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Space Technology

No One Wins NASA Space Elevator Contest 240

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the get-out-and-push dept.
volts writes "According to New Scientist no one was able to grab the two $50,000 top prizes in the recent NASA 'Beam Power Challenge'. The biggest limiting factor seemed to be that no team was able to meet the speed requirement, although a group from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada set the height record at 12 meters. Not quite geosynchronous..."
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No One Wins NASA Space Elevator Contest

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  • by Silverlancer (786390) on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:50PM (#13866573)
    The biggest limiting factor seemed to be that NASA didn't offer enough money to get any remotely reasonable solution to the problem. Fifty thousand dollars is chump change to the kind of money needed to develop any of this technology.
    • I was about to say the same thing... on the other hand, they're doubling it for next year. Hopefully they will continue to increase it substantially ever year until there is a winner (or it just isn't worth it anymore).

      Starting out low and moving up seems like a good way to ensure you get the best price if you're not in a great hurry. (Isn't that what a Dutch auction is?).

    • by georgewilliamherbert (211790) on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:54PM (#13866603)
      The biggest limiting factor seemed to be that NASA didn't offer enough money to get any remotely reasonable solution to the problem. Fifty thousand dollars is chump change to the kind of money needed to develop any of this technology.
      These challenges typically cost more to compete in than you can win. DARPA autonomous vehicles teams typically spent 2-3 times the prize. The X-prize was won by a team spending $26 million on a $10 million prize.

      What you "win" is prestige and advancing the state of the art.

      Also, at least one elevator climber team was only 3 people part-time. That's not a huge budget...

    • by afidel (530433) on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:57PM (#13866626)
      $50K for a design and prototype isn't a lot, but since student labor is basically free most of the money can go towards building the prototype. The biggest problem seems to be that the energy source available seems to be the light energy from a couple hundred watt lamp. Assuming that the bulb is 50% efficient that doesn't leave a lot of energy to move even the motors at the required speed, let alone the entire vehicle.
      • The biggest problem seems to be that the energy source available seems to be the light energy from a couple hundred watt lamp.
        That requirement surprised me... given the interesting electrical properties of nanotubes [physicsweb.org], dare we hope that the line itself can carry the energy?
        • Short of a superconductor, practical wired power transmission is measured in hundreds or at best thousands of miles. Tens of thousands would be too much to hope for.
          • by timeOday (582209) on Monday October 24, 2005 @05:46PM (#13866972)
            Short of a superconductor, practical wired power transmission is measured in hundreds or at best thousands of miles. Tens of thousands would be too much to hope for.
            Are you sure? Quoting the article I linked:
            "On the fundamental side, a perfect metallic nanotube should be a ballistic conductor: in other words, every electron injected into the nanotube at one end should come out the other end. Although a ballistic conductor does have some resistance, this resistance is independent of its length, which means that Ohm's law does not apply. Indeed, only a superconductor (which has no electrical resistance whatsoever) is a better conductor."
      • by po8 (187055) on Monday October 24, 2005 @06:01PM (#13867059)

        "$50K for a design and prototype isn't a lot, but since student labor is basically free most of the money can go towards building the prototype."

        As a research professor with students who could have tried to build this thing, take my word for it that it's not enough money. I refuse to have my students doing someone else's research for free; I want to be able to pay them at least $10/hour + tuition remission. For an undergraduate at my fairly inexpensive institution, that's about $7K per quarter, and I'd need three of these. Add a $20K equipment budget and $5K for my time and we are at $46K.

        So the budget is $50K. What's the problem? Just the obvious one that my chance of winning is quite difficult to estimate, but certainly way less than 100%. I'd put my expected return at around $5K. There may be institutions and individuals who can afford to expect to lose $41K for the prestige of doing good research and the prospect of future funding. I'm not one, so I'm out.

        It doesn't appear that I am unique in these calculations.

        By contrast, I just finished a NASA Phase I SBIR. $68,000 over 6 months, guaranteed. If I wanted to do space elevator research, I'd be way better off submitting an SBIR proposal than entering the contest: small up-front risk, higher expected return, better prospects of future funding.

        Contests are run because there are often folks who overvalue them, so they are sometimes a cheap way to get things done at the expense of others.

        • As a research student, I would have been interested in working on a project like this as an extra-curricular activity, if the materials had been provided. Being on the winning team would look very good on anyone's CV, being on a losing team would have been good experience, and probably quite fun as well. I suspect I am not alone in believing this - and that would shave $21K off your budget requirements at the start. That gives a $25K investment for a potential $50K (plus marketing capital) return - not f
          • It's great for research students to work for free on projects. I just want them to be my projects, not someone else's. See my PSAS [pdx.edu] and SDR [pdx.edu] stuff for examples of where I've successfully deployed students to learn, have fun, gain experience, and pad their CVs. See my Summer of Code [pdx.edu] site for an example of where they've actually gotten paid to do it.

            Sadly, changing the prize from $50K to $100K doesn't change the economics much. In my previous post I was estimating (perhaps wildly wrongly) that this year's

        • For an undergraduate at my fairly inexpensive institution, that's about $7K per quarter, and I'd need three of these. Add a $20K equipment budget and $5K for my time and we are at $46K.

          Considering that equivalent in industry care and feeding for 3 full-time engineers would be over $500k ($55k ea + a $100k manager + $100k janitorial/HR/security staff + $100k equipment + office space,) 3 students for $46k is free. However, private companies are in this for the publicity that brings venture capital, not the ch
      • "The biggest problem seems to be that the energy source available seems to be the light energy from a couple hundred watt lamp."

        From TFA: 'an industrial searchlight'

        I read this to mean one of those 10000W carbon arc searchlights they use to spot planes and highlight new shopping centres, like this: http://www.geocities.com/bobz299/searchlight3.htm [geocities.com]
    • The point of the exercise is not to win $50,000. The idea is to give people an idea of what particular technologies NASA is looking to invest in.

      NASA and other government agencies regularly offer research grants to develop the technology they want. This is just a way to do the same thing on the cheap. Rather than offering several different parties hundred thousand dollar research grants, you offer a prize to the winner of a contest, and hype up the contest. That way, people get fame as well as the possi
    • The biggest limiting factor was that NASA will offer $100k for the same contest next year. Whether it will offer $200k a year after that will decide the fate of the next contest.
  • Too bad (Score:2, Insightful)

    I'm reminded of DARPA Grand Challenge 1. This, though, seems quite a bit easier than autonomous vehicles- perhaps not the tether, but the climbers seem straighforeward. Are solar panels really that heavy? Are they that inefficient? The article says there was only a six-month time period between the contest announcement and the contest, but there isn't much in the way of new technology needed here. What gives?
    • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Informative)

      by qbwiz (87077) * <john.baumanfamily@com> on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:59PM (#13866647) Homepage
      The problem was apparently that the spotlight they were using had too diffuse of a beam. Next year, when the teams provide their own beaming systems, it might turn out better.
    • Are solar panels really that heavy? Are they that inefficient? The article says there was only a six-month time period between the contest announcement and the contest, but there isn't much in the way of new technology needed here.

      I think maybe they are going about this the wrong way... Most people are thinking heavier than air object lifts. What they really should need is a hellium ballon that can make the lift from 0-50km and where lighter than air (or lighter than the atmosphere around it) no longer beco
  • by Surazal (729) on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:55PM (#13866609) Homepage Journal
    "Quick guys, we gotta find a way to spin the Earth up really fast so we can call our elevator geosyncronous. There's $50,000 at stake, people!"
  • Geosynchronous (Score:5, Informative)

    by ornil (33732) on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:57PM (#13866629)
    Not quite geosynchronous...

    Oh, it's quite geosynchronous (i.e. above the same point on the Earth surface). It's just not in orbit.
  • by aengblom (123492) on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:58PM (#13866639) Homepage
    Not quite geosynchronous...


    We didn't have enough money to put a man in a track suit up a ladder! I mean, I would've been there,

    "Go man, go!" "

    I'm going, I'm going! 'Ang on!"

    "Just hang on to the ladder!"

    "Hello, Swindon, I am here. Swindon, can you hear me?"

    "Swindon here, we are monitoring you on our instruments at the moment, we've got you on a tuba." "There should be a bigger laugh for that joke, I think."

    "Yeah, I can't quite understand it; I thought it was really funny. Swindon, a knackered, kind of Fresno town."

    "They don't seem to be going for it."

    "They're obviously bastards."

    "Anyway, Swindon, I'm nearly at the Moon... actually, that's a bit of an understatement, that one.

    Have you got another big ladder, another bit of ladder? I don't think we're quite at the Moon yet, but I can see right over the top of the houses! Fantastic!"
  • by eyal (774028) on Monday October 24, 2005 @04:58PM (#13866640)
    ...although a group from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada set the height record at 12 meters

    Maybe if we stacked them...

    • It figures that Saskatchewan [usask.ca] would set the HEIGHT record.

      *People uneducated about SK's geography will get the joke, since most people think SK is completely flat when it is not.

      On a side note, the UofS is also on the forefront of science with regard to Synchrotrons [usask.ca].
      • Heh, I was just about to say... don't knock this effort too badly...

        12 meters still makes it the highest thing in the province :P
  • Forget solar panels. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by roman_mir (125474) on Monday October 24, 2005 @05:00PM (#13866659) Homepage Journal
    Go back to steam engines, stirling engines? If your power source is light, why bother with electrical engines? Use some liquid gas as fuel in a tank, use the projected light as a heat source, let the gas heat up in a combustion chamber (a piston?) and drive the whole thing up as a locomotive :)
    • Problem with that is that you need to raise not only your payload but the fuel. This is why they are trying to utilize solar panels and an external light source.
      • A stirling engine wouldn't require fuel. Besides, temperature differences allow for condensation which can be used to generate steam ;)

        In any case, I think going with the most obvious solution - solar panels - is not what is going to win the prize in the next year's competition.
      • By the way, a Stirling engine does not really burn the gas in a tank, it lets the gas cool off and then uses some heat source to heat the gas again thus producing an engine cycle.
      • He's talking about a closed loop system. The light from the ground is providing your heat source; the relative cold of the other side of the climber provides the heat sink.
    • Stirling Engine. Definately. That way, you don't have to carry extra 'fuel'.

      I can see this working. A stirling engine, with the 'heating' chamber on the outside. Target it with a laser (not allowed this year, but will be next), and you'll have a very efficent climber.

      You do need to track the machine with the laser (it might help to shoot straight up), and dissipating the heat would be a problem for a 'real' application (heat doesn't dissipate as easy in a vacum), but that wouldn't be a problem for the h
      • Hmm. If I were NASA, I would have written the following somewhere in the rules:

        "Designs which cannot work in a vacuum or microgravity environment are nto eligible."
        • Not at this level. It would increase the cost to much.

          And a Sterling engine will work in microgravity and in a vacuum. It just takes more work. Heat dissipation is a problem, but not an unsolvable one.
        • You still have a few hundred thousand feet of climbing in non-zero vacuum, and much, much farther than that in significant gravity, for a proper space elevator. Why not use these environments to advantage (eg. balloons and counter-weights, just off the top of my head)? It's the same idea behind a space plane - you'll likely need different engines for different stages of the journey, each one optimized to a particular operating regime. I'm sure the ideal climber in the low-atmosphere, low-G environment at
    • by Chirs (87576) on Monday October 24, 2005 @05:38PM (#13866916)
      One of the big points about the space elevator scenario is that descending cars can generate electricity. Ideally, you would want to use this to help power the ascending cars to minimize wasted energy. If you're feeding ascending cars electricity anyway, you may as well convert all incoming energy into that form.
      • I say use the best tool for the job. If the best tool for lifting an elevator up is a steam engine or a Stirling engine then use that. But it doesn't mean electricity should not be used at all. There can be 2 engines on an elevator that goes that high up. Even if only for redundancy.

  • I didn't think of that as the really hard part in the space elevator problem. I'm sure somebody will figure out how to build a climber. I would have thought that the hard part is figuring out how to build a cable that the climber could climb, which seems to involve scaling up the best known materials by 10 orders of magnitude.

    It reminds me of the old joke about the drunk looking under the lamppost for the quarter he dropped in the alley, because that's where the light is better.
    • I think its a matter of "first things first." The climber currently is the most attainable technologocal component. The cable will require breakthroughs in new materials to be viable, and I doubt a contest for $50,000 is going to speed that up.
  • by KilobyteKnight (91023) <bjm.midsouth@rr@com> on Monday October 24, 2005 @05:10PM (#13866733) Homepage
    Didn't they do this on Junkyard Wars with a jet ski engine, duct tape, and a couple pieces of PCV?
  • It seems the solution to this problem is to add a basement.
  • by modi123 (750470) on Monday October 24, 2005 @05:23PM (#13866819) Homepage Journal
    ... was disqualified for "inappropriate" elevator music... Under testing situations, all of our patients (read: monkeys, elderly, humans, and fish) were driven insane, then promptly driven sane, then insane, then sane, and so forth during the 62.5 mile elevator ride finished. After the tenth go around we decided the cost to hosing out the compartment filled with bile, blood, and bits of hair were not worth the cash prize. So it goes. Additionally, the PSP battery life wasn't sufficient to stave off elevator-maddness either. http://trs.nis.nasa.gov/archive/00000377/01/tm1085 37.pdf [nasa.gov]
  • by hotgigs (899872) on Monday October 24, 2005 @05:36PM (#13866902)
    Why would I try to win this year when the prize money doubles for next year? "Next year, both contests will be repeated but the top prizes will rise to $100,000." Let me guess... the year after that the prize money goes to $250k? Sounds backward to me...
    • I don't think it's backwards at all. If someone wins, there won't be *any* money next year. The prize money could increase until it's enough to get it done. Competition ensures that it doesn't just keep rising.

      In fact, I'd say this sounds like a better approach than "submit your proposal and we'll give you a pile of money" for things that are experimental and preliminary like this.
  • The top prize is 50K...deduct 50% for university overhead, about 12K for graduate student salary, 5K for professor salary, and you might have 8K for materials budget. What happens when you need a special diode that costs 2K?

    It sounds like a great idea, they should sweeten the pot a little more (and I did RTFA, 100K won't be enough either).
  • by decipher_saint (72686) on Monday October 24, 2005 @05:54PM (#13867019) Homepage
    Jules Verne thought that in the future man would get to the moon by being fired there in a bullet shaped craft from a gigantic canon, and for a time afterwards many scientists agreed that the easiest way to get something into orbit would be some form of "Verne canon". Of course then you get all those wacky guys in the 20s playing around with rockets with good results. Later some Germans sped up the research into these rockets to be used as weapons of war and the development of rocket systems well, skyrocketed. Several of their best rocket scientists went to the West after WWII and development continued, though this time the focus was split between missile design and space exploration. Meanwhile, in Canada a few nutty guys were involed in a little project called the High Altitude Research Program [astronautix.com] (HARP), the idea was that payloads could simply be fired into orbit by a huge canon, mind you the payloads would be inorganic (satellites, radar chaff, other innert material, etc) because the escape velocity would be too great for living creatures to widthstand.

    At the time (the 60s) people were interested in sending people into space, not to mention the Canadian Gov't no longer had interest in the project it was killed off by 1967. Now, I think the focus has changed a bit (what with successful robotic expeditions and the desire for a cheap way to get material into orbit) that the Verne Canon might once again be relevant.
    • Escape velocity isn't the problem. It's the massive acceleration from the cannon. A cannon accelerates a projectile from a standing start to massive speed in a very short amount of time. This means a massive acceleration for a small period of time - and so a massive force on your payload. Some simple calculations: Say the cannon takes 0.5 secs to fire. Escape velocity is 11100m/s. Your payload would be feeling an acceleration of 22200m/s^2 = 2220 Gs. Humans die at less than 20G. Your sensitive electronic
      • > Escape velocity isn't the problem. It's the massive acceleration
        > from the cannon.

        A cannon cannot accelerate a projectile to a velocity higher than the speed of sound in the hot gases generated by the propellant. It is not practical to get the gases hot enough to push the speed of sound in them to escape velocity.

        > Your sensitive electronics will be mush at well below 1000G's, or
        > below 100G's if they have moving parts.

        The military have been putting clockwork mechanisms in artillery shells fo
  • What I don't understand is why they don't just supply power on the cables that they are climbing. I realize that in a real elevator, the cables would be carbon fiber or something else that isn't conductive material. Is it too much to run a metal wire for power? Does it add that much weight? If so, this is a serious limitation to the whole space elevator idea. It is going to take a lot of energy to take more than a token amount of cargo into orbit... even on an elevator.

    Here I thought that the elevator itsel
    • In a real space elevator, you would have a metal wire running all the way past geosynch. orbit - of a thick enough guage to power something that is hauling a large satellite. Yeah, that would add too much mass. There isn't too much in the way of needing to figure out how to power it.

      Basically, the thought process is this:
      Don't bring fuel - it's a waste of effort hauling it up.
      Don't get energy from the elevator - too much mass.
      So, energy has to be beamed to the crawler.

      Whether that means microwave, or lase
    • Given that length of cable, wouldn't there be some electric current running through it anyway?
      There was that experiment where the space shuttle released a long length of cable, which consequently melted and snapped due to the electric currents from the local magnetic field/solar wind.
    • > I realize that in a real elevator, the cables would be carbon fiber
      > or something else that isn't conductive material.

      Actually, carbon fibers can be remarkable conductors. They can be "ballistic conductors" with the interesting characteristics of resistance independent of length and current densities of 10^7 amps per sq cm.

      If ballistic conductivity is confirmed and turns out to be compatible with the needed strength and the fibers can be made long enough supplying power along the cable may be quite
  • OK, who was the joker that kept hitting all the buttons in the elevator? No wonder it was so slow, it kept having to stop at all the floors. :)
  • All we need is a really deep elevator shaft and a big spring at the bottom - in the cartoons, things always bounce higher...
  • by randall_burns (108052) <randall_burns AT hotmail DOT com> on Monday October 24, 2005 @06:26PM (#13867213)
    What I'd like to see here is a complete set of major milestones that would enable deployment of a Lunar Space Elevator.

    Current estimates [ideosphere.com] suggest that a space elevator will be deployed in 2045 or so. I lunar elevator could be done much sooner-and would have immediate practical value.

    • A lunar space elevator isn't as simple as you might think. Given the moon's proximity to the Earth, the only stable place to deploy one is from the midpoint of the far side. Given the moon's slow rate of rotation, it's more difficult to keep the tether up. You'd need one pretty much as long as those proposed for an Earth-based space elevator.
  • by Deanasc (201050) on Monday October 24, 2005 @06:28PM (#13867225) Homepage Journal
    12 meters. That would be easy to launch a satellite into geosyncronous orbit. Just make it's orbital velocity 20,000 miles per hour.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    why oh why did everyone try to build an ascending elevator? They could easily meet the speed requirements with descending types ;)

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