Monday, January 15, 2007

Space Elevators: A Future I can Envision.. Part 2

A Space Elevator (see original post...) seems pretty glamorous and looks to have lots of potential, but what exactly is that potential? A Space Elevator could provide a safe, consistent, and cheaper method of bringing cargo to space. This is the key to its limitless potential. With space easily accessible, permanent settlements could be established and always have supplies on demand. Expanding out towards the asteroid belt could also mean the start of outer-space mining operations. Gigantic solar satellites could also send enormous amounts of energy back to Earth and other satellites could increase communication abilities on earth.

Concept art of a space elevator. Source: CelestialMotherlode
One potential use or derivative of a space elevator that I thought of but haven't heard anything about is a construction site. Things can be manufactured in space with less difficulty than they can on Earth. Micro-gravity lets very heavy objects to be reasonably maneuvered. Enormous cargo ships could be put together quickly and easily. Such ships couldn't even feasibly be made on Earth and sent to space. The micro-gravity presents another interesting advantage too. Designs of such ships would not need to be able to hold themselves up. Without any gravity putting pressure on it, designs wouldn't need to be as sturdy and without an atmosphere aerodynamics is useless. Now, a fleet of huge cargo ships could be quickly and cheaply put together. Distributing materials also becomes even more efficient than with the space elevator alone. Since the cargo ships need not escape a planets atmosphere it will never require large amounts of fuel to transport goods. All it would need is one boost towards its destination and one back. Materials/people could be carried by these cargo ships/shuttles and simply be "dropped off at the door." Re-entry vehicles released by the cargo ships could release goods in similar fashion to the current Mars rovers' method. As you can see a space elevator could be the catalyst for an interplanetary highway.

The economics of a space elevator is also interesting. Currently the price/kg to send something into geosynchronous orbit is about $20,000/kg. According to Dr. Bradley Edwards, who has put forth a space elevator design, the price would drastically reduce to around $220/kg.

Costs of Edwards design (mentioned in part 1) has been estimated at $40 billion. In order for the design to be privately funded a $6 billion annual revenue would be needed and 2 million kg/year would be lifted into space. A cheaper estimate for another design was proposed at the 55th International Astronautical Congress in Vancouver in October 2004. The sticker price was a mere $6.2 billion. $6.2 billion may still sound extraordinary but when comparing that to the costs of bridges, skyscrapers, and other large projects it starts to look a lot more enticing.

Personally, I believe that the space elevator concept is pretty far-fetched but, then again, so was walking on the moon at one time. I can't say the space elevator will lead humans into a space-colonization age but I can say that it is a very worthy idea to consider.

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Kevin said...

The space elevator would also undoubtedly spawn thousands of other technologies, just like the space-race did in the 60s.

Space Elevator construction would also lead to advances in diplomacy and international relations. Questions like "Who controls it?" and "Who protects it?" would have to be answered. Also, I'm sure every 1st world country would want to have use of it. The solutions to these issues would (hopefully) lead to more international cooperation. Looking in the stars may help us look away from our petty problems that we have now.

Pat said...

That is actually similar to an essay I wrote a while back. I talked about how global unity won't be achieved until a new perspective of Earth is reached; that perspective being from space.

A lot of people think that it will require global unity to reach the stars but I happen to look at it from the other side of the ball. Competition is how things get accomplished. The private space industry will most likely put us permanently among the stars and THEN and only then can global unity be a real goal. Until humans realize that they are a group from a single planet and a single ancestor they will never unify.

Hm... I think I might post a version of my essay, thanks for the inspiration :).

Cthulberg said...

There is some general concern about the space elevator.

I've just been re-reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy in which there is a space elevator built on Mars. The construction is sabotaged and it collapses, causing a massive amount of collateral damage due to weight and speed of descent.

Now this was a "recently" colonized Mars, so what about Earth? It would be both a symbol and a target. If the same happened here, for whatever reason, it would cause untold damage. For this reason alone prohibits us from building it.

Unknown said...


What do you think people said when skyscrapers were first being erected?

The benefits of having a space elevator on this planet, would far outweigh the inherent risks. As Kevin said earlier, the space elevator would serve as a catalyst to numerous advents in technology and understanding of our world. It would open a new frontier in human exploration and innovation, to take that away from the world would be a far greater tragedy than it crashing back into the earth.

Furthermore, atmospheric reentry is extremely hard on materials. I find it dubious to think that a space station would be designed to survive atmospheric reentry, it would burn up before doing any damage. Even if it didn't, a space station at geostationary orbit (~40 000 km)would take long enough to fall that we would have time to obliterate it fully.

Nothing prohibits the human race, except those annoying laws of physics :>

Anonymous said...

I totally support that! Continue that way!

wintow said...

I was always fascinated with the concept of space elevators.

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