A new form of carbon ribbon that's ultra-flexible and super-strong could become the infrastructure for the first working space elevator. Such a structure would usher in a new era in easy space travel.
Long-predicted by science fiction authors, and memorably portrayed in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Red Mars (where a space elevator crashes to the planet's surface), a space elevator would pull people out of the atmosphere quickly - without wasting as much energy as rockets do as they escape Earth's gravity. The elevator would begin at the Earth's equator and could stretch up to an orbital platform or even a relocated asteroid. People who wanted to travel to space would ride the elevator far out of the atmosphere and catch a ship in orbit.
NASA holds regular competitions to inspire people to come up with materials that would make a space elevator possible, and the team behind the new ribbon material developed it for one of NASA's competitions. According to the Times Online:
Spurred on by a $4m (£2.7m) research prize from Nasa, a team at Cambridge University has created the world's strongest ribbon: a cylindrical strand of carbon that combines lightweight flexibility with incredible strength and has the potential to stretch vast distances. The development has been seized upon by the space scientists, who believe the technology could allow astronauts to travel into space via a cable thousands of miles long - a space elevator . . .
The Cambridge team is making about 1 gram of the high-tech material per day, enough to stretch to 18 miles in length. "We have Nasa on the phone asking for 144,000 miles of the stuff, but there is a difference between what can be achieved in a lab and on an industrial level," says Alan Windle, professor of materials science at Cambridge University, who is anxious not to let the work get ahead of itself.
The rest of the Times article is worth checking out - there's a lot of cool information about space elevators and their potential development over the next few decades.
Going Up . . . and the Next Floor is Outer Space [via Times Online]
Image via NASA