Thursday, November 13, 2008

Elevator into the heavens

An article in this morning's Australian press made the unexpected suggestion that my native country should get involved in some kind of space program. It goes without saying that I like this idea, but I don't necessarily find it very realistic. It's a bit like saying that Australia should get involved in nuclear energy research. A more plausible down-to-earth goal would consist of simply updating the nation's antiquated infrastructure of railways, roads and bridges. Be that as it may, I was intrigued above all by the particular space project that was mentioned in the article. It was suggested that the waters off Western Australia might be a fine place for... an elevator into the heavens!

The principle of such a magical device was enunciated for the first time, many years ago, by a Russian rocket scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky [1857–1935], who lived in the countryside in a log house. The general theory behind such an elevator is quite sound. You merely need to attach a strong elevator cable to a geostationary satellite. But an obvious practical problem has made it impossible, up until now, to envisage the actual construction of such a Jacob's ladder into the sky. The problem is the huge weight of the elevator cable, 62 thousand miles long! If it were built of steel, say, it would snap immediately under its own weight.
[Click here to see the Wikipedia page on this subject.]

The good news is that recent advances in nanotechnology make it possible to envisage the existence of an ultra-thin, ultra-lightweight and ultra-strong ribbon that would theoretically be able to perform perfectly as an elevator cable. What I don't know is whether Australia is technologically advanced enough to be able to work in this domain, and tackle such a project. The following short American video presents this kind of space elevator:

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