In 2004, Professor Arun Misra introduced me to the concept of space elevators, and spent the next two years supervising my Master Thesis, which entailed the first ever in-depth study of the various aspects of its mechanics. Today, some of my friends introduce me as "the Space Elevator guy".
What is the Space Elevator? In short, it is a revolutionary Earth to Space transportation system that will likely be implemented by man in the mid-twenty-first century. A thin tether spanning 100,000 km connects a floating platform near the equator to a satellite that acts as a counterweight. This system remains in a stable equilibrium because the net radial forces, gravitational towards Earth's centre and centrifugal away from it, are balanced. Climbers may then scale the tether transporting payloads to space. The result, in essence, is a vertical railroad powered via solar and laser technology.
To get a real sense for how a space elevator could work, try out the Space Elevator Operator.
Why build a Space Elevator? Five reasons quickly come to mind:
- Energy/Cost savings: Rockets are the only current method to transport payloads into orbit or into interplanetary trajectories. If any space mission were to begin with a launch from the space elevator platform, the associated energy and cost savings would be immense, perhaps a factor of one hundred.
- Easy access: this elegant avenue to the solar system would unlock space in the way that the internet unlocked communication. Not only would this ease the placement of satellites and make trips like that to Mars more feasible, it would also one day allow individuals to take affordable space cruises (say, two decades after the first space elevator is constructed),
- Cleaning up space: Some regions of space near Earth are cluttered with decommissioned satellites. This revolutionary system would actually allow for downwards travel of space junk. The "conveyer belt" property of having two space elevators working in parallel (one up and one down) offers a closed loop that rockets simply cannot.
- Energy production: With vastly improved access to space, alternative energy production methods become realistic to consider. For example, solar power beaming satellites would become cost effective. Also, mining on the moon and other celestial bodies, which contain isotopes not available in abundance on Earth, could become within reach.
- Positive international project: The scope of this project is so vast, that it would surely become an international one. A project of this magnitude could help to unite us, much in the way the International Space Station helps to strengthen the ties of its partnering nations.
Satellite Placement Using the Space Elevator, Climb,
The Effect of Climber Transit on the Space Elevator Dynamics, Acta Astronautica, Vol. 64, pp. 538-553, 2008
Elastic Oscillations of the Space Elevator Ribbon, Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics, Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 1711-1717, 2007
The Effects of the Space Elevator Dynamics on the Orbit of a Launched Satellite, Advances in the Astronautical Sciences, Vol. 124, pp. 1995-2014, 2006