Japan preps first test for its awesome ‘space elevator’

Next time you step inside an elevator, imagine it has a button marked “space.”

It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but researchers in Japan are prepping an experiment for this month to test part of a design for an elevator between Earth and space.

Based at Shizuoka University, 80 miles west of Tokyo, the research team envisions a so-called “space elevator” as a low-cost alternative to rockets for getting astronauts and cargo to orbiting space stations way above Earth.

The experiment is the first of its kind, Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reported.

We first heard about Japan’s plan for a space elevator six years ago when construction firm Obayashi Corporation outlined an electric-powered design capable of transporting up to 30 people at a time into space.

While the two projects are separate, Obayashi has agreed to act as technical adviser for the Shizuoka team, sharing expertise gained from its own research conducted over the last few years.

This month’s experiment will involve a tiny version of the setup in which the team aims to move a motor-driven “elevator car” — essentially a small container — along a 10-meter-long cable connected between two microsatellites. Both satellites will be released from the International Space Station, with satellite-based cameras monitoring the experiment as it takes place.

If the engineers can succeed in moving the container along the cable, the achievement would take the team closer to realizing its dream of building an elevator between Earth and space.

A nine-day ride

Obayashi’s design, which is similar in many ways to the one proposed by the university team, envisions a high-strength cable stretching 22,370 miles (36,000 km) from Earth to a terminal station with laboratories and a living area. At 125 mph (200 kmh), the elevator would travel at more than twice the speed of today’s fastest elevator in China’s Shanghai Tower. And if getting too close to people in a regular elevator leaves you feeling queasy, then take note — the space elevator’s “top floor” will take nine days to reach.

The Mainichi points out that the project could cost as much as 10 trillion yen ($90 billion), but with the elevator’s operating costs estimated at around one-hundredth of that of the space shuttle, the financial benefits could be huge over time.

Obayashi already has plenty of experience in working on bold construction projects, though there’s little argument that a cosmic elevator would be its boldest to date.

But let’s not get carried away with ourselves here. Building an elevator to space is a monumental undertaking and a range of obstacles will need to be overcome for it to become a reality. These include developing a high-strength cable using carbon nanotechnology, and one that can protect against cosmic rays and incoming space debris. There’s also the question of how to fund it.

Still, we like the idea of stepping into an elevator and pressing the button marked “space,” so we hope Obayashi succeeds in meeting its (somewhat ambitious) 2050 deadline for the project.

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