At least two space elevator competitions took place recently, with relatively successful results (at least with regard to the long term):
Space Elevator Contest Heats Up**
Pull me up, Scotty. At least one team has qualified for part of a $2 million prize up for grabs in this year’s Space Elevator Games, a NASA-sponsored contest to build machines that can climb a cable in the sky – precursors for a futuristic transit system to space.
On Wednesday, an entry by the Washington state-based team LaserMotive climbed a 3,000-foot (900-meter) tether suspended by a helicopter at a speed of about 8 mph (13 kph). The feat was the best performance yet of a miniature space elevator prototype, though still a long shot away from what would be needed to carry humans to Earth orbit, as proponents envision.
The competition, called the Power Beaming Challenge, is being held this week at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert. It requires competitors to beam power from a remote source to propell their vehicles upward.
Space elevators were first popularized in the 1970s by the science fiction novels of Arthur C. Clarke, as a means to reach space without using a rocket. Instead, a ship could climb along a fixed structure, like a beam or cable, suspended in space by a permanent geostationary satellite 22,000 miles (35,000 km) above Earth. The sticking points are the need for a super-strong, yet light, material for the tether, and a good way to anchor the other end securely. Not to mention the vehicle to climb it.
That’s where the Space Elevator Games come in. Today offers a second chance for more climbers to compete, and any team that can power their entrant for an average speed of 11 mph (18 kph) will qualify for a portion of the total $2 million prize purse on offer. The competition is sponsored by the Spaceward Foundation and NASA’s Centennial Challenges program aimed to spur development in space exploration.
An attempt by the Kansas City Space Pirates on Wednesday fell short of the speed requirement. The climber from USST (University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team) is slated to compete today.
X-Prize Space Elevator Race Ends With No Winners
The Beamed Power and Tether Challenges at this year’s Wirefly X Prize Cup did not produce any prize winners, though teams came close in both competitions.
The winner of the Beamed Power Challenge had to create a crawler capable of climbing a 55-meter-long ribbon at a speed of at least one meter per second using external power (solar, infrared, microwave, laser, or other). The University of Saskatchewan (USST) crawler came closest, making the climb in 57 seconds, two seconds short, and it was unable to descend on its own power. However, USST can claim a first: they were the only team to hoist a cash payload aboard their space elevator: a Canadian $2 coin, a US $1 coin, a US $1 bill, and a tool tag.
Two other teams were scheduled to compete on Sunday, including “Punkworks,” which was to use microwave power, but neither team succeeded due to wind problems. USST made another attempt off-site on Sunday, operating with solar power only, but then the crawler lost alignment with the sun and slowed down. The prize will roll over to $500,000 next year.
Roger Gilbertson of the Spaceward Foundation was master of ceremonies for the Games. He suggested at least one “lesson learned” from this year’s competition. “This was the first time we held the competition in this environment [the middle of an airport]. We didn’t have the wind problem last year, so we’ll have to take that into account.” Gilbertson was impressed by the way teams helped each other. “We’ve invented a new word: ‘coopertition’.” This was demonstrated by the German team offering to loan USST a generator to power their light source in exchange for a percentage of their prize money; in another case, the Kansas City Space Pirates offered to rent their mirrors to USST to assist with their lift.
The other part of the Space Elevator Games, the Tether Challenge, required teams to produce lightweight (2 grams or .07 ounces) two-meter tethers capable of exceeding the strength of a “house” tether. Only one team qualified for the competition, as the other three tethers were too short. These competed anyway, with the winner being the only tether longer than two meters. In head-to-head competition with the house tether, the Astroaraneae tether broke at a force of 1,330 pounds. This year’s house tether could withstand up to 1,660 pounds of force. If the winning team had run last year, they would have won; last year’s house tether had a breaking strength of 1,240 pounds.
Dr. Brad Edwards of the Spaceward Foundation noted that “The house and Astroaraneae tethers both achieved over 80% of the expected theoretical strength of the raw material.” This bodes well for future competitions. According to a report by the LiftPort Group, which is designing and developing space elevator technologies (and helped judge the Elevator Games),** if material strengths continue to advance at the current pace, a functioning space elevator may be built as early as 2031. **