An Earth-to-orbit elevator became all the more plausible last week with the successful test of a "climber" robot -- the moving part of an elevator system. The test, organized by the LiftPort group, had the robot climb a thousand feet into the air on a ribbon attached to a high-altitude balloon. LiftPort notes that this was the first-ever use of the climbing technology on a free-hanging ribbon.
This LiftPort climber is a huge advance; design and construction of a device able to climb a ribbon is just as important -- and nearly as difficult -- as producing the carbon nanotube-based elevator ribbon. And while a thousand feet is a tiny fraction of the eventual length of the LiftPort elevator (100,000 kilometers), this development is still a pretty big step forward.
Coincidentally, Arthur C. Clarke -- often given credit for being the first to popularize the idea of elevators to space, in his 1978 novel Fountains of Paradise -- had an editorial in the London Times about the idea. In it, he notes:
As its most enthusiastic promoter, I am often asked when I think the first space elevator might be built. My answer has always been: about 50 years after everyone has stopped laughing. Maybe I should now revise it to 25 years.
It may not even take that long. LiftPort is claiming a date of 2018 for the first elevator to be built. They may not be far off -- carbon nanotube ribbons are approaching the necessary strength, and the climbing technology now looks to be readily achievable in that time frame.
The climber tested last week is much smaller than would be needed for a working elevator, weighing in at about ten kilograms.
“This lifter is much smarter than our previous versions. It’s our 18th version,” [LiftPort president Michael Laine] said, with the Mark VII robot named Sword Over Damocles or "Sword" for short. The belt-driven robot is battery-powered, featuring two motors and an expanded cargo area due to increased intelligence built into the device, he said.
Interestingly, LiftPort argues that, even before the elevator can be built, this kind of climbing robot system could have real value.
"Our system called HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) will have uses in a variety of fields. For example, after a natural disaster, we can provide radio, cellular or Internet access using our platform as a relay station. Or it could provide real time surveillance over the damaged region. Once our hardware is tested, we believe it can be deployed to save lives."
LiftPort has a gallery of photos from the climber test, as well as a short video (MOV). It's impressive to see the climbing robot in action, and the image of the ribbon stretching up into the blue is a wonderful bit of foreshadowing of what the elevator will look like when eventually built.
That is a pretty picture, isn't it? Dean Esmay compared another pic (the crew in the mid background, indistinct individually, the balloon just lifting off, Eastern Washington visible to the far horizon) to the famous one of Goddard next to one of his rockets.
The comparison is flattering, if dubious. Goddard died before the space age began - we hope to do better.
Lot of work to be done, however.
Wow! Good on them!
This is where the latest space science - besides the planetology and the space biology - is going to eventuate.
It'll be the way to study atmospheres as well as get into space - reaching all the way past geostationary orbit.