Kurzgesagt

WATCH: Can we really build a space elevator?

Going up?

JOSH HRALA
14 APR 2016
 

One of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome to continue our quest into space is the outrageous amount of money it takes to get things out of Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. While reusable rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 are certainly heading in the right direction, they still require a lot of fuel and, therefore, money to pull off. So what’s the answer? 

 

In short, no one knows yet, but one of the most popular ideas is for us to create a gigantic space elevator that could lift supplies and other things from the ground to a docking area in space where ships and other vehicles could grab them without returning to Earth. But how would that work, and is it even possible? Luckily for us, Kurzgesagt is back with another video asking that very same question. 

According to the video above, we first need to understand how orbits work in general. Basically, for something to remain in orbit, it has to get pulled towards the centre of the larger object, but keep moving sideways fast enough to ensure that it doesn't crash into it - it’s essentially falling and missing the ground at the same time.

When NASA or some other space agency launches something into orbit, they shoot a rocket straight up and then sideways to increase its speed around the globe. Since this speed is faster than gravity, it starts to orbit.

So with that cleared up, how would a space elevator work?

The basic idea is to have a tether attached to Earth with a counterweight on the end. Using this tether, a vehicle could climb into space like an elevator car uses a cable to get you from floor to floor. As the vehicle climbs higher and higher, its sideways speed increases because Earth is rotating, which allows things already in orbit to simply take off from a dock on the counterweight. 

Though this project would go down as the most expensive structure ever built, it would reduce the cost of getting things into orbit by almost 100 percent. This means that, even with its high cost, it will save us a tonne of money in the future.

 

The real question is whether or not we can actually pull something like a space elevator off.

There’s a whole slew of things researchers would need to figure out before we can even give it a shot, and the biggest problem is the tether. As Kurzgesagt points out, it would need to be ultra-strong - stronger than any material we have now - to withstand the forces acting upon it, harsh weather conditions, erosion, and impacts from random projectiles, because if it happens to break, it would destroy anything in its path. 

Other problems include finding a power source for the climber, and figuring out how to actually build the entire structure from the ground up. These problems are all heightened because there’s basically no room for error.

Despite these challenges, though, many believe that the space elevator is one of the best bets for us to eventually become a spacefaring civilisation, even if the task seems incredibly daunting.   

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