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Japanese company plans to have space elevator "up" and running by 2050

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February 23, 2012

A NASA artist's rendition of a space elevator (Image: NASA)

A NASA artist's rendition of a space elevator (Image: NASA)

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A Japanese company is looking to take elevators to new heights. The Daily Yomiuri reports that Tokyo-based construction company Obayashi Corp. hopes to have a space elevator operational by 2050, carrying passengers and cargo in a vehicle that travels along a ribbon made of carbon nanotubes extending a quarter of the way to the moon.

A counterweight at the end of the 96,000 kilometer (59,652 mile) cable would anchor the entire assembly, which is connected to a station on the ground. Passengers would travel from the surface of the Earth to a terminal station housing a research center and residential facilities located about 36,000 kilometers (22,369 miles) up the ribbon in a car traveling at 200 km/h (124 mph). At that speed the journey is anticipated to take about a week.

Solar panels at the same elevation as the terminal station would provide its electricity and also send power back to the surface.

Obayashi Corp.'s space elevator concept (Image: Daily Yomiuri)

The concept of elevators reaching into space has been around since 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by the newly built Eiffel Tower to first conceive of the idea of a free-standing tower reaching into geostationary orbit from the Earth's surface. The idea has since become a staple of science fiction, but in recent years conferences have been held on the topic and NASA has also been actively involved in efforts to make them a reality.

But finding a material light enough and strong enough to create such a long cable has been a significant obstacle. Obayashi and others believe carbon nanotubes can get the job done, making them the key to the ambitious project.

Obayashi is not yet saying how much they estimate the project will cost, but when it's up and running, it hopes to transport 30 passengers at a time along the space cable, perhaps using magnetic linear motors. The company also hasn't revealed a location for the space elevator, but as it relies on centrifugal forces to keep the ribbon taut, the base station needs to be located along - or at least close to - the equator.

Source: Daily Yomiuri

About the Author
Eric Mack Eric Mack has been covering technology and the world since the late 1990s. As well as being a Gizmag regular, he currently contributes to CNET, NPR and other outlets.   All articles by Eric Mack
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49 Comments

Well heck now all they need is four or five trillion dollars to make it happen. No problemo.

Mark Mitchell
23rd February, 2012 @ 05:04 pm PST

Props for trying, but I'm going to bet they won't have the project even begun by 2050. It's a bet, not a guarantee. Prove me wrong, all you scientists and engineers. Impress me!

Jim Parker
23rd February, 2012 @ 06:19 pm PST

Only Government projects cost that much, private concerns don't need to reward their political allies with huge slush funds hidden in so called "high priority" but never read 10,000 page legislation.

Michael Gene
23rd February, 2012 @ 06:37 pm PST

Next step: Chaining the moon!

Von Meerman
23rd February, 2012 @ 08:01 pm PST

This will work only after all terrorism is abandoned- it seems like too tempting a target otherwise.

Carlos Grados
23rd February, 2012 @ 08:18 pm PST

Build a rotovator instead. This is a rotating cable in LEO that will be much cheaper to build and quicker.

Stephen Colbourne
23rd February, 2012 @ 08:24 pm PST

A lot of detail not include in article above. What I know more is the so call elevator has lifting speed about 200km/hr, mean about it takes 180hour non stop or 7.5day to reach terminal station. Carrying passenger will demand accommodation, food and living stuff. Thus the space elevator will not fit the name! The is other source describe this facilities is build to store (use nuclear fuel). It this the true and it the passenger is robot, than all doubt clear!

Tw Tan
23rd February, 2012 @ 08:50 pm PST

So. unbreakable 96000km carbon cable, with counterweight. Diameter of Earth is just under 25000km. Lose counterweight somehow. Now we have an unbreakable cable wrapping itself around our home roughly 3 3/4 times. Hmmmm. Well it'll solve the middle east problem I guess. Moving to a temperate zone in 2049.

Ahura
23rd February, 2012 @ 09:51 pm PST

Recommended reading - The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke.

Alex Griffiths
23rd February, 2012 @ 10:38 pm PST

I agree with C. Grados.

Terrorism will be just one of many items to overcome.

I don't think it will ever be built.

MarkmBha
23rd February, 2012 @ 11:33 pm PST

gee where do I start.

For starters, the reason all geo-stat satellites are 36,000km up is cos that's the only height where they can be geostationary. So that counter-weight is at the wrong height.

Secondly, no material, not even carbon nanotubes can support its own weight over 96000 km. Even 9.6km is a real feat.

Thirdly, what will the passengers do up there?

Fourthly I think the 4 or 5 trillion dollars is on the light side. Maybe 4 or 5 quadrillion.

All that comes to mind out of this is that Obayashi Corp is finding the construction slow-down a bit tough and is trying to drum up business by getting in the news.

Sad that they even get the print-space. Maybe I should try to float my idea of colonising the surface of the sun... probably easier than this space elevator garbage.

Adrien
24th February, 2012 @ 02:05 am PST

I tried to calculate:

6378 Kilometer is the Earth Radius.

plus 96.000 Km for the counterweight makes a radius for that point of 102.378 km.

IERS says that the earth makes 7,29*10^-5 rad/s, what means 0,04 *1/h.

So the counterweight (How heavy it has to be?) needs a speed of v=0,04 1/h*102378km=4277km/h

Pretty fast i guess!

Geostationary Orbit is on a height of about 35.000 km what means a speed of 1728km/h. About 2,4 times faster speed needed for the counterweight.

Fun in the Exosphere i would say.

mariothereal
24th February, 2012 @ 03:40 am PST

This was in a magazine called Omni in the early 1980s

jamie-lill
24th February, 2012 @ 05:02 am PST

Seven days is far too long to use the cable for one way traffic. Cars must be designed to pass each other, so that traffic can go up and down at the same time.

piperTom
24th February, 2012 @ 05:55 am PST

re; Adrien

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Orbital mechanics is funny the faster you go the longer it takes to go around the primary. Thus thing you have just barely put into orbit take something like 90 minutes for a complete orbit but if you accelerate it greatly enough to raise it orbit to 36,000 kilometers it takes 24hours to make a complete orbit. The counter weight would not be in free orbit It is tethered to the ground forcing it to travel much lower than the orbit that its velocity would place it into. I have neither the time or math skills to say how far you would go but you could probably crash into the moon if you were to let go from the counter weight at the right time.

In other words the counter weight is not in orbit it is like a bucket full of water that you are swinging your head without any coming out.

You could in theory build an orbital tower out of high-tinsel steel but you have to taper the "cable" to both ends and at the point of maximum stress the "cable" would have to be over hundred miles wide. Carbon nano-tube tape will have to have a similarly tapered but the point of maximum stress will be significantly thinner.

Slowburn
24th February, 2012 @ 07:13 am PST

I agree with Jim Parker(from HJMS in EY?).

There must be better alternatives for resource allocation.

acorn
24th February, 2012 @ 07:44 am PST

How would you like to be up there when a typhoon is going on down below. It would give new meaning to the name "Terminal Station."

I believe the physics are right for the thing to stay up there, but the materials are the challenge. I do not think this will go far but it's fun to ponder.

CliffG
24th February, 2012 @ 08:42 am PST

But let one idiot with a pair of hedge clippers get near it and.............

Eddie Stair
24th February, 2012 @ 08:48 am PST

re; acorn

So you think that the owners of the resources shouldn't be able to do what the want with them. Opening up the solar-system to mining and colonization would be a great boon to man kind. Paying people to be poor has always lead to disaster.

Slowburn
24th February, 2012 @ 08:53 am PST

There are thousands of satellites circling the globe. Is there really a spot above which satellites don't traverse? Collision?

Bob Tackett
24th February, 2012 @ 09:05 am PST

What are the risk assenments for such an operation? Tonnado strikes, space debris cutting the "ribbon"; Solar Flare and magnetic field effects; satellites , current and future, orbits; lightning strikes (how easy would it be to ignite the carbon ribbon). These are just some obvious risks.

Harold Garey
24th February, 2012 @ 09:54 am PST

Among all the reasons NOT to do it, add economics to it as well. If (or when) Space X goes commercial by say 2020, competitors and shear volume of traffic will drive down the cost where this elevator may not be economically viable. But, unlike government efforts, private efforts will accomplish routine Near Earth Space travel most with greatest economy and expediancy. Besides, you think NIMBY is a problem NOW?....

Burnerjack
24th February, 2012 @ 11:21 am PST

"At that speed the journey is anticipated to take about a week"

A week? Heck, there are some people I wouldn't get into an elevator just to go up 2 floors! A week...um, no....

Ed
24th February, 2012 @ 11:56 am PST

Like, is it going to be earthquake/Tsunami proof? I doubt it. Will there be sushi bars about 1/100th way up, and restrooms, OR does one just hang it over the edge and hope the draft isn't going to push it your face. Just curious ya know!!

Richard C. Edmonds
24th February, 2012 @ 01:13 pm PST

re; Burnerjack

Once the space elevator is built no other method of orbital insertion will be able to compete.

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

re; Ed

A week of smooth motion with modern conveniences is not bad. When Butterfield's Overland Mail Line opened for business on 16 September 1858, the 2,795-mile journey between San Francisco and St. Louis required approximately three weeks of hard traveling,

Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/stagecoach-travel#ixzz1nLEwPYks

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

re; what will the passengers do up there?

If this is built there will be free fall industry.

Some will go just to go, others will have experiments they want to conduct.

At a price of a dollar a pound to the counterweight traveling to the asteroid belt in a homemade spaceship becomes possible even for the poor. A lot of the people will die but that did not stop my ancestors from crossing the Atlantic in undersized bathtub toys, or crossing the vast desolate plains in a covered wagon.

Slowburn
24th February, 2012 @ 03:04 pm PST

re; Richard C. Edmonds

I would expect accommodation like a Pullman car. Maybe there will even be a dining car.

Slowburn
24th February, 2012 @ 03:07 pm PST

The costruction would interfere with earth's rotation ands cause a wobblethat will continue forever. with unforeseen consequences, much worse than a major asteroid impact. exterminating humanity this time, talk about the tower of bable. and the flood.

jochair
24th February, 2012 @ 03:27 pm PST

I wish you people would learn to think outside of the box! No need to wait until 2050 it can be done now. With a combination of ground up support, which would consist of hot air/lighter than air platforms up to 100,000 feet. This is already feasible. All that is needed is the lighter end of gravity rope from the counterbalance to this point.. Will save a lot of weight problems!

Frostedpanda
24th February, 2012 @ 05:37 pm PST

re; jochair

The earth wobbles all the time. Are you trying to discredit Christians or stop space exploration with your ludicrous claims?

Slowburn
24th February, 2012 @ 05:38 pm PST

To tell you truth what is good is good but this is madness...

Okechukwu D Odinaka
25th February, 2012 @ 06:08 am PST

A large satellite located at 750 mph orbit sounds about right . A tether would reach down as far as possible and catch a launched vehicle . Perhaps the tether could act as a muscle and pull it up. to keep the satellite in orbit, pull something down to earth

Stewart Mitchell
25th February, 2012 @ 10:55 am PST

re: slowburn,

Huh?no discredit meant,as long as space exploration does not require moving earth out of the solar system. fine with me.

jochair
25th February, 2012 @ 03:11 pm PST

I remember a few years back a man making a miniature working model of a levitating saucer craft that rode up a laser directed through/into its center. the model was impressive, and he had a grander plan of a reactor powered platform for heavy cargo and passengers with a receiving geostationary dock for assembly and distribution purposes. A physical cable seems unworkable.

NYIDave
25th February, 2012 @ 07:35 pm PST

Impossible as well as impractical to build such a thing. For starters, from which end would one begin? If from the top, how do you capture the flailing end to anchor it? Then, how does one get around the tremendous amount of wind beating against the ribbon cable at high altitudes, let alone storms? What about lightning strikes?? What about a plane flying into the cable? If a coil of the stuff is payed out from a huge reel, how do you avoid setting it on fire with the high temps of the rocket engine exhaust? What about the carbon being attacked by high energy ionized Oxygen (that's Ozone for those of you who don't remember any of their high school chemistry classes) and other elements? Those are just a FEW of the highlights as to why it can't be done. Methinks that someone drank a little too much sake in an effort to curb their upset stomach after eating room temperature sushi.

Oh, and what about all of the tiny bits of space debris both in orbit now as well as incoming rocks?? Boy, just one little pebble could ruin your whole day!! Tiny flakes of paint moving at 17,000 MPH have caused damage to shuttle windows!! Everybody needs to take a couple of deep breaths and really think about this boondoggle.

Your ever humble logician servant,

Randy

Expanded Viewpoint
25th February, 2012 @ 08:44 pm PST

This thing will get built when the rich and powerful decide to build it. Here's one reason why. Turn out that He-3 is *much* easier to fuse than Deuterium and thus is a source of effectively unlimited energy, and unimaginable riches to whoever taps it first. It does not exist in quantity on Earth but the Moon is riddled with it. Once engineers like us figure out how to fuse the stuff, it becomes almost priceless and the space elevator will get built in a hurry so the rich guys can go send somebody to mine it and make themselves even richer.

History is full of "impossible" feats of engineering that became possible only because somebody with money and power decided to get it done. From the Pyramids to the Taj Majal, from the first accurate portable clock for ocean navigation to the US railroads that moved people one way and gold the other. From the atom bomb that put an early (but sickening) end to a long and miserable war, to the first nuclear reactors that allowed US and Soviet submarines to stay submerged for months as they played Cat and Mouse. All of it impossible, But like this one, they were *just* engineering feats. New materials and methods? Sure. But no new science.

It's just a matter of wanting to, and so far we have not wanted to. Put a pot of gold out there and it will happen in 20 years, maybe less.

"Follow the Money"

mlewus
25th February, 2012 @ 10:45 pm PST

Gee, if this is ever built, I wonder what would become the number one terrorist target in the world?

Fred Bryan
26th February, 2012 @ 12:31 am PST

re; Expanded Viewpoint

Q. From which end would one begin? A. The top this is a tension not compression structure.

Q. How do you capture the flailing end to anchor it? A. First you put enough weight on the end so it does not "flail" second the weight includes engines giving you active control over it.

Q. How does one get around the tremendous amount of wind beating against the ribbon cable at high altitudes, let alone storms? A. Wind load is taken care of by designing aerodynamically to reduce the load and by designing in enough strength to to accept the loads without failing.

Q. What about lightning strikes? A. Give the ribbon an appropriate electrical charge and it will repel lighting.

Q. What about a plane flying into the cable? A. Warning lights, radar reflectors, radio warning beacons, air defense systems.

Q. If a coil of the stuff is payed out from a huge reel, how do you avoid setting it on fire with the high temps of the rocket engine exhaust? (This is a Joke right.) A. High energy rockets will never be used near it because it will not be payed out like a guidance wire on a missile.

Q. What about the carbon being attacked by high energy ionized Oxygen (that's Ozone for those of you who don't remember any of their high school chemistry classes) and other elements? A. Give it a non-oxidizing coating.

Q. Oh, and what about all of the tiny bits of space debris both in orbit now as well as incoming rocks?? Boy, just one little pebble could ruin your whole day!! Tiny flakes of paint moving at 17,000 MPH have caused damage to shuttle windows!! A. Large debris will have to be removed during construction; paint flakes and other tiny debris will have to be absorbed by a shield of some sort. A high-energy laser or charged particle cannon would be useful as well. The space shuttle windshield pane with the crater in it landed without failing.

Everybody needs to take a couple of deep breaths and really think about this boondoggle.

You are the kind of person that insisted that the Golden Gate bridge could not be build and once it was finished said it would fall down with the first earthquake, neither of which were true.

Slowburn
26th February, 2012 @ 10:42 am PST

gee, I can't believe the number of people who think for a second this is even feasible. Obviously geometry isn't a strong suit.

density of carbon = 1800 kg / cu m

volume of sphere 96,000 km high with say 10m diameter = 7539816000 cu m

So, mass of carbon = 13,571,668,800 TONS. that's 13.571 BILLION tons. That means a 10m thick cable has to support 13 BILLION TONS. I don't go with the non-linear stress profile across length either.

that's at an incredibly thin 10m diameter. Say the diameter is 1km. The mass of carbon would go up to 135 TRILLION TONS.

You still think we can do it? Dream on. We have much bigger problems to solve than this.

Adrien
26th February, 2012 @ 01:51 pm PST

sorry, that should read volume of cylinder...

Adrien
26th February, 2012 @ 02:40 pm PST

Arthur C. Clarke wrote a book on this topic. It starts out with a Scientist who has this ultra stong, ultra thin "tape measure" sort of contraption. It's so thin you can't see it and you can slice through anything because its "thin-ness" makes it razor sharp. Clarke realized that the main problem with this space elevator was finding a material strong enough for the job.

warren52nz
26th February, 2012 @ 02:48 pm PST

re; Adrien

That is why the profile of the 'ribbon' must taper to the ends.

Slowburn
26th February, 2012 @ 07:14 pm PST

First of all a space port on Mount Everest, that's more than 8.8 kilometres high. Highest free standing structure allowed by current technology is 15 kilometres. That's a total of almost 24 kilometres. Now Using a gun like mechanism or a Rail gun like propulsion. Then any other propulsion can kick in. A space bridge can be built, from outwards to inwards, so that the bridge is not stressed. Utility is to service space based assets. But first the world's problems should be solved, Atleast people should not be dying of starvation, this is still happening and the horrors are hard to imagine.

Dawar Saify
27th February, 2012 @ 07:11 am PST

This will need all civilized governments (Japan, North America, Europe, Australia, South-East Asia) to complete it. No corporate consortium could even begin to attempt this, and at the rate that CEOs are compensated (for failure and just for the heck of it) they'll be averaging a billion dollars a year each by 2050, leaving nothing for the space elevator. Million dollar salaries, government oversight, and getting us off oil for good will help. We might also educate enough people to start using space for our benefit by sending them to University rather than charging them $15000 a year to go study "business."

Facebook User
27th February, 2012 @ 10:51 am PST

re; Dawar Saify

Trying to end starvation by shipping in food and giving it away or selling it at prices that put local farmers out of business has always failed long term.

Droughts mat trigger famine but the true cause of starvation today is Government action and bad cultural imperatives.

Slowburn
27th February, 2012 @ 02:32 pm PST

Carbon could be used for the tether in the form of buckytubes. These are monomolecular tubes composed of buckminster-fullerine carbon, in theory these could be grown to any length.although at the present time i believe that amillimetre or so is the longest grown. being a single molecule the strength is based on nuclear ties and theoretically would be unbreakable this is what Arthur C Clarke was describing with his ultra thin cable. To build the elevator would require many thousands of these strands wound together like a suspension bridge cable and would only need to be a meter or two thick

edgehillmole
27th February, 2012 @ 04:43 pm PST

re; Kasia Yechimowicz

If this is to be built governments must be kept as far away as possible.

Slowburn
27th February, 2012 @ 05:40 pm PST

I think that pneumatic free standing towers of some kind are more viable. By using weightless or lighter than air inflatible sections that link together, the enourmous stresses associated with the structure's height are diminished. Because the structure can float, it's lowest levels could be above weather systems (say at 80,000ft) whereas its higher regions could be in space.

here's one concept: http://nextbigfuture.com/2009/06/proposed-free-standing-inflatable-tower.html

inchiki
1st March, 2012 @ 03:37 pm PST

re; inchiki

It would be far more susceptible to the effects of weather.

Even if you built one that would lift a thousand tons to two hundred thousand feet it still won't lift things to orbit. You would still need to triple your altitude and accelerate to orbital velocity, this would require generating 1g+ acceleration which would require chemical or nuclear rocket. From the orbital tower's terminal station at Geo-stationary orbit you can use an ion rocket to assume any orbit you choose or to even leave orbit which will save a fortune in reaction mass and other costs.

Slowburn
5th March, 2012 @ 02:00 am PST

Earths weather happens in the "troposphere" above this it is calm. The troposphere is the region from ground/sea up to about 12km or there about. this is where humanity nearly exclusively operates.

So once your above this, weather is not a problem, nor planes as these fly exclusively (even the fancy fighter jets) in the troposphere (no/limited oxygen above this you see)

i like the concept of a "free ride into space" but until I see it, I will be a cynic.

The concept of a repeatable low cost launch platform will be better use of our limited resources. Such as a linear accelerator which does the heavy lifting out of earths gravity, then the ship would require much less payload to operate in space.

Much better than simply strapping yourself to thousands of kilograms of oxidizer and liquid fuel and solid booster rockets.

i see they would have sorted the hard part of designing linear accelerators by the use of maglev trains, the US militarys new Rail gun toy and theme park rides. The tech is all there, just need the money to make it.

As opposed to the "space elevator" lol where the tech isnt there, nor the money.

cm
5th March, 2012 @ 05:09 pm PST
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