Space elevators have long been the realm of science fiction, but the Obayashi Corporation in Japan has now announced that they’re planning to have one up and running in the next 40 years. And, if they’re successful, it could revolutionise space travel - it’s estimated the elevator would be able to take people into space for one percent of the cost of a rocket.
Although it might sound impossible, a 2012 international study already concluded that space elevators such as this one are scientifically feasible thanks to advances in super-strong carbon nanotubes. “The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it's possible," Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, told Matthew Carney from Australia’s ABC.
But the big hurdle is trying to make carbon nanotubes long enough to reach into space, at the moment the Obayashi Corporation admits they can only create nanotubes that are 3 centimetres long. Researchers all over Japan are now working on dramatically extending this length - they even run competitions each year to collaborate on the problem, Carney reports for ABC.
“We think by 2030 we'll be able to do it,” Ishikawa said.
Even though the cables aren’t ready as yet, scientists at Kanagawa University in Japan are already working on robotic cars to climb the 96,000 kilometres into space - around a quarter of the distance to the Moon. It’s estimated so far that the cars will be able to take 30 people into space at once.
An elevator like this could end our reliance on expensive and unreliable Earth-based rockets - Carney reports hat while a space shuttle costs around $22,000 to take one kilogram of cargo into space, a space elevator could do the same for around $200.
Of course, rockets would still be used to explore further into the Solar System, but these could be launched from platforms in orbit, which would reduce the amount of fuel required to break free of Earth’s gravity.
The elevator could also open up the opportunity of cheaper space tourism. While it’s a pretty exciting announcement, there’s obviously still a long way to go, and Obayashi isn’t going to try and get there alone.
"I don't think one company can make it, we'll need an international organisation to make this big project," said Ishikawa.
In the past it's been competition that's advanced humanity's explorations into space, so we think it would be nice to see collaboration do the same.