World famous science fiction writer and futurist, the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke once penned a novel, “The Fountains of Paradise” that featured an amazing technology called an orbital tower that’s basically an elevator to space.
According to A. Senthil Kumar, deputy head at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSCC) in India, the space elevator may become a reality by 2020. And when it does the cost of putting things into orbit will drop from about $18,145 a pound to a minuscule $100.
VSSC is part of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Nanotubes and graphene
The key to achieving Clarke’s vision is being worked on in the labs of materials scientists. A cable stretching from the surface of Earth to outer space is not possible with current materials, but probably will become possible with the new, exotic materials being developed by nanotechnology.
Scientists at the Indian Space Center have realized this and are looking to become one of the leaders of such a project.
“Space scientists and engineers are looking at the possibility of designing an elevator to travel into space. It is also time that Indian research institutions looked at developing advanced graphene, carbon nanotube composite fiber, nano epoxy and laser power beaming,” Kumar told Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) during a recent interview.
During an address to the 98th Indian Science Congress Kumar, stated that “The space elevator consists of a cable from an anchor in the ground to a counter weight located beyond geostationary orbit (GSO) that is 22,236 miles away. A climber will move up on a carbon nanotube tether between earth and space.”
Kumar explained that something like a skyscraper could be used as an anchor for a tether stretching 31,000 miles into space. Using a cable made of carbon nanotubes would provide a strength of 300 gigapascals. The required strength of a tether to actually make the project feasible is much less-only 130 gigapascals. [A pascal is a unit of measurement in physics that determines strength and pressure.]
The current strength of existing carbon nano fibers is about five gigapascals.
“A climber/elevator powered by laser beaming of energy can travel over this tether. The payloads can be transported using these climbers to different orbits,” Kumar said. The model he envisions would bring people and materials to either a low earth orbit (LEO) or geostationary orbit (GSO).
Elevator to the heavens
Clarke’s vision made reality will be designed to transport people, satellites and cargo from Earth to orbit in about a week.
“The elevator can travel at 125 miles per hour and reach geosynchronous orbit in eight days,” Kumar told IANS.
The space elevator will be a gigantic leap forward in moving things from Earth to orbit. That’s because 94 percent of the mass of conventional rockets consists of fuel and the infrastructure needed to attain spaceflight. Most of the cost of carrying things into orbit is reflected in the high expenditures.
“What space agencies are looking [for] is safe access to orbit at low cost,” Kumar said.
Construction the biggest hurdle
“The cable will be thickest at the top and taper down towards the earth. First a rocket will carry the cable to orbit whereby it will be unrolled towards the Earth. The cable could be brought down without much movement and tied to the base station,” Kumar explained.
He admitted that many challenges exist, but all are no more than engineering problems. “Radiation, lightning, wind, meteors, space debris…but these are issues that can be dealt with,” Kumar asserted.
Whether India is the first to build a space elevator, or another nation, there is no doubt that serious consideration should be given to calling it the Clarke elevator. After all, it’s only right to honor the man who first came up with the concept.