How to build a stairway to heaven

In the near future, could we be taking a space elevator into Earth orbit?

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Getting into space is no easy feat. At the moment we use huge tanks of propellant powered by giant explosions at their base, which are better known as rockets, but these are both dangerous and very expensive.

That’s why various agencies have spent years looking for other ways to reach space. Previously we’ve looked at space planes, but this time we’re focusing on a more ambitious way to have a constant connection to space.

The idea of a space elevator was first inspired by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895. In principle it sounds simple – have a tether extend from the surface of Earth to space and just travel up and down it. In practice, however, it’s incredibly difficult to construct such a device. For starters, there are almost no known materials strong enough or that can be manufactured in sufficient quantities to create a cable tens of thousands of kilometres long. Second, the tether would need to be anchored both at a geostationary station and further out with a counterweight point to ensure it didn’t break. Finally, you’ll need some sort of elevator that can attach itself to the cable and travel into space.

Thankfully, there are solutions. One of the primary candidates for the cable’s material is carbon nanotubes, which could possess the tensile strength needed for such a structure. Meanwhile, a counterweight beyond the orbit of the space station could be an asteroid or an additional space station. This would ensure the cable had a centre of gravity beyond the space station it was attached to, allowing it to remain anchored in space. Finally, by making the cable much wider at its centre point, cars could climb up it without destroying it. The counterweight would move to ensure the cars did not cause the cable to rotate too much and be destroyed. There are also several proposed methods to power the cars including solar power and wireless energy transfer.

In 2012, Tokyo-based company Obayashi Corporation announced plans to build an operational space elevator by 2050. Although the project is merely in a concept phase, Obayashi Corp’s proposal (pictured above) isn’t too out of this world. We won’t be seeing one any time soon but, if all goes to plan, by 2050 we could all be taking regular trips to the stars.

Space elevator, space plane or a rocket – which would you choose to get to space? Let us know below.

All images © 2012 Obayashi Corporation.

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