Revolutionary New Material Will Make a Space Elevator Possible

Illustration for article titled Revolutionary New Material Will Make a Space Elevator Possible

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.

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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.

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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

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DISCUSSION

federiconero-old
FedericoNero

The article is incorrect in calling this a metal ribbon. It's made of carbon nanotubes.

Smeagol92055 asked: "I have a question; since the elevator doesn't go outside the orbit of the planet, if something were to go catastrophically wrong and the thing were to snap and fall, how much land would it be scattered across? Like, are we talking entire countries?"

The elevator as a whole is actually in orbit at the velocity of its center of mass. It's essentially just a really, really tall satellite. If you cut it near the ground, the part below the cut would fall down, but the rest would just hang there. If you cut it high enough for a large quantity of ribbon to fall, it wouldn't be very dangerous, because we have an atmosphere to protect us. The elevator cable in RED MARS was only dangerous when it fell because Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere that offered no significant air resistance. For an Earth elevator, the cable would be so light that it would just drift down through the air if it were falling slowly enough. If the cable were cut high enough that most of it were able to fall in vacuum and pick up considerable speed, then it would just burn up in the atmosphere.

The only risk would be to people in the falling elevator cars, but I would assume that the cars would be built with thrusters and parachutes and such. Also, if you cut it high enough to change its center of mass, then the part above the cut would go flying out of orbit, which might fatally strand anyone in the facility at the top of the elevator. In the MARS trilogy, the people in the elevator station are sent flying out into space when the cable is cut, but manage to maneuver it into a slingshot around Jupiter and eventually get back to safety.