Competition heating up between Japan and the US to build the world's first "space elevator". The technology required to create a physical link between Earth and outer space is getting closer to being a reality with Japan's announcement that it was researching plans to build a space elevator – a link to space that could transport cargo and even tourists – for 1 trillion yen ($11 billion).
"Just like travelling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space," chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association, Shuichi Ono, told The Times. The news is reported to have shaken up scientists at NASA, who have traditionally focused on rockets to reach space but could now be considering following Japan's suit.
The plans for a space elevator rely on a cable being stretched between a satellite and a platform on Earth along which vehicles could travel. One location being considered by NASA for such a platform is off the coast of Perth, according to the West Australian co-author of the book "Leaving The Earth By Space Elevator," by Philip Ragan.
Mr Ragan, who wrote the book with former NASA scientist and space elevator expert Dr Bradley C. Edwards, said there were 12 criteria that had to be met when choosing a possible location for the Earth port including consideration of storms and lightning.
"We identified that the Indian Ocean, about 500km off of Perth, was a prime location to site the Earth end of the cable," Mr Ragan said.
"A second preferred location is about 2000 miles (3218km) south of Hawaii... (which would be) closer for Americans in air time but logistically more remote for servicing by shipping."
"The Indian Ocean off Western Australia has been identified as an ideal location for a space elevator – a thin carbon nanotube connecting a barge to a space station, along which supplies could be carried up," said the report.
If a space elevator was built, it would provide a method of transportation to a space platform floating about 36,000km or more above the Earth.
Much of the cost associated with space exploration stem from trying to get off Earth itself – by overcoming the planet's gravitational pull using extremely expensive rocket blasts. Space Missions launched from a platform already outside of the Earth's atmosphere would be cheaper and more efficient, allowing for more exploration projects.
However plans for a space elevator rely on finding a material strong enough to form the cable, or "ribbon", stretched between Earth and space. Scientists say the ribbon would need to be 150 times stronger than steel to be stable. The loads are enormous and get dangerously high once the elevator starts oscillating as it moves along the cable. A major challenge is to develop fibers that have sufficient strength-to-weight ratio so that they will take the load without being so ridiculously large in diameter that it could never be deployed, which is why everyone is looking at nanofibre technology."
Experts say competition between space agencies would heat up in coming years as the technology to build a space elevator became available and the cost efficiency of launching missions from outside the Earth's gravitational pull became clear. The first country to deploy a space elevator will have a 95 per cent cost advantage and could potentially control all space activities.
Posted by Casey Kazan.
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