Space Elevator: Making access to space affordable

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Dreams come true

My favorite science fiction notion has always been a leisurely five-day ride up the space elevator to an orbiting vacation facility in a geosynchronous orbit—a space hotel.  You will find such a geostationary orbit at about 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above the Earth’s surface. Park something at that point so that it sits directly above a spot on the equator and it will stay in place.

Because of the sheer distance involved, you would have to travel at 300 kilometers per hour (188 miles per hour) to make the journey in as little as five days.  Yes, a rocket ship would be faster, but it’s going to cost on the order of $55,000 per kilogram to attain geostationary orbit (GEO/GSO).

The space elevator can do it for about $3 per kilogram.  That is a significant difference that can make space accessible to everybody.

Besides, what is the rush?  You’re going to be treated to the greatest view of our planet anybody has ever seen! 

The Van Allen Radiation Belts

The planet Earth is very much like a giant electric motor.  It has a solid iron core, and spinning around that is a liquid iron core.  The interaction between the two of them creates a massive magnetic field that surrounds our planet.

That is quite lucky for us because it steers aside the solar wind which would otherwise erode our atmosphere (exactly like it happened on Mars when it lost its own magnetic field). Without our magnetic field, we’d also be exposed to high levels of other forms of particles and radiation, and in all likelihood, life would never have arisen here.

image: spaceflight

Unfortunately, though it protects us, it also traps some highly energetic radiation in two wide bands surrounding our planet called the Van Allen Radiation Belts. The Apollo astronauts were obliged to pass through them on their way to the Moon, but they did so quickly and only picked up 200 times the dose experienced by a nuclear worker in a year.

None of the astronauts mutated into ravening monsters, so NASA was proven correct that it was safe.

However, though safe for quick passage, being exposed to it for a five-day trip up and a five-day trip down could have serious health consequences. That means for the portion of the voyage where the space elevator passes through the Van Allen radiation belts (Inner belt 1,500km–5,000km and Outer belt 15,000km–20,000km), everybody would have to be shielded.

You could still see outside by video feed, but peering out a window would probably be unhealthy.

Can we do it?

Building the first space elevator would be an expensive proposition, provided we had materials that were suitable for the task.  Even if we don’t think of a better technique in the meantime, yes, we will eventually build it. We still need to develop the technology to create Carbon Nano-Thread (CNT), or its stronger cousin, Diamond Nano-Thread (DNT) in useful lengths, though.

Video: WatchtheDaily Channel

CNT and DNT are only 1/20,000th the width of a human hair.  What is interesting about these two materials is that they are 100 times stronger than steel, a necessity since the cable for the elevator has to be able to support its weight (plus all the cargo that would be traveling its length).

The Takeaway

Once the first space elevator is built, more will follow, and at a significantly reduced cost.  They will have access to the first space elevator to transport work crews, materials, and life support supplies.

The first might cost US$31,000,000,000 or more, over some years, but the second would probably be complete in less than a year, and new elevators would likely follow every six months after that.

With the ease of getting construction materials up to GEO/GSO, it wouldn’t be long before we will decide to build orbiting space Colonies, finally ensuring the survival of humanity by having a few million people living off the planet. These elevators could move 40,000,000 people per year to space.

Any doomsday asteroids coming our way might decimate Earth, but our race would survive.

The state of our current technology would even allow us to build a space elevator on the Moon or Mars using existing materials such as Kevlar™ or Spectra™.  Having a lunar mining operation and underground habitat for the workers, would be relatively easy to accomplish and make it much less expensive to acquire valuable construction materials such as silica for glass, oxygen for rocket fuel (and breathing), and aluminum or beryllium to make metal components.

The space elevator may be a big step for humanity, but it’s only a small step to humankind’s future in space.  Remember, the meek will inherit the Earth; the Rest of us are going to the Stars.

Kostas Deroukakis
Love to search, to try, to give, to learn. Knowledge, is the road for this achievement
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