A 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.
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Image: Space Elevator Games. The LaserMotive vehicle gets weighed in.
At an international conference in November, a group of ambitious engineers and would-be astronauts will draw up a proposal and a timeline for building the world’s first space elevator, which would give humans access to orbit via 22,000-mile-long cables. The Japan Space Elevator Association [Web site in Japanese] estimates the project’s cost at $9 billion, but according to the association’s officials, the elevator would be a bargain at that price.
A space elevator could carry people, huge solar-powered generators or even casks of radioactive waste. The point is that breaking free of Earth’s gravity will no longer require so much energy — perhaps 100 times less than launching the space shuttle. “Just like travelling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space,” Shuichi Ono, chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association, said [The Times].