Introducing the Gizmag Store

LiftPort plans to build space elevator on the Moon by 2020

By

August 27, 2012

Artist's impression of the lunar elevator's lunar base and climber car (Image: LiftPort)

Artist's impression of the lunar elevator's lunar base and climber car (Image: LiftPort)

Image Gallery (7 images)

When the late Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 went to the Moon, they did so sitting atop a rocket the size of a skyscraper that blasted out jets of smoke and flame as it hurtled skyward. For over half a century, that is how all astronauts have gone into space. It’s all very dramatic, but it’s also expensive. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to take the elevator? That’s the question that Michael Laine, CEO of LiftPort in Seattle, Washington, hopes to answer with the development of a transportation system that swaps space-rockets for space-ribbons.

Rockets have done sterling service in launching satellites and astronauts into orbit. The trouble is, they’re inefficient and therefore expensive. Putting a payload into orbit means that the rocket must not only lift the payload, it has to carry the payload, the fuel to lift it and the rocket, the fuel to lift the fuel, the rocket and the payload, the fuel to lift all that and so on. The space elevator is based on the idea of cutting out the middleman and just lifting the payload. It does this by way of a tower of mind-boggling height – from sea level at the equator, clear up to geosynchronous orbit 35,800 kilometers (22,238 mi) up with an elevator for going up and down it like it was the Seattle Space Needle.

The idea even predates liquid-fueled rockets. It was first proposed by Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower, he had the idea of building what came to be known as the “Tsiolkovsky Tower.” He saw the advantage of a tower tall enough that launching satellites would be a matter of simply releasing them like pigeons, but The tower wasn’t remotely practical because no conceivable self-standing structure could be built so high and not collapse under its own weight.

For decades, the idea languished and was largely forgotten, until is was reinvented in 1959 by another Russian scientist, Yuri N. Artsutanov. His new design remained unnoticed as well because his paper was not published in English until many years later, so the space elevator was reinvented twice again by American scientists in 1966 and 1979. The cycle might have continued if Sir Arthur C. Clarke hadn’t made the construction of a space elevator the plot of his 1979 novel Fountains of Paradise. Sir Arthur was very keen on the idea and liked to predict that the elevator would be built “ten years after everyone stopped laughing.”

Artist's concept of a space elevator climber (Image: LiftPort)

By the 1970s, the basic design of a possible future space elevator had been refined. Tsiolkovsky’s tower was replaced by a ribbon suspended from a space station in geosynchronous orbit over the equator. Those two points are important because at that distance and at the equator, the station remains over the same spot on the Earth at all times. Above the station at a distance of 144,000 kilometers (90,000 miles – nearly the halfway point to the Moon) is a gigantic counterweight that holds up the ribbon and the station by centrifugal force, which the Earth’s gravity counters and balances.

This system doesn’t envision the use of an actual elevator. A 35,800 kilometer-long cable isn’t exactly practical and the counterweight needed for the thing would be the size of a small mountain. Instead, it uses a self-propelled car that climbs the ribbon. How the car is powered varies from electricity carried by the ribbon to lasers beamed from the ground and the station. The car itself would be a high-tech affair and is often imagined as a climbing robot or something equally exotic.

The space elevator is simple in concept, but nearly impossible in execution. The main problem is that no material known to science is strong enough to make the ribbon. Steel and titanium are much too weak. In fact, the ribbon needs to be 60 to 200 times the strength of steel if it isn’t going to snap under its own weight. Quartz fibers and even diamonds have been considered and recently carbon nanotubes seem promising, but engineers are still a long way from answering that basic question of what the heck to make it out of.

Other problems include the cold in the upper atmosphere, which plays havoc with lubricants, materials and electronics – not to mention the danger of ice building up on the ribbon. Then there’s inclement weather buffeting it. Above the atmosphere, satellites and space debris whizzing by pose their own challenges.

Another alternative climber design (Image: LiftPort)

LiftPort – heading for the Moon

LiftPort ultimately wants to build a space elevator on Earth, but the company isn't planning on doing it in one go. Instead, Laine and his team are settling for a more modest goal – building an elevator on the Moon by 2020. This is much easier. For one thing, there’s no air on the Moon, so no icing problems. Also, the lower gravity means that no unobtanium is needed for the ribbon. Kevlar is strong enough for the job. And finally, there’s very little in the way of satellites or debris to contend with.

LiftPort’s goal in its Kickstarter funding campaign is a modest US$8,000, which it has already surpassed. This may seem like chicken feed for such an ambitious program, but Laine intended it as a way of sparking public interest. The ultimate goal is to raise $100,000 to $3 million with the first round of funding to be used to continue a preliminary study of the system.

"The study will include characterization of materials; analysis of required rocketry and robotics; and evaluation of landing sites and methods of anchoring to the Lunar surface," says Laine. "Additionally, Ribbon spooling, infrastructure deployment, and micrometeorite mitigation techniques will be explored."

If all goes well, Laine believes construction of the lunar elevator could begin by 2020. The LiftPort lunar elevator would be deployed from lunar orbit with a spacecraft lowering a lander on the ribbon. On contact with the surface, the lander will anchor itself. After that, landing on the Moon will be as simple as docking with the craft in lunar orbit, transferring to the climber car and reading a book on the way down.

The immediate goal, however, will be to test the system on an elevator only two kilometers (1.24 mi) high, which would be suspended from balloons. LiftPort plans to build a robot climber capable of scaling the ribbon. In order to test this, the team will construct a sort of “vertical treadmill” for the robot to climb before taking on the real thing.

Further money raised will be used to develop better sensors, increase the height of the suspended ribbon to 5 km (3.1 m), develop a new robot and then go on to climbs of 30 km (18.6 m) and, finally, a full feasibility test of the system, which Laine hopes to carry out next year.

Laine sees a number of applications for such space elevators beyond launching spacecraft and giving tourists a restaurant with one fantastic view. He sees the elevator as being the tallest line-of-sight radio tower possible, which would be a tremendous boon to communications. Also, even the technology for suspending the ribbon from balloons opens the potential for quickly deployable emergency communications/surveillance towers.

But part of the attraction for Laine is simply adrenaline-raising fun. Anyone for the ultimate bungee jump?

The video below depicts how a lunar elevator would be deployed.

Sources: LiftPort ( Kickstarter page) via Cosmic Log

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
23 Comments

I Love these Ideas.....

Little hassle with rotational and gravitational physics....

For all of these components to work in space, they all need to be located in the same geostationary location.....

As the tethers between all of the components will be "infinitely" long, they will have infinitely low stiffness (relative to their length.

Lower orbits have a higher velocity needed to maintain the orbit...

Higher orbits (further from the earth) have lower velocity needs to maintain in orbit....

Ok putting the main station in Geo-stat orbit is cool... Then putting the counterweight a million more miles out into space (hyperbole) and keeping it rotating at the same surface speed as the earth.... it is doable, and produces the tension needed to keep the tether "tight" as the mass will be trying to fly off into space.....

The outer counter-mass will be travelling orders of magnitude higher velocity than the necessary orbital speed (speed through space) as it must "maintain pace" with the base location on earth..

The whole thing will need rocket boosters (lots of) to keep the mass positioned properly.. (stopping it from slowing down and dragging the whole thing around the earth like a huge piece of wrapping string.) and if you were wanting to sweep all of the space junk out of the orbits between the station and mass, it will do that too (sure not many applications put satellites further out than Geostationary, but there may be some).... as well as potentially knocking out any satellites which some idiot put in one of the in between orbits.....

As I said, Love the idea, but in all probability rockets will be cheaper for some time to come. Lets focus on cheaper and more environmentally friendly rockets, ion motors, linear accelerators (for micro satellites) etc.

MD
28th August, 2012 @ 12:17 am PDT

I am not saying the people behind this are crooks, but they don't know what they are doing.

They seem to have failed to notice that the moon is tidally locked with earth so the moon spins on its axis once every 27.3 days or so. This does not make constructing a tether impossible though. If you attach the tether to the point on the moon nearest the earth and run it through the Earth-Moon Lagrangian Point 1* to far enough into the earths pull so the counterweight pulls the tether tight lets call it a minimum tether length of 60,000km. To have a low energy docking with the tether high point station it will have to happen at the L1 and the tether docking station will have to constantly clime up and down the tether or be readily accessible only once or twice every 27.3 days or so. (See below)

Most importantly building the tether is a waste of time, energy, material, and effort. Just barely pass L1 and and you will fall the rest of the way to your destination weather it's the earth or the moon. The moon effectively doesn't have an atmosphere so there is no reason not to build a linear accelerator on the moons surface that if engineered correctly will also able to catch incoming vehicles as well with most of the installation below ground where it is safe from most of the hazards of space.

The accelerator will also be able to throw stuff to deep space by just giving it more velocity and firing at the right time in the moon's orbit.

*Earth-Moon Lagrangian Point 1 the point of gravitational equilibrium between the earth and the moon. The moon being in an elliptical orbit makes this point of gravitational equilibrium very in distance from the earth and the the moon even though it remains at the same percentage of the distance from the center of the moon and the point where the moon and earth orbit each other. This point is about 17,000km below Earth's surface but this is not at the center of the earth.

Pikeman
28th August, 2012 @ 01:38 am PDT

re; MD

Actually the higher the orbit the faster the object has to be traveling but the distance it has to travel goes up faster than the velocity needed for the given orbital altitude, so that it takes longer for the higher orbital satellites to cross the sky above a ground observer.

The Freefall Station (At the hight of geostationary orbit) will consist almost entirely of freefall labs and factories, and docking for returning spaceships such as asteroid miners looking for a market and dive to let of steam. It may prove quite profitable to move ships from Freefall station to highpoint station charging less than the reaction mass would cost to give the same velocity change.

If you take a string and tie a weight to one end and and a loop around the other and placing the loop loosely around your finger and then swing the weighted string around your head you do not need to put rockets or any other engines on the weight or string to keep the string from wrapping around your finger. The same principal applies to the beyond geostationary counterweight on an orbital tower.

The orbital space particularly below geostationary orbit will have to be cleaned up as part of the construction process and then it will be up to the owners of new LEO satellites to avoid the tower.

Pikeman
28th August, 2012 @ 02:42 am PDT

Pikeman, Kepplers laws might be worth a read - the moon orbits the earth at an altitude of 210,000 miles, but has an orbital velocity of only 2,412mph, meanwhile, if a satellite in low earth orbits at only 500 miles it has an orbital velocity of 16,920mph.

http://armycommunications.tpub.com/SS0031/SS00310027.htm

Also, in an elliptical orbit, the perigee (lowest altitude) is the point of highest velocity, and the apogee (highest altitude) is the point of lowest velocity.

Kepplers laws are the constant bain of those attempting to design high-resolution spy satellite networks, because it's impossible to achieve a geostationary low earth orbit!

A space elevator for the moon is much more feasible than on the Earth - much shorter cable or ribbon required, and no atmospheric drag.

A space elevator for use on Earth? - Good luck.

PeetEngineer
28th August, 2012 @ 09:56 am PDT

One excellent reason to build a space elevator on the moon is to reality-test the concept. We can only guess at how a space elevator will behave, there has never been anything like it built.

That said, it makes sense to test it on the moon, where the concept can be scaled down to fit lunar gravity, where it won't interfere with terrestrial satellites, and where there is no biosphere to screw up if something goes very wrong.

Jon A.
28th August, 2012 @ 11:04 am PDT

1st....why? Moon mining? Will the next thing for the sheeple to cry about is "keeping Luna grey!"?

2nd...by 2020? Really? LOL...umm, no. Just, no. It's less than 8 years 'til 2020 rolls along, theres absolutely no way this happens in that time span, none at all.

3rd...anyone who can afford to Kickstart to such a frivolous endevour CLEARLY isnt being taxed enough & needs to have all thier wealth redistributed to people...er....who arent as "fortunate". There's ghetto kids who can barely keep thier smartphones paid for, to think money would be spent on such a project should send your college professor into convulsions.

Gregg Velosi
28th August, 2012 @ 11:18 am PDT

The point is to get us off the Earth cheaply.

Without that, doing anything on the moon will be prohibitively expensive.

We need to dump all these pie in the sky ideas and focus on technology we have that can be enlarged to get us off the planet cheaply.

One Large linear accelerator up the side of a mountain to launch vehicles and payloads which utilize small reusable rockets would make manned deep exploration a reality.

The technology will soon be used to launch aircraft from carriers.

Granted, one for space would be a thousand times longer. And use a Maglev sled for the vehicle/

But we would just need one.....

PrometheusGoneWild.com
28th August, 2012 @ 12:04 pm PDT

The elevator I'd like to see is a bit different. It'd be much shorter, about 1/5 as long as a regular space elevator, and it would 'walk' or 'roll' around the earth, stopping at various 'ports' along the way. Of course, it would require a means of quickly loading/unloading the 'car', but that should just be a matter of technology.

Larry Hooten
28th August, 2012 @ 12:08 pm PDT

It is entirely possible that our financial problems could be solved by mining and manufacturing in outer space. While the dream ideas here are nice to discuss, we need to look at more realistic solutions that are available now before we drive ourselves into a financial pit. Our economy is in grave danger, but not beyond rescue if we think outside the box. The mineral wealth of the Moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt could bring us all new and lasting standards of living better than ever before. Doomsayers have always been around, but so have opportunities like the mineral wealth off planet Earth.

William Wiley Bolton
28th August, 2012 @ 02:12 pm PDT

The article author needs to look up the difference between geosynchronous and geostationary.

There are many possible geosynchronous orbits. They don't even have to be perfectly circular. They're called synchronous because the orbital period is the same as the rotation of Earth or averages out to the same. A satellite in such an orbit may drift up and down or back and forth a bit, tracing out a horizontal figure 8 pattern.

There is only one geostationary orbit and it's right over the equator.

A space elevator could have its top in a circular geosynchronous orbit but it would add to the complexity to accommodate the movement.

As for the counterweight it might be possible to use electric coils to thrust with/against Earth's magnetic field to keep it in place directly above the top of the elevator.

For a moon to L1 elevator it wouldn't be scaled down it'd have to scale up, at least in height since L1 is nearly 2x the altitude above the Lunar surface than geostationary orbit above Earth's equator.

Double the material but 1/6th the gravity.

Theoretically a moon elevator could be run out to L2, L4 or L5 but they're a heck of a lot farther away. Probably be "easier" to spin up the moon so the elevators could be no longer than an Earth one. ;-)

May as well build elevators on Venus to draw off 70~90% of its atmosphere and spin up its rotation to 24 hours. Without the technology to do that, forget ever terraforming Venus.

Gregg Eshelman
28th August, 2012 @ 05:03 pm PDT

re; Pikeman

You forgot to account for gravitational decline with distance. I know I would have made the same mistake. And it explains the low energy lunar transfer orbits that had always confused me.

....................................................................................................

re; PeetEngineer

It looks like you you were so excited about Pikeman's error that you did not read his explanation on why the tether is a bad idea on the moon.

......................................................................................................

re; PrometheusGoneWild.com

I agree but...

The best mountains seem to be in politically bad locations. It looks more practical to build horizontal take off, air breathing mother-ships with rocket powered second stages. Sense I prefer winged reentry vehicles in is not advantages to have the mother-ship capable of flying into the optimal launch attitude for the orbital vehicle. However the higher and faster the better.

....................................................................................................

re; Larry Hooten

An orbital tether might be a workable transfer vehicle but I see that you dock at the center of mass the then the material going higher goes toward the outer end and the material going lower goes toward the inner end the less massive load goes all the way to the end the only as far to balance the load unless you wish to change the transfer stations orbit. you release both loads simultaneously.

Slowburn
28th August, 2012 @ 05:47 pm PDT

Now we need Lunar Base to recieve Liftvator & meanwhile to mine H2 for income revenue & miscl.

Radical

I dubb this the Armstrong LunarVator Project.

Stephen N Russell
28th August, 2012 @ 05:53 pm PDT

Great idea but I just can't see us getting beyond conventional rockets till the 22nd century. It's the scale of the thing - the quantity of kevlar or whatever material that would need to be sent into space to make a 35,000km ribbon (3 times the diameter of the earth) - is a huge job in itself, let alone getting it in place and unwound and functioning as an elevator.

And what's the business case? How much are you going to charge for use of the thing? It isn't that hard landing on the moon in terms of fuel requirements. Leaving the moon is a bit harder but i'm guessing it will be mostly one way traffic as moon bases are set up. My guess is that the moon mining companies will be the ones to fashion the first moon elevators.

However we have to dream and the spark of an idea can lead to great things.. the climbing experiment with a balloon on 30km long tether would lead to some great breakthroughs in near space technology, for instance.

inchiki
28th August, 2012 @ 06:53 pm PDT

A few of these people need to take their feet out of their mouths, read the article with care,, then digest the information, perhaps look at further information,, then make their statements.

Yes it IS possible!

Mike MacDonald
28th August, 2012 @ 07:14 pm PDT

re; Mike MacDonald

Possible does not mean a good idea and given that they think that they can do it with a shorter tether on the moon shows them to be incompetent for this venture.

Pikeman
28th August, 2012 @ 09:55 pm PDT

Has nobody here heard of Spaceward's X-prize-like space elevator competition? http://www.spaceward.org/ Graphene looks promising for tethers.

For an explanation of Lagrange points: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=earth+moon+lagrange

@PrometheusGoneWild.com: There are many things you can't launch with ground-based launch systems just because the accelerations are too great for them to withstand. The payload needs to get to an 11km/sec escape velocity, so if you had a 10km linear accelerator, that requires an acceleration of around 600g. That's fine for things like solids or liquids (i.e. fuel), but useless for anything mechanical or living, and requires massive amounts of energy (about 60MJ/Kg). The velocity required to reach geostationary orbit will be less than this, but still the same ballpark.

I've no idea how to calculate the energy required by a tether climber to get to geostationary orbit, but it will be orders of magnitude lower than that required by an untethered vehicle, which is the whole point of the exercise.

Synchro
29th August, 2012 @ 03:25 am PDT

No need for a tether if lasers are to propel the craft. Besides, the moon doesn't rotate fast enough, seems its centripetal force would require the counterweight to get so close to Earth (every 2 weeks) as to be adversely affected by our gravity.

Robert Bernal
29th August, 2012 @ 07:47 am PDT

Love the idea (I've read that book) but I groaned when I saw the proposed timeline. It seems that a race is on to lower the cost of getting stuff into orbit (Elon Musk et al) but I'd say that even with a materials science breakthrough tomorrow, this is 25 years off minimum. There'll be vastly improved chemical and other rocket systems in the meantime, even though this concept is superior overall.

Hogey74
29th August, 2012 @ 10:23 am PDT

If there is any material strong and long enough, we might as well use the moon rotation itself as the motor to power the space elevator as a continous loop wrapped around the moon equator to the earth connector which could be a super big looking gear like what they use in ski elevators.

Francis Wong Chee Yen
30th August, 2012 @ 02:11 pm PDT

Re.: Pikeman

The plan for a moon space elevator differs conceptually from the concept suitable for earth due to the moon being tidally locked as you mentioned.

Rather than building this out from an orbit it'll utilize the Lagrange point i.e. there is no orbiting of the moon involved.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagrangian_point

Facebook User
30th August, 2012 @ 10:01 pm PDT

As long as it doesn't use tax money, I say "go for it". Many careers have been sustained on absurd ambitions and that's OK, as long I'm not FORCED to pay for them (there's plenty already!). Maybe the Space Elevator will carry all the building materials needed for the Starship....

Burnerjack
2nd September, 2012 @ 03:56 pm PDT

I would use space tethers for earth. It would require a vehicle to deliver a payload to a high altitude. The speed required would be lower than a vehicle to orbit. To maintain the tether in orbit, it will have to pull down as well. I believe the bible mentioned a stairway to heaven. Sounds like a tether system.

Stewart Mitchell
3rd September, 2012 @ 07:21 am PDT

Ridiculous. What are they thinking? A much more practible method of lowering orbital injection costs is to accelerate your package up an log curve shaped linear accelerator of 10 or 20km lenght, with it's vertical terminus following a tall equatorial mountain. The unsupported vertical section could be at least as tall as the tallest skyscraper, probably ten times so. This device would allow airbreathing rockets to reduce their oxider load by a high percentage as as well as the fuel requirement. To be travelling at ramjet speed before you need to burn fuel is a big advantage. Such a system could sent hundreds of size/weight limited packages a day, with no Unobtanium requirement. Space elevator! Pfaugh! Still, it could be built at Sri Pada, as Clarke envisioned.

Jeremy Williams
4th September, 2012 @ 05:00 pm PDT
Post a Comment

Login with your gizmag account:

Or Login with Facebook:


Related Articles

Just enter your friends and your email address into the form below

For multiple addresses, separate each with a comma




Privacy is safe with us because we have a strict privacy policy.

Looking for something? Search our 26,492 articles