Earth-to-space elevator proposed
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - Researchers are proposing an elevator reaching 100,000 kilometres into the sky that would be able to launch payloads into space at a far lower cost than space shuttle.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists are so convinced it can be a reality that they are working on their own time on technical details. Five to 10 scientists at any given time are analysing the economics, technical specifications of how the elevator would work and possible health risks to those using it.
Lab scientist Bryan Laubscher said researchers hope the U.S. Department of Energy can someday use the information to start investing in a space elevator.
"The first country that owns the space elevator will own space," Laubscher said. "I believe that, and I think Los Alamos should be involved in making that happen."
The elevator shaft would be made of a strong, thin, lightweight material called carbon nanotubes. The shaft, really a 32 million-storey-tall cable, would be carried into orbit on a conventional spacecraft, then gradually dropped down to Earth and attached to an ocean platform along the equator.
Solar-powered crawlers would move up and down the elevator, carrying payloads of satellites or probes to be placed in Earth's orbit or beyond. They also would attach additional cables to the main shaft that eventually would become new elevators.
"It would create huge, huge savings over how we launch stuff now," said Ron Morgan, a health scientist working on the project. "From the top of it, we could throw things off to Mars or to the inner solar system. Launching those things on conventional rockets costs a fortune."
A payload on the shuttle costs about $15,000 US per kilogram to launch into orbit, while a payload on the first space elevator likely would cost about $1,000 per kilogram, which could drop to $50 to $100 in time, Laubscher said.
Significant technical questions remain. No one has made a carbon nanotube cable longer than a few metres but Laubscher said technology is improving daily, and a longer cable could be possible in a few years.
Also, the Earth's magnetosphere, far above where the shuttle typically travels, could be a radiation hazard. Scientists say that wouldn't rule out equipment launches or space tourism in lower orbits.
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., said the space elevator concept is ingenious but faces big obstacles including environmental and cost questions.
"My comment would be, 'Good luck,' " he said.
The researchers believe their time on the project is worth it.
"None of us can imagine how the space elevator will change the world," Morgan said. "I'd love to be here 15 years after the first one is built to see how the world changes. I think it will change everything."