Space Elevator: Is It Going to Happen?

The concept of an elevator into space is nothing new; engineers and scientists have talked about it for more than 100 years. Until now, it was nothing more than an extremely exciting dream. But a remarkable advance in nanotechnology could mean riding a space elevator on a diamond cable may not be out of the question.

Penn State University’s scientists published a research paper recently that detailed the steps needed to produce ultra-thin “diamond nanothreads.” These cylinders of carbon atoms are so small, the naked human eye cannot see them. Their tensile strength, however, is almost a hundred times stronger than steel. A space elevator would consist of a carbon nanotube cable between the surface of the Earth and the surface of the moon. Levitating magnetic robotic cars would then run up and down it, transporting people and supplies.

Ride to the Border of Space

Making a trip to the moon via a space elevator would take about seven days. People and/or cargo making that 59,651-mile trip would have to be accommodated for that amount of time. That’s twice as long as a spacecraft would take to make the trip. However, the cost to travel up on the space elevator would be much lower.

That’s quite a motivation to make a space elevator a reality, and Japanese construction firm Obayashi Corporation is focusing on the challenge. Obayashi announced recently that they will have a functioning space elevator in the coming 35 years or so. Several universities have agreed to work with Obayashi in developing the parts for the elevator. Central to the concept, however, is the development of the nanotube cable.

Research scientists at Obayashi Corporation believe that a nanotube cable long enough to support a space elevator will be possible by 2030. Right now, however, the length of the cable that can be produced is a mere 3 cm. in length.

Potential problems

Not everyone is so optimistic. There are still technological, logistical and political problems that must be overcome before a space elevator venture could become reality. Here’s some of the possible deal-breakers when it comes to constructing a space elevator:

  • Strong building material needed. This is the biggest problem. While some researchers tout the properties of nanotube cable, others express concern that the hexagonal bonds of the carbon nanotubes will simply unravel when exposed to the amount of strain a space elevator would face.
  • Dangerous vibrations.  Some have expressed concern that the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun, coupled with unstable pressures from gusts of solar wind, would shake the space elevator’s cable.

Climbers wobble.  Because of the Coriolis Effect, a climber on the space elevator would create a wobble effect. This would force the cable in the opposite directions of the Earth’s rotation.  Mechanical engineers predict this would pull the elevator out of its vertical alignment, causing it to swing back and forth like a pendulum. When dealing with a distance as long as a space elevator would be, even the smallest of deviations would result in a wobble. This would, in turn, cause a wobble that resulted in the end of the cable being far removed from the orbital position that was intended.