Forget the Rocket, Take the Elevator

Going Up?

Next floor, outer space. NASA is betting a $2 million prize may produce a new generation of space craft. Instead of a using rockets though, their betting on a Space Elevator.

Three teams are competing for the prize Wednesday and Thursday on the dry lakebed near NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards. The objective: propel a machine powered by a laser up a half-mile cable suspended from a helicopter. The vehicles must move at an average speed of 16.4 feet per second to qualify.

On Wednesday, LaserMotive's vehicle zipped up to the top in just over four minutes and immediately repeated the feat, qualifying for at least a $900,000 second-place prize.

The competition is sponsored by the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation with support from NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

The LaserMotive device, a square of photo voltaic panels about 2 feet by 2 feet and topped by a motor structure and thin triangle frame, had failed to respond to the laser three times before it was lowered, inspected and then hoisted back up by the helicopter for the successful tries.

LaserMotive's two principals, Jordin Kare and Thomas Nugent, said they were relieved after two years of work. They said their real goal is to develop a business based on the idea of beaming  power, not the futuristic idea of accessing space via an elevator climbing a cable.

"We both are pretty skeptical of its near-term prospects," Kare said of an elevator.

The space elevator theory promises to make space access cheaper by leaving the fuel on Earth. The basic concept consists of a cable anchored to the Earth's surface, reaching into space. A counterweight is attached at the end that stays in geosynchronous orbit. As the Earth spins, inertia ensures that the cable remains stretched taut and counters the Earth's gravity-- much like spinning a ball at the end of a rope.

Powered vehicles would run up and down the cable to transport people and cargo. Electricity would be supplied through a concept known as "power beaming," ground based lasers pointing up to photo voltaic cells on the bottom of the climbing vehicle something like an upside-down solar power system.

The space elevator competition has not produced a winner in its previous three years, but has become increasingly difficult.


Copyright AP - Associated Press
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