If you've ever had dreams of riding an elevator all the way to space, things are looking up - literally. Japanese construction giant Obayashi has just announced plans to build a 96,000 kilometre space elevator, with this huge project said to be up and running by 2050. When completed, space elevator transportation could signal the end of Earth-based rockets and revolutionise space travel.
While this project is definitely ambitious, the space elevator has years of research behind it. Universities all over Japan have been working on the elevator, which will use robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors to carry both people and cargo to a newly built space station. While a trip to the space station will take a total of seven days, the cost when finished will be just $200 per kilogram as opposed to the current cost of $22,000 per kilogram using rockets.
Obayashi first announced plans to build the elevator in February 2012, with universities in Japan holding competitions since then as a way to share research and learn from each other. One team at Kanagawa University has been working on robotic cars or climbers, studying tension on the cable and how it will vary depending on height and gravity. According to Professor Tadashi Egami, "We're studying what mechanisms are needed in order to ascend at differing altitudes and the best brake system."
In order for the space elevator to become a reality, a material strong and light enough to build the incredibly long cable is needed. Recent developments in carbon nanotechnology have helped fuel optimism in the project, as the tiny cylindrical nanotubes first developed in the 1990s become both more efficient and cheaper to produce.
According to Mr Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi in a statement to the ABC, "The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it's possible... 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." While 96,000 kilometres is a long way to go, Obayashi is not the only entity taking the space elevator dream seriously.
NASA researchers released a lengthy report citing the potential of carbon nanotubes in space elevators over a decade ago, with the agency also sponsoring the Space Elevator Games as a way to fuel research and develop precursors for the transportation system. Also in the USA, the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC) held its annual meeting just last month in Seattle, with a theme focused on space elevator architectures and road maps.
While Obayashi are definitely taking the lead pod in the space elevator adventure, a major international study in 2012 concluded that while feasible, the space elevator is more likely to be achieved with international co-operation. Mr Ishikawa from Obayashi agreed, saying "I don't think one company can make it, we'll need an international organisation to make this big project."