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The Elevator Prize
Jamais Cascio, 28 Aug 04

We've talked about space elevators ("beanstalks," "space bridges") a few times before. A ground-to-orbit elevator system would dramatically reduce the cost (and danger) of getting material into space, potentially opening it up for non-governmental exploration far more effectively than commercial/private launch vehicles. But that doesn't mean that beanstalk planners can't learn something from private spaceships -- or, more precisely, from the effort that seems to have catalyzed private space craft production.

The Elevator:2010 site (which was empty when I looked at it in early July) has announced the first annual Space Elevator Climber Competition. The goal is to build prototype ribbon climbers -- a necessary mechanism for building an elevator -- which maximize speed and efficiency while minimizing weight. The prizes for the best teams at the competition: $50,000 for first, $20,000 for second, and $10,000 for third place.

MSNBC has a lengthy article about the effort, but the details of the competition requirements can be found on the Elevator:2010 site itself:

The competition provides the race track, in the form of a crane-suspended vertical ribbon, and a strong light source to power the climbers. Competing teams provide climbers, which have to use the power beamed to them and scale the ribbon while carrying some amount of payload. Climbers will be rated according to their speed and the amount of payload they carried.

The climbers (unmanned, of course) will weigh 25-50 kg [50-100 lbs], and will ascend the ribbon at about 1 m/s. [3 feet per second or 2.5 MPH]

The beam source is a 10 kWatt Xenon search-light (80 cm beam diameter, about 25% efficient), which should yield a climber power budget of about 500 watts.

The ribbon is roughly 30cm (1 foot) wide by 1 mm thick, is about 60m (200 feet) long, and is tensioned to about 1 ton.

The competition will be held next summer, in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can bet we'll be there to watch it.

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They have the specs on the size of the ribbon, but I'm curious as to the nature of the ribbon surface. Is it perfectly smooth? Does it have any striations/ribs/etc? I would love to see how these climbers create the friction necessary to hang on since it's unlikely there will be mechanical means (e.g. sprocket holes) for them to cling to.

Posted by: Kelly on 28 Aug 04

This seems like a strange start to a competition given the goal. Shouldn't the design of the ribbon be as much a part of the competition as the design of the climber?

- Mitra

Posted by: Mitra on 28 Aug 04

The ribbon will require longer carbon nanotubes than we can currently construct, so focusing on the elements of the elevator which are presently-achievable makes sense.

I don't know what the test ribbon material will be, and it would be a good question to ask on the Elevator:2010 site.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 28 Aug 04

Actually, the Elevator 2010 site has a tether strength competition mentioned too, along with a power beaming one and the climber competition mentioned on the blog. The tether challenge is to make a tether that's '50% better' (stronger? lighter? not sure) than the previous year's best, each year. Hope it works.

Posted by: Vince on 30 Aug 04

I hope it works, too -- I believe that spreading off-world is a smart civilization survival strategy, and elevators are a much more efficient, elegant, and safer mechanism for doing so than rockets.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 31 Aug 04

I couldn't agree more. I'm glad to have found this site - all to often space is seen as something that we should only look to space once we've solved everything down here on Earth. I think space offers us a chance to relieve some of the pressures we've placed on the planet instead - the sooner we start moving there, the better.

Posted by: Vince on 31 Aug 04



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