Cancel
Advanced Search
KEYWORDS
CATEGORY
AUTHOR
MONTH

Please click here to take a brief survey

Elevator Going Up!
Jamais Cascio, 10 Sep 05

kbvator.jpgAn Earth-to-orbit elevator (sometimes called a "Beanstalk," a "space bridge," or an "orbital tether") is one of those ideas that, at first blush, sounds almost too ludicrous to be real. After all, we're accustomed to thinking of rockets as our only way into space, mixing danger and adventure; taking an elevator into space sounds almost boring. It turns out, however, that a space elevator is not only plausible, it's potentially revolutionary. Perhaps more importantly, given all that has happened in recent days and weeks, the notion of a space elevator can provide a bit of almost giggly optimism about the future.

The present might look grim, but within 20-30 years, we'll be taking an elevator to orbit!

We've talked about elevators numerous times in the past, but one aspect that we haven't really addressed is appearance. For many of us, it's a bit difficult to imagine what a 60,000 mile long elevator cable would look like. Fortunately, WorldChanging ally Kenn Brown, of Vancouver's Mondolithic Studios, has given us a hand. Kenn has crafted detailed illustrations of the two types of space elevators described by futurists: the Tower and the Ribbon. Read on for the details -- and follow the links to enjoy Kenn Brown's terrific works of art.

The classic image of the space elevator, as envisioned early on in Arthur C. Clarke's Fountains of Paradise and described even more fully in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, is a massive edifice, a solid tower many meters across, stretching for thousands of miles up from a high mountain anchor at the bottom to an asteroid anchor at the top, in synchronous orbit. Elevator cars the size of small apartments shuttle up and down the tower, taking people by the dozens (or hundreds) and tons of cargo. Such elevators are full-blown rocket replacements, but have several drawbacks: as solid structures, they need to be more-or-less right on the equator to be stable; they'd be hellaciously expensive and/or require near-magical technologies to build; and the wrong kind of accident could in principle bring the tower down, potentially even wrapping around the planet a couple of times (as vividly described by Robinson).

(Here's the Mondolithic version of an elevator tower, rising up from what appears to be equatorial Southeast Asia.)

Although a tower of this sort is not outside the realm of plausibility, the construction of one will likely have to wait for many decades. We are nowhere close to being able to make sufficiently strong material for such an edifice, let alone in enough quantity for something that would stretch tens of thousands of miles. If that was our only option, the dream of an orbital elevator would remain just that for most of this century. But there's another option, one that is a lot closer to realization, even if it's not quite as ambitious -- one that might even be possible by the end of this decade.

It turns out that a lightweight, thin ribbon strong enough to hold together under the force of being stretched taut over thousands of miles is also strong enough to be able to be climbed fairly easily. The climbers wouldn't hold many people (if any at all), but would be a far safer and cheaper method of hauling stuff (from construction materials to nanosatellites) into orbit than traditional rockets. The advantages and disadvantages of the ribbon elevator are precisely the opposite of those of the tower: the ribbon materials would be sufficiently flexible that the elevator base could be well off the equator, or even mounted to a large ship; the production costs are thought to be relatively low (perhaps as low as $10 billion, which is pretty damn cheap for something like this), and the necessary materials are very close to being technologically possible today; and an accident, should one happen, would not result in gigatons of material falling down along the equator. The downside is that, at least in the initial versions, a ribbon elevator wouldn't necessarily be able to haul heavy pieces or lots of people.

(Here's the Mondolithic version of an elevator ribbon, showing a likely means of propulsion for the climbers -- power beamed from the ground.)

Building an orbital elevator remains, at present, just out of reach. Although serious research efforts assert that the elevator concept isn't just plausible, it's pretty realistic, we won't know until we try whether we really can do it. Accidents, natural disasters, even human sabotage might delay or block an elevator's construction.

But right now, as we can see the various necessary elements becoming real, as we start to engineer just how an elevator would work, we're in the moment of delicious anticipation. The ability to move materials and people into space at lower cost, lower risk, and greater reliability would, faster than many might realize, change human civilization. We could, in less than a generation, finally have a ladder to the stars.

Bookmark and Share


Comments

The downside is that, at least in the initial versions, a ribbon elevator wouldn't necessarily be able to haul heavy pieces or lots of people.

True we're not going to be hauling thousands of tons at a time, but the first ribbon will be able to loft 20 tons per week, gross. We're pretty sure you can scale this out to many ribbons in the system.

I hate to be conservative but an SE must be 100% disaster proof before we go and string up towers. A ribbon failing is - as noted - a problem. A tower failing is a disaster on a global scale.

I'm not sure you _can_ build something that is 100% disaster proof, or that you can gracefully fail an orbital tower. But those pictures sure are pretty.


Posted by: Brian on 10 Sep 05

I think a thick space elevator will have to be built if we ever plan to be serious about space colonization or commerce. That's why I'm in favor of building several thin ones first as proof of concept.

Maybe there needs to be something like the space race of the 1960s to get this going. Maybe if the EU, Russia, India, Japan or China started building one, that would prompt others to make their own attempts. Given the current political climate, I doubt the United States will attempt anything like this unless there were military reasons to do so, sad but true.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 10 Sep 05

Maybe there needs to be something like the space race of the 1960s to get this going.

I hope not. Apollo was a magnificint acheivement and a dead-end. If the follow-on programs had taken place it's likely the Moon would be exactly what Antarctia is now; a place for rich tourists and a science base.

Another space race would involve quick and dirty methods by the various States to achieve limited goals. It probably would not give us what the species need for a lasting presence 'up there'.


Posted by: Brian on 10 Sep 05

Brian,

So how do we compel space agencies to build these things?


Posted by: Pace Arko on 10 Sep 05

Pace,

It's pretty simple, don't compel space agencies to build these things. Give it to the businesses. There's far too much bureaucracy to get anything done, let alone acquire enough money to build something of this magnitude. However, though I don't see businesses accumulating enough capital to build a grand structure such as this. It could be possible for another international project to take place. Then again, just as the ISS isn't really going anywhere any time soon, I also don't think that countries working together would get anything done. Although, this could be the best hope for this project.

Now for the history lesson. This project reminds me of a slogan, it goes like this: "A man, a plan, a canal, panama!" Like the panama canal, the USA might go ahead and borrow some land from an equatorial country and then eventually give back the land, just like what happened in panama. The canal was built for business and trade reasons. If businesses can convince the US government of the trade potentials they might have, capital gains, or who knows what else, the US or some other government might go ahead and build a space elevator. But seriously, who knows these things? I know I certainly don't.


Posted by: Benjamin Farahmand on 11 Sep 05

Pace Arko: "So how do we compel space agencies to build these things?"

To echo Mr. Farahmand - you don't. A space agency is not the appropriate organization to build one. Recent experience seems to show that space agencies are good at exploring, at R+D, and PR. They are not good at running a transport service.

Which is what a space elevator is - a service to get stuff from here to there in a cost effective way.


Benjamin Farahmand: "However, though I don't see businesses accumulating enough capital to build a grand structure such as this."

Dr. Edwards claims the project can be done for $10 billion. I want to question this but the numbers he has worked with are solid; very little guesswork went into that estimate.

Can a business accumulate that much capital? It's not chump change but it is well within reach of private industry.


Posted by: Brian on 11 Sep 05

‘perhaps as low as $10 billion, which is pretty damn cheap for something like this’

Google appears to be quite incredibly solvent at the moment and looking for investment opportunities. Perhaps they could fund R&D into the technologies that would get this off the ground (sorry). The people at google brought us THE porthole to the internet, how about being involved in creating a porthole to the stars?

Cay


Posted by: Caytlin on 11 Sep 05

Well, please forgive my skepticism, but I've heard many proposals over the last quarter century put forward by advocates of privatized space technology and all I've seen so far is one suborbital joyride based on technology the government developed back in the early 1960s. They gotta start somewhere and I'll give them a chance but, I don't know what it is about space travel that draws all the libertarians/"market miracle people" out of the woodwork.

On the other hand, perhaps we are at a point where all the hard work and abstract knowledge has already been done and it can all be turned over to the market. I'll believe claims that the private sector can build one of these things without any help from the government when I actually see one hanging up there.

As for the cost, well, again I'm skeptical. Any major engineering work, with a few notable exceptions like the Panama Canal, always has unexpected cost overruns. If it actually costs a 100 billion to build the first one, I won't be surprised.

I'd love to be proved wrong but I had to explain where my skepticism comes from. I've just lost patience with the handwaving.

Still, I'm all for getting these things up there by whatever method.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 11 Sep 05

I don't know why they didn't mention LiftPort group they have a lot of technical info and plan to finish SE before 2020 check it out http://www.liftport.com/


Posted by: Karol on 11 Sep 05

Pace Arko : "Well, please forgive my skepticism, but I've heard many proposals over the last quarter century put forward by advocates of privatized space technology and all I've seen so far is one suborbital joyride based on technology the government developed back in the early 1960s."

Fair enough.

"I don't know what it is about space travel that draws all the libertarians/"market miracle people" out of the woodwork."

I'm neither but I know what you are speaking of. I only state what is obvious - there are things the State does well and things the State does badly.

"I'll believe claims that the private sector can build one of these things without any help from the government when I actually see one hanging up there."

I did not say (nor ever have, save in jest) that the government does not have a role. You asked about space agencies building one - and this (I think) would be a fiasco. But the State has a role to play with R+D, grants, prizes etc, and to buy services on the thing when it's built.

"As for the cost, well, again I'm skeptical. Any major engineering work, with a few notable exceptions like the Panama Canal, always has unexpected cost overruns. If it actually costs a 100 billion to build the first one, I won't be surprised."

I'm looking for a skeptic. Not one who can (no offense) pull numbers out of a hat - those are a dime a dozen. I want one who will spend a few hours with the available data (all of it public) and put together a realistic budget for the thing.

How about it?

Send email to brian.dunbar@liftport.com and I'll point you to the resources.


"I'd love to be proved wrong but I had to explain where my skepticism comes from. I've just lost patience with the handwaving."

I like to think that Liftport keeps the hand-wavium to a minimum. When you talk about a project that isn't built you can't avoid a certain amount of it, however.


Posted by: Brian on 11 Sep 05

I think in america they will likely simply build a very tall tower to help lift he rocket up 5-10 miles to lower the amount of fuel needed or increase greatly the payload launchable. It shouldnt be all that spendy and would pay for itself in the first few years of use. The main reason a skyhook/ribbon wont be built for now is the money is on one place and the ribbon would need to be in anouther alot less securable place.


Posted by: wintermane on 11 Sep 05

The fastest way to make companies to build the elevator into space - to find oil there.
Call the BP or Exxon and tell them that you discovered oil on the asterod not far from solar system - and the pipeline will be build in the matter of days!


Posted by: sukeroki on 11 Sep 05

There are plenty of commercial reasons for building an elevator, the problem is an elevator is only the first step to capitalizing on them. Asteroid mining alone will be incredibly lucrative for those with the cash to get there.

Just a few examples: a recent article said Ceres, the largest asteroid in our solar system, may contain nearly as much fresh water in its interior as we have on the entire planet.

Something like 90%+ of the world's nickle is mined from a single location in Canada, meawhile other asteroids are made up in large part of minerals like nickle and iron.

Once an elevator is developed, along with methods to deliver resource rich asteroids to mining platforms(similar to those referenced in the Artemis Society's materials), it can be taking resources down to Earth as well as bringing people to space. The material value of a just a few asteroids could have the potential to pay, in large part, for the entire operation.

Now the only problem is finding a company that can bleed out that much cash for the 20 years needed to build it all before they can cash in on it... :(


Posted by: A.W. Ford on 12 Sep 05

A couple of things - what the hell would they anchor it to and how? Something of that mass - even thin as a ribbon would be - is going to need an astronomical (sorry!) tether to insure it could never be torn away. And such a strong hook is going to have to spread the weight ratio over many, many miles. However maybe if a poorer country took the job on - collating funds from interested businesses - they would become the centre for a massive new industry.
Perhaps the project could be combined with a Lunar Solar power construction effort. Then it could pay for itself more quickly. (I originally thought the idea of LSP was insane but it seems more and more sensible the closer peak oil and global warming get!)


Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 12 Sep 05

Daniel Johnston: "Something of that mass - even thin as a ribbon would be - is going to need an astronomical (sorry!) tether to insure it could never be torn away."

The proposed SE is a structure under balanced tension, hanging (from our reference point) down and up from GEO. It will be tied down to the anchor, sure, but for convenience, not to keep it from being torn away.


Posted by: Brian on 12 Sep 05

A.W. Ford, I don't know but why would you go all the way into space to mine an asteroid full of water? Why not tow an iceberg or two to your port of destination instead?

Now for metals: you mention iron - iron prices are pathetically low, even though they've surged lately: $80 a tonne. Even nickel, the most precious commodity metal comes in at a meagre $12 a kilo (a bit lower than good tiger shrimp).

I absolutely have no idea, but do you really think minig asteroids will ever be profitable?


Posted by: Lorenzo on 12 Sep 05

Lorenzo: "A.W. Ford, I don't know but why would you go all the way into space to mine an asteroid full of water?"

Water can be all kinds of useful in space - habitats in orbit can use it, or stations on the moon.

"I absolutely have no idea, but do you really think minig asteroids will ever be profitable?"

It Depends. Some day, sure. Local communities are going to look askance at mining, increasing the costs to do business. At some point it is going to be cheaper indeed to drop-ship (literally) a few metric tons from orbit than to haul it across the country.


Posted by: Brian on 12 Sep 05

The reason space travel draws all the libertarians out of the woodwork? Well, that has varied over time. In the 1970s when, as Nixon said, "We are all Keynesians", the libertarians were looking for ways off of what they thought was a planet full of fast-breeding socialist welfare negroes hell-bent for redistribution. Houston, where I live, and especially its NASA suburb Clear Lake was the capital of that kind of thinking. Funny how as the Reaganoids took over the world and returned it, sector by sector, to the brutal Victorian laissez-faire model the libertarians adored, that the space colonization nuts got a lot quieter. Why should they escape this plantation of a world when they finally destroyed the last slave rebellion? Just as Victorian Britain progressed (?) from "nice" free-trade Social Darwinist libertarians to triumphal Christian imperialist tyranny, I've watched Houston transition from Gerry O'Neill to Bush Junior and Karl Rove. Now that the natives (everyone on Earth making less than $30,000 a year) are wising up, and the effects of depletion, pollution and massive redistribution to the rich are blowing up like military crises before 1914, I expect a certain sort of reality-denier to dust off the space colonization plans, complete with badly-written SF novels dedicated to Ayn Rand. Eat the planet, then leave the rind behind, that's the entrepreneurial master race in action. I'm cheering for the space elevator because it's the only way to make space colonization cheap enough for the billions living on less than $1000 a year and willing to risk their lives (unlike us) to beat English-speaking colonists out of yet another stolen land.


Posted by: super390 on 12 Sep 05

Thats not a libertarian trait thats a white guy trait. Any time some group looks to be gaining power over yourself always prepare an exit strat. Thus white flight. The untimate white flight is of course leaving the earth itself and yes you can expect this century that that will start to happen. It will most definetly happen when we figure out fusion energy.


Posted by: wintermane on 13 Sep 05

Eat the planet, then leave the rind behind, that's the entrepreneurial master race in action.

No. Entreprenurs create value. As for a master race .. or the rest of your rant ... get a grip, man.


Posted by: Brian on 13 Sep 05

hi...

im 11 years old and i wanted to see if it was true that there will be an elevator to orbit, so i go on this site and see it is...and i was wondering if i could be the first person to go on this elevator(but it has to be safe) you probably will not let a "little girl" on your "high teck elevator" but i am interested.. Second question: will anyone be able to go on this trip or not? please write back!!!


Posted by: kira on 30 Oct 05



EMAIL THIS ENTRY TO:

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS:


MESSAGE (optional):


Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Worldchanging2.0


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/ worldchanging.com
©2012
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg