Space elevator enthusiasts face unanswered questions

At the annual conference, attendees point out the many areas of work needed to make a space elevator a reality

By , IDG News Service |  Science, NASA

Artist Pat Rawling's concept of a space elevator viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down along the length of the elevator toward Earth.

NASA

Might solar energy provide the power needed to send cars up a space elevator? Could you build one fat elevator and split it into two? Can as many as six cars travel up and down a space elevator?

Those are just some of the questions that attendees at the annual Space Elevator Conference on Friday in Seattle wondered about.

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"These are ideas we want to hear and we want people to follow up on," said Bryan Laubscher, one of the leading space elevator enthusiasts and principle at Odysseus Technologies, a company working on high-strength materials.

Similar to past years at the conference, Laubscher's introductory talk spilled into a general brainstorming session where attendees discussed possible solutions to problems that dog the development of a space elevator.

The general idea of a space elevator, imagined first by scientists but popularized in science fiction, involves stretching a ribbon, probably made out of carbon nanotubes, from Earth into space. Elevator cars would travel up and down the ribbon. While it would cost perhaps US$18 billion to build a space elevator, carrying items into space would be far cheaper via an elevator than it is using current rocket technology, Laubscher said.

Still, there are many issues that still need to be studied. One attendee asked about the operational costs once a space elevator is built. "It's been nine years we've been looking for someone" to study that, Laubscher said.

There would be costs associated with running the lasers that power the cars up the ribbon, as well as simpler costs associated with transferring goods to the platform at the bottom of the ribbon, which will be located in the ocean.

Another person at the conference asked about why the current model has just three cars that could climb up and down at once -- why not six? It's possible, Laubscher said, but someone would have to work out how they'd pass each other on the ribbon and the elevator would require six laser beaming stations if they all were to climb at the same time. That would require more study.

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