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Elevator: 2010 - a space race for the whole family

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August 4, 2007

Artist Pat Rawling's impression of a working space elevator Photo: NASA Marshall Space Fli...

Artist Pat Rawling's impression of a working space elevator Photo: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC)

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August 5, 2007 Almost 40 years after it ended, the Spaceward Foundation is reigniting the space race with the third annual Elevator: 2010 competition. Part of the “Spaceward Games” taking place on October 19-21 near Salt Lake City, the competition is open to any family, school or adult and this year allows participants to compete in more events including the first inaugural Light Racer challenge. The tournament aims to bring attention to the viability of far-reaching space exploration concepts and requires competitors to build beam powered lunar buggies and beam powered cable “climbers”. But the machines aren’t the only thing ascending rapidly in the name of scientific advancement; the total prize money this year has skyrocketed to US$1 million.

Elevator: 2010 is a joint initiative of NASA and the Spaceward Foundation that began as a response to rising interest in the century old concept of the Space Elevator. The Space Elevator is, oddly enough, pretty much exactly what it sounds like, involving the suspension of a 62 000 mile long tether from a counterweight in space to an anchor point on the Earth’s surface. This line would facilitate the journey of shuttles from ground level right into, or past, Earth orbit without the use of any rocket propulsion. This method of travel would make the journey to space drastically cheaper, and allow shuttles to depart more often and with a much larger amount of cargo. However, until there is more evidence that the completed structure won’t fall on its face, (and a good part of the surrounding continent), governments and corporations are unwilling to sponsor its development.

This is where Elevator: 2010 comes in. The goal of the program is both to educate school children and the general public as well as nurture core technologies – ultimately the aim is to show enough improvement in the “building blocks” of the space elevator to demonstrate that, by 2010, construction could feasibly begin. These building blocks include the makeup of the tether and the design of the shuttle, which, for the purposes of the competition, has to be solely powered by a light beam. In 2005, the first year of the competition, a participant succeeded in creating a beam-powered vehicle that ascended the 50 metre trial line at a few inches per second. In 2006, even more competitors managed to reach the top and one came within two seconds of achieving a victory - which is achieved by an ascent at a minimum of 2 m/s (6.6 feet per second). But as of 2007, the Elevator: 2010 grand prize has remained tantalizingly unclaimed. The Spaceward Foundation hopes that this year, which marks the halfway point in their overall timeline, a team will finally claim the jackpot.

Whether the popularity of the race will lead to increased funding for an actual space elevator is yet to be seen, however the innovation it encourages has already demonstrated its wider applications. The Light Racer competition shows the versatility of the light beam power system, using it to charge small buggies. Spaceward claims these vehicles would be perfect for travelling from crater to crater on the surface of the moon, gathering any accumulated ice for use in nearby lunar bases.

As of the writing of this article, 24 teams have registered. Teams who have not yet done so have until September 1st.

David Smitherman of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center's Advanced Projects Office has also compiled plans for a space elevator - the concept would see a structure extend approximately 50 km tall with a cable tethered to the top. This would allow electromagnetic vehicles to travel into orbit carrying people, payloads and power between space and Earth in the latter part of the 21st century (see main pic).

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