We all agree that rocket launches are grueling tasks that we cannot be reckless with. Besides, they require an insane amount of fuel, their exhausts add up to the atmospheric pollution, and they’re expensive too. The solution to all these problems is a concept straight out of sci-fi movie: a hoist connecting Earth and space. And now Japanese engineers are about to start testing one.
On the auspicious day of September 11, a group from Shizuoka University’s engineering faculty will be shooting a scalar model of a space hoist into the Earth’s orbit: two small cubic satellites just 10 centimeters a side, linked by a 33-foot steel cable.
The cameras in the satellites will monitor the progress of a motorized box that will travel back and forth along the cable between the two satellites.
A university spokesperson told, “It’s going to be the world’s first experiment to test elevator movement in space.”
For over 100 years engineers have been envisaging a space elevator, after the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came across the idea after visiting the Eiffel Tower in 1895. Since then, the technology has made innumerable appearances in the science fiction movies and books.
However, the technological hurdles involved in executing the concept of a space elevator are gigantic. For instance, the material that is needed to build the elevator has to be light enough so that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight.
At the same time, the material also needs to be sturdy enough to endure the tension induced by the centrifugal force working on the elevator’s ballast, to keep the elevator upright, way beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Adding more to the list, the elevator would also have to withstand the stress induced by the atmospheric conditions of the Earth like strong winds and the gravitational forces from the Sun, Earth and the Moon.
The Japanese construction company Obayashi Corp., working with Shizuoka University, had antecedently declared that sometime in the near future i.e. by 2050, it hopes to get a space elevator operational. The plan is inclusive of a space station in geostationary orbit at an altitude of 35,000 kilometers and a tether in the Pacific Ocean.
The company has been eyeing off carbon nanotube for the cable. But practically that’s not possible either.
We don’t currently have the technology to manufacture carbon nanotube even close to the scales required to produce a 96,000-kilometre (60,000-mile) cable, for one thing.
And secondly, even if we could, the material is just not strong enough. Apply enough pressure, according to engineer Keith Henson, and the hexagonal carbon bonds become unstable – that cable could unzip like a run in a stocking.
But the Japanese team continues to be optimistic.
Shizuoka University engineer Yoji Ishikawa said, “In theory, a space elevator is highly plausible. Space travel may become something popular in the future.”
It’s possible that a new wonder material will emerge sometime in the next 30 years that will meet the requirements needed for a space elevator.
Having the groundwork test data down will be invaluable if and when that time comes.