Japanese engineers begin work on a space elevator

Space elevators are a work of science fiction. Dreamt up by novelist and futurist Arthur C Clarke, they were an implausible fantasy to commercialise space travel. But now it appears that’s no longer the case thanks to a team of researchers at Shizuoka University in Japan and Japanese contractor Obayashi.

Obayashi sees the space elevator consisting of six oval-shaped cars, each one measuring 18 x 7.2m and capable of holding 30 people at a time. The elevator will start on a platform in the sea and connect up via a cable to a satellite at 36,000km above the Earth.

The elevator would be powered by an electric-motor pulley and would winch cars up and down the cable at up to over 120mph. Even at that speed it’s estimated to take eight days to arrive at the space station, so those 30-people cars best be incredibly plush and luxurious otherwise it could be one uncomfortable ride into space.

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To get passengers into space, Obayashi need to create and install a cable that’s nearly 60,000 miles in length. It’s estimated to cost nearly £7 billion to create and will, most likely, be made out of carbon nanotube.

While this may sound like an extravagant cost, it’s believed that it’ll actually amount to just one-hundredth of what a space shuttle development and flight costs were. It’s also intended to be reusable and would have a higher turnover of passengers, bringing costs per use down significantly.

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Other than dealing with the tricky situation of developing, storing and constructing a 60,000-mile cable, Obayashi isn’t actually all that close to starting the project just yet. In fact, the team of researchers at Shizuoka are about to start the first phase of testing for the project. This involves sending two small satellites (just 10x10cm) into space and connecting them with a 10m steel cable from the International Space Station.

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Shizuoka will test its elevator concept by then sending containers along this cable between the two satellites and the ISS. If successful, it could green-light the next phase of the space elevator’s development.

Still, I’m not totally sold on the idea paying off. I’ve watched enough episodes of various series of Gundam to know that the moment someone controls a space elevator, everyone else just wants to invade them and take it over.

However, if that anime future stays strictly as a work of fiction, a space elevator could well open up humanity to true space travel. A future where we utilise satellites as transportation stations to explore further afield in our own solar system and galaxy.

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