Japanese construction firm Obayashi has galvanized its nation’s scientific and engineering community to complete a working space elevator by 2050 that will reach a newly-built space station 96,000 kilometers from Earth.
Engineers plan to use the space elevator to send cargo and humans to a new space station where researchers and astronauts can conduct scientific experiments and assemble satellites and space ships for launch. Another benefit in having such an elevator is eliminating the need to use earth-bound rockets to launch cargo, humans, and spacecraft into space. Currently, sending cargo into space from Earth costs approximately $22,000 per kilogram, while sending the same cargo using the space elevator is estimated to cost only $200 per kilogram.
The technology to make this possible will involve robotic cars driven by magnetic linear motors that will send cargo and humans up and down the elevator. The real challenge is to manufacture cables strong enough to maintain the structural integrity of the elevator. Japanese researchers hope to use carbon nanotechnology whose “tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable.”
Mr Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, goes on to explain, “Right now we can’t make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more…we think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it.” The endeavor to perfect carbon nanotechnology is being taken so seriously that almost every university in Japan is in collaboration for the sake of expediting the feasibility in lengthening these carbon nanotubes.
Although the Japanese nation’s engineers and scientists are working hard to complete the space elevator by 2050, they recognize the project’s true success depends on an international effort. “I don’t think one company can make it, we’ll need an international organisation to make this big project,” says Tadashi Egami, a professor working on the project at Kanagawa University.
Although talk of building a space elevator has persisted for years, this marks one of the most serious pursuits to date. Even more exciting, the space elevator will be open to tourists brave enough to traverse the distance. Can’t wait for those epic selfies.