellites, zipping around Earth all the way up to stationary orbit, damage to the space elevator is a worry, Clarke said.

There is also concern, Clarke added, that the heavenly elevator is sure to become a target for terrorism. "We need to remove economic and other grudges. But, of course, you could never cope with total lunatics that could do anything."

It would seem to be a relatively easy thing to damage. Once it is built the first priority ought to be to send up more nanotube ribbon fiber to give the top-end enough material to send down repair ribbon. It might even be wise to have stopping off points where repair ribbon is warehoused to send down more quickly to repair damaged pieces. But if a complete cut is made either intentionally or by a piece of fast-moving space debris then everything below that point is going to come flying down. How big of a splash would that make in the ocean?

Dr. Edwards is confident that the nanotube fabrication problem will be solved fairly soon.

All the necessary underlying technology exists, Dr. Edwards said, except the material for the ribbon. (The longest nanotube to date is just a few feet long.) But he said he expected that scientists would develop a strong enough nanotube-polymer composite in a few years.

The initial elevator will carry only cargo. A week trip up the elevator would require a special capsule to be designed to support humans and the capsule would need to carry a lot of food and other supplies to keep the humans protected. Plus, there are concerns that pockets of high energy particles trapped in the Earth's magnetic field could deliver harmful doses of radiation. Human capsules would need to be shielded and move faster to deal with this problem.

The first big unknown is when will nanotube fabrication technology advance far enough to make the space elevator buildable? The second big unknown is how fast will funding become available to build it once it becomes possiible?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 September 24 02:42 PM  Airplanes and Spacecraft


Comments
Andy Janes said at September 25, 2003 12:38 AM:

What's the point in building an elevator if not to carry people? How much demand for one would there be for a cargo only one? I'm all for a space elevator eventually, but I think it's premature to talk about building one yet (even if it is technically feasible). Wait until the markets are large enough to justify the expense (and that includes carrying people too). Besides, who says it has to take a week? Once out of the atmosphere it should be possible to go fairly fast.

Randall Parker said at September 25, 2003 12:53 AM:

Andy, Humans represent only a very small fraction of a percent of all the mass that gets boosted into orbit. Look at the ISS. How many tons does it weigh? How much do its human occupants weigh? How much do their consumables weigh? I don't know exact numbers but I'm guessing that their consumables weigh more than an order of magnitude more than they weigh and the ISS itself weighs several orders of magnitude more than they weigh.

The one week trip: the people at the conference. Go click thru and read the full text of the articles. What you are missing here is probably the fact that the elevator compartment isn't going to carry its own lifting fuel. One proposal is to beam power to photovoltaic collectors on its underside using a laser beam from a vessel in the ocean. The amount of energy available per unit time is low using that approach.

Andy Janes said at September 25, 2003 4:20 AM:

"Humans represent only a very small fraction of a percent of all the mass that gets boosted into orbit. Look at the ISS. How many tons does it weigh? How much do its human occupants weigh? How much do their consumables weigh? I don't know exact numbers but I'm guessing that their consumables weigh more than an order of magnitude more than they weigh and the ISS itself weighs several orders of magnitude more than they weigh."

But we wouldn't be launching all that stuff if there was nobody up there. Apart from supporting human activity, all that currently gets launced are satellites and occasionally probes. There's not enough demand for these to justify the costs of building an elevator.
Space tourism is the only real market an elevator could serve (or possibly migration in the long term). To build up the markets so an elevator makes commercial sense we need RLV's first. Until they are flying (daily) and carrying fare paying passengers an elevator is unnecessary.

Bob Badour said at September 25, 2003 8:12 AM:

Andy,

I think you are missing the point that a space elevator would efficiently service the logistical freight needs to support a space tourism industry using other delivery vehicles for passengers. Passenger vehicles can then focus more design and resources toward passenger safety, comfort and convenience.

Andy Janes said at September 26, 2003 12:39 AM:

"I think you are missing the point that a space elevator would efficiently service the logistical freight needs to support a space tourism industry using other delivery vehicles for passengers. Passenger vehicles can then focus more design and resources toward passenger safety, comfort and convenience."

No, I get the idea, my point is we need to build up the market first, to justify the cost of building an elevator. I'm all for an elevator, but not yet. It'll only make sense when there is already a market for launching millions of tonnes of cargo to orbit every year.

And I still say it doesn't make sense not to have people ride the elevator as well as cargo. It'll be a major toursit attraction in its own right, so why not put viewing platforms at regular intervals (with hotels, etc)?

Randall Parker said at September 26, 2003 12:52 AM:

Andy, Drop the cost of moving stuff into geosync orbit by orders of magnitude and the number of things that people will want to put up there will go up by orders of magnitude. The cost of moving all the stuff needed for a moon base or Mars expedition would fall by orders of magnitude. Much larger comm sats could be brought up. Space manufacturing for zero-g would become more viable. Also, space solar power satellites would become much cheaper.

Space tourism's biggest cost is not the cost of lifting the person. It is the cost of lifting the person's consumables and the structures he's stay in. So the cost of space tourism would fall even if humans couldn't ride the elevator.

Andy Janes said at September 26, 2003 7:24 AM:

"Drop the cost of moving stuff into geosync orbit by orders of magnitude and the number of things that people will want to put up there will go up by orders of magnitude"

Can you prove that to an investor though? Business men won't back a firm for the hell of it, they will only invest hard currency if they are (fairly) sure they will get a return on their investment. Previous start-ups like Kistler and Rotary failed because they couldn't convince anyone they'd make money (esp. with the commsat market crashing round their ears). To get backing you would need to show there is a demand for your product. With space tourism that means market research shwoing how many people are willing to pay $X for a trip, comparisons with existing high-cost adventure holidays, growth forcasts, etc.

Let me make myself esp. clear: You can't just build something and hope people will use it! Remember the Great Eastern? Or the Ford Edsel?


"The cost of moving all the stuff needed for a moon base or Mars expedition would fall by orders of magnitude. Much larger comm sats could be brought up. Space manufacturing for zero-g would become more viable. Also, space solar power satellites would become much cheaper."

Even if launch costs were next to nothing, there still has to be a will to build a moonbase or mars mission. What we're lacking is vision, not tech. An elevator would make any of these options cheaper, but does not automatically mean they will happen

Paul M. Amore said at September 26, 2003 9:39 AM:

Andy,

The article in the New York Times says: " . . . a larger problem could be that any human passengers would receive dangerous doses of radiation as they passed through pockets of high-energy particles trapped in Earth's magnetic field. The first space elevator would be built to carry only cargo, not people, Dr. Edwards said. The dangers could be reduced on subsequent elevators by speeding them up or providing shielding through magnetic fields."

In other words, using the space elevator to transport people IS on the agenda, just not right away.

As for waiting around for a market to develop to justify the expense - there already is one! We currently hurl hundreds of tons of into orbit on top of rockets (communications, weather and spy satellites, ISS components, etc.) at a cost of $10,000 per pound. These folks would be the initial customers, and at $100 per pound, they'll be lining up as soon as the thing is functional. As for the cost of the elevator, it is a fraction of what we're spending on the ISS, not to mention the billions of government and private dollars currently spent of non-ISS related space activity. If this isn't enough to convince private investors, so what? Have the government pay for the thing. At $6 billion for the first one and $2 billion for subsequent elevators, any well-heeled government could finance the project for a fraction of what it pays for [insert your favorite boondoggle here, e.g., Iraq at $87 billion].

While the truism isn't always true, I think that in this case, "If you build it they will come" is likely to be the case. Rockets are incapable of opening the space frontier because they aren't reusable and they aren't subject to economies of scale. The elevator would be. Like the transcontinental railroad before it, the space elevator would create its own demand, and in the process open a new frontier to full-scale commercialization and colonization.


Chris Campbell said at November 12, 2003 7:21 PM:

For cargo, I think the business case nearly makes itself.

Cheap launch costs will bring satellite deployment within the reach of smaller and smaller organizations (telecommunications companies, etc.). Many, many millions are spent on launch costs eash year as it is. The savings achieved due to a space elevator might take several years to amortize, but not too many.

See LiftWatch.org for news and links related to this topic.

RAS said at May 5, 2004 8:20 PM:

Chris,

The only downside is that larger companies may be willing to pay more to keep you from helping their competition to pay less and become better leveraged players.

I like the idea, the only material stronger than steel in my opinion is light. If you could build a portal of light as a shield for yet a stronger and more focus beam of light, you might be able to generate enough energy to withstand earth's weather and gravitational forces. Just a thought.


Karl said at October 12, 2005 9:11 PM:

Seriously, if I could fly down to Sri Lanka or Kenya or Brazil (near the equator) to board an elevator to SPACE, I'd do it without a second thought. If I had 20 million dollars for a rocket ride I'd do that too. So would anyone else.

Of course there's no market for space travel today; people might as well erect a ladder out of solid gold. Most people can't even /aspire/ to a space flight, let alone afford it.

Can you imagine? What would any sane man say to "We can send you to space, but it'll cost you less than one airplane ticket."? As soon as the technology is viable, there's /no excuse/ for not building a half dozen of these things.

As for the Moon and Mars? Governments would be able to throw people there every few days! With our methods now, sending anything to Mars is fantastically expensive, even for NASA. With a space elevator, the MARS trip would be routine. After a while we could construct elevators ON Mars.
It's like considering a cross country trip. It'd be nice to visit your relatives, but you'd have to burn /priceless historical artifacts/ in a /steam-powered locomotive/ to get there. Suddenly, you realize you could just take the car. Wow! Now that's convenience!

Karl said at October 12, 2005 9:12 PM:

Seriously, if I could fly down to Sri Lanka or Kenya or Brazil (near the equator) to board an elevator to SPACE, I'd do it without a second thought. If I had 20 million dollars for a rocket ride I'd do that too. So would anyone else.

Of course there's no market for space travel today; people might as well erect a ladder out of solid gold. Most people can't even /aspire/ to a space flight, let alone afford it.

Can you imagine? What would any sane man say to "We can send you to space, but it'll cost you less than one airplane ticket."? As soon as the technology is viable, there's /no excuse/ for not building a half dozen of these things.

As for the Moon and Mars? Governments would be able to throw people there every few days! With our methods now, sending anything to Mars is fantastically expensive, even for NASA. With a space elevator, the MARS trip would be routine. After a while we could construct elevators ON Mars.
It's like considering a cross country trip. It'd be nice to visit your relatives, but you'd have to burn /priceless historical artifacts/ in a /steam-powered locomotive/ to get there. Suddenly, you realize you could just take the car. Wow! Now that's convenience!

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