College College Space and Planetary Sciences Recent Breakthroughs

Is It Possible to Construct a Space Elevator?

Space elevators have always been science fiction, but it may soon be possible to construct them. The concept existed for over a hundred years and experienced many different iterations. Nowadays, companies are beginning to research materials that could be used in a future space elevator.

The concept of a space elevator has existed for over a hundred years, but has only been prevalent in science fiction. Scientists consider the space elevator as the optimal solution for delivering cargo and satellites into space, and the idea of building a space elevator is extremely plausible, but the limitation for all these years was the material used in the elevator itself. I believe we are getting closer and closer to a real space elevator every year, and it becomes especially apparent as researchers begin to run experiments on possible materials that can be used in a space elevator.

The original concept of a space elevator was first theorized by Konstantin Tsiolkovksy, who was a key scientist in the development of rocketry. Tsiolkovsky’s concept involved the creation of a ground-based tower built up to 35,786 kilometers. This height is important as it is the location of the geostationary orbit around Earth, which means that objects here rotating around the Earth at the same rate as Earth. In other words, objects in geostationary orbit will always appear to be in the same spot from the ground. Additionally, this concept was largely based around a compressive structure. However, this is where the problems start. The tower will not only need to support itself, but also retain its shape through the entire length. In the 19th century and even now there is no material that has enough compressive strength to form this kind of space elevator. (1)

Diagram of a space elevator. Image from Wikimedia.

To solve the problem of a compressive structure, scientists began looking at alternatives that would employ tension rather than compression. The tension concept incorporates a long cable attached to an anchor satellite in geostationary orbit. Instead of building up, the cable would drop down to Earth to where it can be attached on the ground. An ideal location for anchoring the cable on Earth is somewhere along the equator as most geostationary orbits line up with the equator. Finally, the elevator itself would move up and down this cable. (2)

More recently, Obayashi, a Japanese company, began research on materials and concepts for a space elevator. The company hopes to use carbon nanotubes to construct the cable of the space elevator as they are the strongest materials made. The problem with using carbon nanotubes is that they are not easy to manufacture, so the bulk of the research is going to be dedicated to expediting the process of making nanotubes. The concept is very similar to the early ideas of a tensioned space elevator. An anchor on the ground will be located along the equator and a cable will be dropped down from geostationary orbit. However, Obayashi, suggests that there needs to be another anchor at about 60,000 miles up that acts as a counterweight for the entire system. The space station would sit at about 22,000 miles above Earth. The elevator will climb up the cable at 120 mph and could be powered by powerful lasers on the ground. Obayashi set a goal to construct the space elevator by 2050, but with a small caveat: carbon nanotubes must be easily scalable and manufactured by 2030. (4,5)

Obayashi Corporation’s current concept for a space elevator. Image from Obayashi.

In conclusion, a space elevator would greatly expand our ability to travel into space as well as deliver satellites and cargo. Companies like Obayashi are working on finding ways to make this happen in a short timescale. So yes, it is possible to construct a space elevator, but we are simply not quite there yet. We have the material, but it is too difficult to create in the present time. However, with enough research, someday in the near future there will be a space elevator piercing the sky.





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