Hephaestus's Blog

Why Terra Needs a Space Elevator
August 20, 2015, 09:32
Filed under: Space stuff

First of all, we need to know: What exactly is a space elevator?

At its heart, a space elevator is a very long tether, running from the surface of Earth to a counterweight placed in Geostationary orbit.

Compared to other forms of space launch, such as rockets, the space elevator is a remarkably economic, if nearly impossible and prohibitively difficult to build, solution to the great challenge: Getting what’s down here up there.

Now why we need it.

Spaceflight is expensive. The cheapest (and also really small) launch vehicles still cost thousands of dollars per kilogram of cargo. As you can imagine, this puts the cost of placing anything larger than a loaf of bread into orbit out of reach of all but governments, institutions, and large corporations like SES or Boeing.

A space elevator is perhaps the only way of bringing the price of an orbital jaunt within the reach of the general public, or making possible voyages to space on a large scale; even a re-usable rocket vehicle, such as that being developed by SpaceX, will only cut the price to about one-third to one-sixth of the current figure.*

But there’s more. Rocketry is, by its very nature, a fast, dangerous and somewhat tenuous way of getting anywhere; if you can, it’s probably better to walk. A space elevator would have this crucial difference from rocket travel: it would automatically be 1) a permanent fixture on the planet, unable to move significantly, and 2) a slower, safer, more comfortable ride. (This applies to cargo as well: imagine if satellites didn’t have to be designed to take prodigious acceleration and vibration).

Although it may seem hard to believe, there are several groups dedicated to creating a space elevator. Among these are the International Space Elevator Consortium and LiftPort Group (who want to build one on the Moon).

Additionally, a company called Thoth Technology recently patented a very different kind of “space elevator”, an inflatable tower and launch platform, but that is beyond the scope of the current post.

In closing, a hypothetical space elevator would probably be a cheaper, safer and more reliable way of reaching space than any we have today. Good luck to the daring and maybe crazy engineers trying to make it happen in our lifetimes.

*These are all estimates; exact numbers on this kind of thing are extremely hard to find.


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