Laser-Powered Robot Climbs to Victory in the Space-Elevator Contest

By Eliza Strickland | November 5, 2009 11:28 am

lasermotiveA laser-powered robot took a climb up a cable in the Mohave Desert in Wednesday, and pushed ahead the sci-fi inspired notion of a space elevator capable of lifting astronauts, cargo, and even tourists up into orbit. The robot, built by LaserMotive of Seattle, whizzed up 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) in about four minutes, which qualifies the team for at least $900,000 of the $2 million in prizes offered in the NASA-backed Space Elevator Games.

Theorized in the 1960s and then popularized by Arthur C. Clarke’s 1979 novel “The Fountains of Paradise,” space elevators are envisioned as a way to gain access to space without the risk and expense of rockets. Instead, electrically powered vehicles would run up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and extending thousands of miles up to a mass in geosynchronous orbit — the kind of orbit communications satellites are placed in to stay over a fixed spot on the Earth [AP].

The LaserMotive vehicle that climbed up the cable (held by a hovering helicopter) was powered by a system that resembles an upside-down solar power mechanism. Laser beams on the ground were fired up at the ascending craft and hit its photovoltaic cells–like those used in solar panels–in a process known as “power beaming.” LaserMotive will have a chance to improve its vehicle’s speed at another trial today, and other teams will also be vying for prizes.

Related Content:
80beats: Japanese Group Pushes for $9 Billion, 22,000-Mile Space Elevator
DISCOVER: Going Up follows U.S. engineers on the space elevator quest

Image: Space Elevator Games. The LaserMotive vehicle gets weighed in.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Matt T

    OOOh…I’ve been waiting for this one. The power beaming and the technology behind the ribbon are SO CLOSE to being realized, it’s almost scary. I close my eyes and imagine our Earth pincushioned with elevators.

  • Ron Bennett

    From article above – – “The robot, built by LaserMotive of Seattle, whizzed up 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) in about four minutes,”

    At that rate they would get to geostationary orbit in 114.2 days.

    Let’s face if they build the space elevator traveling up the tether at the 700 mph, just under the speed of sound at 1 atm, moving up the tether would mean it would still take you 32 hours to get to geostationary orbit. There is also the case about space debris crashing into the tether.

    Beamed energy can be a good thing because they can propel sails close to the speed of light towards the stars, get us to mars and the outer solar system in a timely manner and provide electricity to anywhere on earth using non renewable or renewable energy.

    About 13 percent of natural gas seep out of pipes every day from all the natural pipeline we have, methane from the natural gas traps 23 times more heat than CO2 global warming gas. We wouldn’t have to build tens of thousand miles of new infrastructures costing tens of billions of dollars to transport gas, electricity, oil etc cross vast regions of our planet to the customer by pipeline, copper wires, land, sea, or air. You process the energy at the source then beam it up then back down to the customer. Earth based energy is a lot cheaper than space based solar beamed energy because you don’t have to send all that mass to orbit, just something to reflect it back down to the surface. Earth based is safer because there would be someone on the surface to pull the plug, space based energy wouldn’t have someone up there all the time with the solar arrays 23, 000 miles above the earth if it decides to move away from its intended target.

    Here is one place you can read more about beamed energy:

  • marty

    actually, 114 days sounds pretty reasonable vs. filling tanks of liquid oxygen, nitrogen, etc, putting people on top of it, and then lighting it on fire. And where does this space junk come from? could it be debris from sloppy space missions who just jettisoned unwanted parts? I know we’ll all miss the hair-on-fire get to space in 45 seconds experience but with the predictable nature of these elevators, they can just start 113 days earlier and still get there on time. Of course, the 114 day one way cycle limits the capacity to about 1 trip a year so we’ll have to build 50 of them if we want to do any serious damage. Anyway, it’s all good and turtles all the way down…

  • Josh

    All serious Solar Power Satellite concepts have been designed with a fail-safe to prevent beam wandering. Most proposals use a simple ground based laser to guide the power beam.

  • Keith Elliott

    What consideration has been given to the type and weight of a 22,000 mile long cable? Does anyone know?
    I wonder if we couldn’t just have some type of electronic hookup, like a laser beam for example.
    Maybe the whiz kids can come up with some sort of anti-gravity type system (I’m serious) powered by a laser, which could drive something back and forth to the solar space ship. Whatever it was would have to be very light, partly helium filled perhaps, so that it needed very little energy to be driven up for the 22,000 mile ride. Just a couple of days at 500 miles an hour.
    The trip back would be gravity assisted, obviously, and could use an automatically deployed parachute for a brake before it hit terra firma.

  • Poppy Leigh

    Ron Bennett, perhaps you could simply appreciate the beauty of accomplishment, hard work, and innovation.

  • YouRang

    Keith, no one has built an elevator heretofore since with present materials when the cable gets 1/10th of the way there, it collapses under its own weight.

  • buzz clips

    Juste let the cable dangle down then…

  • jake finley

    you might as well pack Toto and you ruby slippers…….”there’s no place” ‘where we can build a practical piece of equipment,,,,,These guys are just chasing grant money,,,,,

  • Ron Bennett

    Poppy Leigh Says – – Ron Bennett, perhaps you could simply appreciate the beauty of accomplishment, hard work, and innovation.

    Ron’s reply — Poppy I do enjoy all those things about what they have accomplished so far, especially for those who put all the time and energy into it, it must be a big thrill for those who won the prize. I am a little jealous because I am not there and didn’t finish up on a quest of entering it myself because I couldn’t get the funding at that time.

    I do see the many benefits of what they are doing other than the transportation value of slowly going up a 23,000 mile high tether-line. For beamed energy there’s some future value in solar concentrator cells generating the needed energy to propel it up the tether line like the ones that they must have been using, probably with a power rating of 10 suns, 10 times more solar radiation per square meter for the same size regular solar cell. 10 sun solar concentrator cells don’t need the extra heavy cooling radiators if they were made of the right high temperature material.

    If they can find a way to cool the solar cells down without adding too much weight then a highly efficient 1,000 sun solar concentration cells could be used such as the ones being developed by Spectrolabs, a Boeing company. That means a higher efficiency 1,000 suns solar cell transferring over 1,000 times more energy than regular lower efficient solar cells per square meter or at least 100 times more energy for the same amount of space needed for the 10 suns one. Link here:

    You would be surprised at how much money it would still cost for the energy needed to get 2 passengers up to geostationary orbit, that being said on it descent that cost could be offset by transferring the kinetic energy from the gravitational field into electricity on its way back down the tether line. The electric generator would supply the energy needs of the passengers on descent, In other words the beam would only be needed on the elevators way up.

  • A. F Kendrick

    I am just waiting for the unintended consequences on this contraption. What of insulation against electrical storms, solar winds, radiation. If we pierce the insulation of the sky, what will the medical consequences be? Will a safe zone have to be made around it? There are so many questions with this kind of so-called science. It sounds like the writers of the new Battlestar Galactica who admitted they were drunk when they came up with episode plots and subplots.

  • Russ

    ok, sure, the first 50 or 60 miles you’d have to travel at lower speed. Lets say 120mph. So you get outside of the earths atmosphere is about a half hour. After that, you can accelerate at a constant rate. Plus, not everyone going to space wants to get to geostationary orbit, maybe they just want to go up to the 200 mile mark and then ignite a motor to get into a different orbit.

  • tomulcak

    To Ron Bennett:

    “At that rate they would get to geostationary orbit in 114.2 days.”

    The higher you go, the less effect you have from gravity and wind resistance. Your statement is incorrect.

  • tomulcak

    while some of us have been following developments for space elevators for decades, obviously, the rest of the “no we can’t” crowd has just been honing techniques to shoot anything new down. There have been monumental advances in materials that would be light and strong enough for such a cable. As for the laser tracking, why do these same people accept the almost magic abilities of war weapons using laser tracking, but poo poo when the same technology is used for space elevators?
    And, [sigh], as for the speed of the test elevator, really, after about 15 miles (which would take less than 2 hours), you can greatly increase your speed. Even if you did not increase power consumption, the effects of wind resistance would become much less. You’d have to figure on the dissapation of the focused beam, but, even so, speed would greatly increase.

    Instead of shooting down an idea as a knee jerk reaction (this behavior is common accepted practice today – in science and politics), spend a little time catching up on the technology so that you can then put the testing of the technology in better perspective.

  • tomulcak

    also, at 500 miles altitude (geosynchronous is at 22,236 miles), gravity is about 20% less, so, as you go, power consumption requirements fall. so, two days, lets say to reach 500 miles, assuming the speed of the test, but, after that, speed can increase greatly – but, acceleration has to be figured in as well.

  • Ron Bennett

    tomulcak Says: The higher you go, the less effect you have from gravity and wind resistance. Your statement is incorrect.”

    Ron’s reply — I gave two scenarios one at the rate they were climbing in the space tether challenge, 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) in about four minutes which if they traveled that speed up the tether they would get there in approximately 114.2 days. The other one at average speed of approximately 700 mph it would get there in 32 hours.

    Sure they are different set of circumstances for different parts of the climb but they will still have to overcome inertia, and beam spread — the higher you go the less amount of energy you will receive from the beam so in the upper part of the climb you would actually go a lot slower not faster.

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