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Scientist Sees Space Elevator in 15 Years 503

bofh31337 writes "Scientist Bradley C. Edwards, head of the space elevator project at the Institute for Scientific Research, thinks an elevator that climbs 62,000 miles into space could be operating in 15 years. He pegs the cost at $10 billion, a pittance compared with other space endeavors. 'It's not new physics--nothing new has to be discovered, nothing new has to be invented from scratch,' he says. 'If there are delays in budget or delays in whatever, it could stretch, but 15 years is a realistic estimate for when we could have one up.' NASA already has given more than $500,000 to study the idea, and Congress has earmarked $2.5 million more."
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Scientist Sees Space Elevator in 15 Years

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Who would stand Muzak for a 45 min ride.....
  • 15 years? (Score:5, Funny)

    by bugnuts ( 94678 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:48PM (#9533571) Journal
    that'll be the wait after pressing the UP button.

    Imagine the jerk that presses the "close door" button as you're running.
    • by Scaba ( 183684 ) <joe.joefrancia@com> on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:00PM (#9533670)

      Dude, just take the stairs. You kids are sooo lazy today...

    • by AndroidCat ( 229562 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:33PM (#9533881) Homepage
      Or worse, that some kids had pressed all the floor buttons.
  • "it could stretch"
  • We don't experience this problem *now* merely because we don't have any structure that tall, but if something of this magnitude was built, wouldn't the earths rotation have some sort of effect on this?

    -shameless gmail request for a military man... kwishot xatx yahoo-
    • Yep, the article says the earth's rotation will keep the cable taut. Makes sense.
    • Already taken into account. In fact, it relies on them. The endpoint is in geosynch orbit, where a orbiting satelite will hover over a specific point, to keep it properly tensioned.
      • The MIDPOINT of the cable will be in geosynch orbit. This is at 32K miles. The remainder of the cable is outside of this, to counterbalance the pull of gravity on the lower portion of the cable.
  • by shawkin ( 165588 ) * on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:49PM (#9533582)
    This is a high performance, high stress ribbon
    This application has little room for error. Obviously.

    Wear on carbon nanotube ribbons may be significant.
    Carbon nanotube ribbons may be susceptible to significant deterioration from cosmic rays.
    Micrometeor impacts may also be a problem.

    If the ribbon fails, what do we do with 62,000 miles of ribbon?
    Oh wait, we build a Beowulf cluster of Christmas wrapping stores.

    And then there is the cost estimate.
    • Re:Some cautions (Score:4, Insightful)

      by cmowire ( 254489 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:03PM (#9533693) Homepage
      It'd be a bargan at ten times the price, I suspect.

      I mean, the big thing is that a few million to really take a good look at it and answer these sorts of questions. Compared to the benefits from being able to get stuff to and from orbit for incredibly low costs, and the cool stuff that then becomes possible, that's small change.

      Plus, if it doesn't work out, there's a few *other* teather systems that could work as acceptable substitutes, so I doubt the research would be entirely wasted.
  • by mr_don't ( 311416 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:50PM (#9533585)
    Yeah, i wonder if it will have one of those burgundy phones for when it gets stuck...
  • The story mentions the cable, and a platform, so what kind of a tower arrangement is it going to have?

    At any rate, at 62 miles, the lawyers are going to be lining up first, for the "helluva whiplash" suits.
    • There's no tower. You put a big counterweight at the top. As long as the center of mass is in geosynchronous orbit, it supports itself.
  • by sjwaste ( 780063 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:51PM (#9533599)
    At the minimum, keep this guy funded so he can research the necessary materials. The article gives a timeframe of 2 yrs for the nanotube technology. If something like this could actually be built in the coming generation, getting things into space will probably become a whole lot cheaper.

    Plus, a space elevator.. it even SOUNDS cool. Almost as cool as moonbase.
  • No new news (Score:5, Informative)

    by Michael Crutcher ( 631990 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:52PM (#9533606)
    This is the same story that's been going around for a while, there is no new news in the linked article.

    The current issue of Discover magizine has a much longer and more informative writeup.

  • In Space... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Zorilla ( 791636 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:53PM (#9533609)
    ...Nobody but you can hear the elevator music

    And consequently, nobody can hear you scream.
  • Radiation (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mikejz84 ( 771717 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:56PM (#9533635)
    One little problem for a human to ride the space elevator--the slow speed of assent means that people would pass though the Van Allen belt for a rather long time--exposing them to possibly deadly radiation.
  • "Nothing new" (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dj245 ( 732906 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:56PM (#9533636) Homepage
    nothing new has to be invented from scratch

    While technically true, carbon nanotubes need to be much stronger and more developed before they can be employed in a space elevator with a good margin for safety.

  • Arthur C. Clark (Score:3, Insightful)

    by isoprophlex ( 659648 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:57PM (#9533641)
    Another Arthur C. Clark moment, he has come up with so many amazing inventions in his chronicles. The satellite, now this... Actually I'm not sure if he did come up with the idea, but it was in 3001. So if you want to read about the theories of space elevators. This is the book to pick up.
    • Re:Arthur C. Clark (Score:3, Informative)

      by Poseidon88 ( 791279 )
      Well, "3001" wasn't published until 1996. He wrote "The Fountains of Paradise", another book about a space elevator, in 1978. But, at any rate, sci-fi authors rarely think up these things themselves. Instead, they generally get their ideas from journals and contacts in the scientific community. For example, one of my college CS professors is friends with Greg Bear, and helped him with background material for a couple novels.
      • Re:Arthur C. Clark (Score:3, Informative)

        by kerrbear ( 163235 )

        He wrote "The Fountains of Paradise", another book about a space elevator, in 1978.

        As I recall the "shaft" of the elevator was made with a special new material that has the strength of steel at the molecular level. I.e. a strand of it one molecule thick could not be broken and was also super dangerous as it could cut through almost anything.

        Interesting concept, but I guess we don't really need that stuff after all...

    • Try Fountains of Paradise, and only after you read the article. Nice try, though. :)
    • Re:Arthur C. Clark (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:15PM (#9533780)
      I did some more research on this and found the following:

      The concept of the space elevator first appeared in 1895 when a Russian scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris to consider a tower that reached all the way into space. He imagined placing a "celestial castle" at the end of a spindle-shaped cable, with the "castle" orbiting Earth in a geosynchronous orbit (i.e. the castle would remain over the same spot on Earth's surface). The tower would be built from the ground up to an altitude of 35,800 kilometers (geostationary orbit). Comments from Nikola Tesla are suggestive that he may have also conceived such a tower. His notes were sent behind the Iron Curtain after his death. di a/s/sp/space_elevator.html
  • We're almost there (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Trailer Trash ( 60756 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @07:58PM (#9533650) Homepage

    He pegs the cost at $10 billion...NASA already has given more than $500,000 to study the idea, and Congress has earmarked $2.5 million more.

    Wow, at this rate, we'll have the money in, oh, 1000 years...

    • Edwards thinks we'll have the right kind of carbon nanotube material Real Soon Now, if he gets his grant for a couple million more bucks of development money. That's dirt cheap - and if he's right, it's such a revolutionary building material for non-space use that commercial companies ought to be pounding on his doorstep to invest. Now, maybe this means that commercial companies are more realistic about his chances of quick success than he is, or maybe he's had his head in the government sand too long to
  • by Anonymous Coward
    So I was on the Space Elevator last month, and 10 minutes into the ride a guy sitting next to me ripped one! "Sorry," he says, "I had spicy enchiladas for dinner last night." Longest trip of my life.

  • Or not... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Dinosaur Neil ( 86204 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:01PM (#9533676)

    ...nothing new has to be discovered, nothing new has to be invented from scratch...

    Uhhm, even in his book, Edwards admits that the carbon nanotubes needed to make this work just aren't there yet; while we can manufacture nanotubes now, we can't make them as strong (by a factor of around 100) or nearly as long (by a factor of 10,000 or more) as needed. While it may well be that, as soon as someone really puts some effort/research bucks into making stronger/longer nanotubes, they will happen, but it seems like 15 years might still be optimistic.

    OTOH, this would be way cool, and maybe in my lifetime to boot...

  • by Rinikusu ( 28164 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:01PM (#9533678)
    Build a roller coaster from space, to the earth... Slow ride up.. then massive whoosh on the way down with plenty of loops and turns and upside-down goodness! Imagine the tourism dollars that could go fund the lowly freight elevator next to it! And we could call it.. The.. Great Space Coaster! And hire a GNU named Gary! Or Richard...

    But I digress...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Arthur C. Clarke talked about a space elevator in 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997), and mentions that 1996 Nobel Prize in Quemistry, Dr. Smalley claimed that those buckytubes could be used to build such elevator.
  • Not for passengers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AgentOJ ( 320270 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:05PM (#9533710)
    I've read quite a few posts about "riding the space elevator." I'm under the impression (and yes, I RTFA) that the space elevator would be solely used to send cargo up to space. Astronauts would still get up to the ISS by conventional means, and then the space elevator would just be a cheap[er] way to get supplies up to them without worrying about sending up rockets. Unless I missed something, humans wouldn't be travelling on this space elevator at all.
    • by WillWare ( 11935 )
      Cargo might be a good use of the thing. When I read about the thing a couple years ago, I got all excited and got a copy of Edwards' book. There are two big problems. One is that LEO is full of space junk flying around at 8 km/sec. Edwards' idea for that is to put the bottom of the elevator on a boat that tugs the elevator around horizontally to avoid the flying junk, and I see no reason why that wouldn't work, assuming you can track the junk well enough, and make the cable fault-tolerant/redundant. The oth
  • You could have "love in an elevator" *AND* join the "mile high club" at the same time!
  • by edwinolson ( 116413 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:08PM (#9533729) Homepage
    Some folks think it's a typo, that it's supposed to be 65 miles, not 65K miles. No, 65K miles is more like it. You really want your elevator's center of mass to be in geosynchronous orbit... Space elevators to LEO tend to, uh, get wound around the earth right fast.

    And if the ribbon breaks, things generally aren't so bad. The portion of the elevator (including the counter weight) that's further from the earth will tend to move away from the earth. (If you spin in a circle with a rock in your hand, then let go of the rock, the rock goes away from you, not crashing in towards your head.) The nearer part will tend to fall, but it will tend to fall slowly and is relatively unlikely to cause damage. (At least, according to High lift systems, who came and gave a talk last year.) The elevator, since it's so huge, tends to not be terribly heavy. The system proposed by high lift systems

    I believe Brad Edwards was involved in High Lift Systems, so I imagine the basic idea is the same.

    If geo is ~20K miles, why does the elevator need to be so long? Does this mean that they're now thinking about a lighter counter weight? They used to talk about capturing an asteroid.
  • by Faies ( 248065 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:12PM (#9533761) Homepage
    Nothing in the article mentions the feasability of getting a decently sized counterweight at the top of the elevator. All plans I've heard of require at least some sort of asteroid...and if you're talking politics, people are going to be afraid of dragging a rock into Earth orbit that could smash into the planet <insert silly catastrophe movie here> if something went awry.
    • The proposals all assumme a length of cable beyond geosynchronous orbit, and possibly left over machinery from the cable building, would serve as the counterweight.

      A longer cable is actually useful, as it can be used to throw things out of Earth's orbit, such as to get to other planets.
    • by ThrasherTT ( 87841 ) <thrasher@deathma t c> on Friday June 25, 2004 @09:42PM (#9534224) Homepage Journal
      As far as I understand it (from the recent Discover article), once the ribbon is initially deployed (starts out small), they send up small lifters that build onto the main ribbon, increasing its width. These initial lifters would park at the end of the cable forever, increasing the size of the counterweight. They claim that the initial ribbon would take about 2 years to build to full width with this method. Additional ribbons could be constructed in 7 months each, for MUCH less cost... after all, they can use the first elevator to start the construction, instead of sending the initial materials up on big tanks of burning rocket fuel.
  • by bravehamster ( 44836 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:16PM (#9533781) Homepage Journal
    I'll just wait for the Space Escalator, thank you very much.

    Just you parents make sure your kids aren't wearing loose jeans on the escalator!

  • by mpn14tech ( 716482 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:25PM (#9533835)
    How is coriolis force going to be handled.

    Since velocity=(radius)(angular speed) then there has to be a tangential acceleration as the elevator starts going up.

    Obviously tension on the cable can be used if you do not go up too fast or send up too much mass at one time.

    Of course the talk as always about using this to go up, but would it be possible to use this as a really big sling shot to launch space craft around the solar system.
  • by harvey the nerd ( 582806 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:26PM (#9533837)
    This is a vital technology but...3 ft Pipelines (say 36" X65), mere steel steel shells say 1/3 to 1 inch thick, usually cost (usually way over) over $1 million / mile on terra firma. Not to mention how much super carbon fiber rod(nearly solid 3ft??), flying it up, joining in place. Try some multiple of $100 billion at least. $10b sounds like someone's "too cheap to meter" on nuclear power 50+ yrs ago. We got "nuked" financially.
  • no new physics? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:31PM (#9533873)
    The nanotube thread we can make now is not strong enough to work. What we need is a way to "weld" nanotubes together without introducing massive defects (that's key). There's a significant amount of physics to be done there.

    On the other hand, we've been able to increase the size of the nanotubes we've been able to grow an order of magnitude every few years. We're up to centimeters now for one, single tube, and the process is likely scalable (as in, bigger furnace, longer tubes).

    To get an idea of how hard this would be:

    62000 miles is about 1*10^14 micrometers,

    There are about 3.2*10^7 seconds in a year,

    nanotubes grow at around 300 micrometers a second,

    so it would take 10,000 years to grow that elevator out of continuous tubes (unless we're way, way off on the speed).

    I'm not sure about 15 years, but I think we'll get it done sometime in the next 100 with some sort of welding technique, and in the long run, it's going to cost a lot more than anyone now thinks.
  • Supply Elevator (Score:3, Insightful)

    by deathcloset ( 626704 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @08:54PM (#9533980) Journal
    The space elevator coupled with a nuclear rocket is really the way to get things going (in my blissfull imagination).

    The moon base is looking better and better, closer to 'reality' everyday...or every year, I should perhaps say.

    The nuclear rocket would be great for getting the inital big heavy stuff up into space; primary building materials, the initial spools and anchors, people..etc..

    I would think the space elevator would be good (at first) to reserve for hefting non-living things like food, water, and my personal favorite - oxygen, up to the anchor station and transfering them to the moon-base's anchor.

    From the earth's anchor-station you basically just give the big 'ol bag of air a nice gentle push (maybe use a 'simple' solar sail, and who cares if it takes a month to make the journey over to the moon anchor (I think it would probably take less); becuase you'll have already sent 1000 ('cheap') other bags of supplies already in transit; a nice, floating convoy of happy consumables/breathables migrating on over to the moon (and back for recycling). Nice perpetual supply chain.

    Heck, you could just have a 'snorkle' tube, dipped into the atmosphere, drinking up oxygen and water to fill the supply balloons. Dedicated supply elevators. When they get to the moon, empty them out and send 'em back.

    To get the people to the moon base we would use the more-funner nuclear rocket ship (at first).

    Now what if the ribbon breaks? you just have to ask, don't you? of course you have to ask; if you didn't you'd be ignorant (which is supposed to be bliss, but were that true there would be more happy people).

    Well, if the ribbon breaks, that sucks. Basically you just make sure you have contingency, two elevators/ribbons and a good insurance agent. That way you can keep the lifeline going while we change-out the nanotube-paper-towel-roll on the other elevator.

    As for the 62,000 miles of ribbon falling to the earth - the worst place for a break would be right at the anchor. This would mean the entire ribbon would begin falling to earth. This problem could be handled via several means. one way we could do it would be to have some sort of explosive bolt system that would blow the cable into small segments that could burn up in the atmosphere...hopefully (maybe they would be light enough, with enough drag to simply flutter down (let's just not worry about the unfavorable aspects of nanotube particles in the atmosphere for now - we, uh, have a glue that keeps them from turning into horrible carbon dust..yeah).

    the other, more conservative method would be to have a quick retract device at the ocean-based-mobile-ground-station (ocean, ground, mobile, station...some oxymorons there) This would spool down the elevator ribbon at a speed that would keep it from 'tipping'. resulting in a straight to the ocean floor descent (imagine a kite's-tail - only vertical).

    Perhaps the ribbon could even have parachute points at intervals along it's ascent. Long and short of it - if I can start dreaming up ways to handle this I think a couple physicists could figure something up that would work.

    TERRORISTS!!! WHAT ABOUT THEM!? Sure, they crashed a civilian plane into the pentagon. But they didn't crash it into an airforce base, now did they? Why? S.A.Ms.

    It sounds wild, but to me the space elevator just seems so elegant; almost natural. I mean, carbon; come on. We all Love carbon right? -(my friend mike for some reason hates carbon, but he's a chemist and that's another story)

    I always think of the analogy of space as a tall cliff. You need to get to the top. Do you..
    A) catapult yourself up there, try to land on your feet without breaking things and then base-jump back down?


    B) throw a grappling hook, climb up, and climb down?

    can you think of a better non-explosive way to get to space?

  • by Saeger ( 456549 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {jllerraf}> on Friday June 25, 2004 @09:27PM (#9534140) Homepage
    Arthur C. Clarke is famous for saying that the space elevator "will be built about 10 years after everybody stops laughing," so who's the joker who's still laughing and holding us up an extra 5 years? :)

    It's probably the nanotube/nanotech pessimists who are ignorant of the law of accelerating returns. []


  • by Mulletproof ( 513805 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @09:43PM (#9534225) Homepage Journal
    You see, we've done this before... You know, the "monument of engineering in somebody else's country" thing? So where do we build this thingy along the equator??

    Let's take a look:

    Dem. Rep. Congo

    Are you fucking kidding me??????

    Yes, I can see this one happening in the very near future. Just the places to plant a multi billion dollar space elevator, right? The only country I'd even consider building this thing would be in Singapore, depending on how much equatorial leeway we have to play with. I mean the science is one thing; Great yeah, we have the money and the technology, lets build this mama! But actually breaking ground on this thing is a political nightmare of epic proportions. Stability of the local governement is just as big, if not a bigger issue than "can we build it/how much?"

    The fact that the builder is going to want to make money off it once it's built is another huge issue, severely limiting the number of sites. Unless you want to ship all your ultra high-tech parts halfway around the world to, say, Somolia? ...Let alone defending the site from the world village idiots.

    Price to build isn't the only thing the government is looking at here and Bradley is a fool if he thinks that's all that's stopping this from moving forward.
    • by tgibbs ( 83782 ) on Saturday June 26, 2004 @12:07AM (#9534992)
      You see, we've done this before... You know, the "monument of engineering in somebody else's country" thing? So where do we build this thingy along the equator??

      Actually the plan isn't to build it in any country. The proposal is to use a floating platform converted from an oil drilling rig. There's a lot more suitable ocean than land, and an ocean platform could be best situated for good weather, and even moved a bit to dodge larger bits of debris. A platform out in the middle of the open ocean would also be less accessible to terrorists.
  • $500,000? At NASA? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Leebert ( 1694 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @09:43PM (#9534227)
    NASA already has given more than $500,000 to study the idea...

    That's not all that much money at NASA, it's the equivalent of 2 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs), plus a little bit of equipment to work with.
  • Correction (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GISGEOLOGYGEEK ( 708023 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @10:00PM (#9534300)
    'It's not new physics--nothing new has to be discovered, nothing new has to be invented from scratch,'
    ... except for a light material strong enough to be used for the elevator. Carbon nanotubes on their own are more than strong enough .. BUT there is presently no way to bond them together in sufficient density in a material that could be used for the elevator. Presently light composite polymer carbon nanotube ribbon cable can be made with 1% nanotubes ... 50% is needed. So, we need new physics to discover a polymer matrix from scratch to bond together the nanotubes to make the elevator. Thanks /. for another misleading story.
  • by bl8n8r ( 649187 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @10:09PM (#9534344)
    Experts are finding drug abuse, particularly crack, is rising in the scientific and technology fields.
  • by deathcloset ( 626704 ) on Friday June 25, 2004 @10:41PM (#9534545) Journal
    that's only $1400 per year for a decade. $116 a month, about $4 a day! if we all just stop eating taco bell one meal a day we can do this! So, who do I make a paypal donation to? who's the leader in carbon nanotube research? I have a big, fat $20 bill with 'C' written all over it! seriously, I do. I wrote it with a marker.

Never say you know a man until you have divided an inheritance with him.