Sending supplies and people into space using a space elevator

Sept. 7, 2018
by Mark Ollig

In 2057, a nano-tube ribbon cable will support a tethered “space elevator” for receiving and lifting payloads from, and into Earth orbit.

This futuristic vision is from the book, “I-Robot,” written by Isaac Asimov and published in 1957.

This week, the first step in what is hoped to become a 60,000-mile-high space elevator, is about to be tested.

The experiment will take place in Earth’s orbit using a box, or “miniature elevator,” 2.4 inches long, 1.2 inches wide, and 1.2 inches high, tethered in space to a 30-foot steel cable strung between two mini-satellites, which will be used to keep the cable stretched tight.

A motor inside the mini-elevator will move it back and forth along the cable in space; similar to a trolley car.

In the report I read in The Mainichi (Japan’s daily news service), this will be the first test to move a container on a cable in space.

Developed by researchers at Shizuoka University in Japan, the mini-space elevator experiment package will be launched into Earth’s orbit using Japan’s 186-foot-tall H2-B rocket.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has been working on plans calling for “research and development of low-cost space transportation technologies to establish space infrastructure.”

These plans include a fully-functioning hybrid space elevator.

Dec. 19, 2016; Shizuoka University’s mini-satellite was successfully launched from the International Space Station (ISS) as part of their space elevator experiment.

A somewhat similar test using a much longer space cable was attempted nearly two decades earlier by the US.

Feb. 25, 1996; the US Space Shuttle attempted to unravel a 12.5-mile cable with an attached satellite at the end.

The copper-braided wire within the cable was wound around a nylon string coated with Teflon-like insulation.

The outer cable covering was made of Kevlar, the same fiber used in bulletproof vests and body armor.

Just as the final length of cable was being unrolled from the Shuttle’s cargo bay; it suddenly broke off from the shuttle, and the wire with the attached satellite drifted off into space.

The satellite remained functioning and was tracked on the ground for a while, but it could not be retrieved.

When the shuttle returned to Earth, scientists examined the frayed end of the cable still attached in the cargo bay and found it snapped off, not because of tension, but from having its innermost core melted by 3,500 volts of electrical current.

NASA scientists said trapped air bubbles, which occurred during the cable’s manufacturing, caused the meltdown failure.

The two Shizuoka University satellites being used in this week’s mini-elevator experiment were designed by Shizuoka University Faculty of Engineering, and are equipped with cameras.

According to the Mainichi Daily News, “Should a space elevator ever actually be realized, people could travel to the ISS without using a launch vehicle, and transport supplies at low cost. It is envisioned that a variety of supplies – such as panels for solar power generation and materials for research and development in space – could also be transported to space.”

It comes down to the strength and durability of a cable that can withstand the elements of space, while being connected to the Earth.

Possible materials for a space elevator cable have been suggested, including carbon nanotube technology.

Also, a newly-created strength material, called “diamond nanothreads,” has been recommended for constructing the super-strong cable strands needed to support a space elevator.

“It is as if an incredible jeweler has strung together the smallest possible diamonds into a long miniature necklace,” said John Badding, who led the diamond nanothread’s research at Penn State University.

Concerns about a space elevator cable are, of course, having it struck by any space objects, and for the safety of aircraft flying near the vertical elevator cable within Earth’s atmosphere.

Of course, building an actual working space elevator would have to go down as one of humanity’s greatest engineering feats.

For me, this space elevator idea sounds like an attainable goal, but – remember folks, – I’ve watched a lot of “Star Trek.”

So, until the transporter chamber is invented, instead of beaming to an orbiting starship from a planet’s surface, we might just have to put up with using a space elevator – or perhaps a shuttlecraft.

On the bright side, having a space elevator will save time and money transporting equipment and satellites to and from space.

The space elevator will also come in handy for people traveling to and from Earth-orbiting hotels.

Don’t laugh. Orion Span, with headquarters in San Mateo, CA, and offices in League City, TX, recently announced plans for having a low-Earth orbiting hotel module ready for occupancy by 2022.

If you want to get away from it all, how about spending 12 days inside this 200-mile-high luxury hotel, nicknamed Aurora Station, for just $9.5 million?

If you act now, it will only cost $80,000 to reserve a room on board – but hurry, there’s a waiting list.

The $9.5 million covers the price of a rocket launch for getting you into space and to the Aurora Station, so you needn’t worry about how to get there. I assume this price also covers getting you back to Earth – you might want to check on that.

Reserve a room by visiting https://www.orionspan.com/reservation.

Orion Span will begin construction of its Aurora Station in 2019.

I hear the views will be out-of-this-world.

Be sure to visit the Bits & Bytes weblog at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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