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What is a Space Elevator?

L. S. Wynn
By L. S. Wynn
Updated May 21, 2024
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A space elevator is a revolutionary means of transport from earth into space. Here is how it would work. First a stable platform, similar to an oil rig would be built in the sea. Then a rocket would launch a special satellite into space that would position itself in geo-stationary orbit over the platform. This means that the satellite would remain directly over the platform for its entire deployment. Next the satellite would begin to drop a ribbon or tether all the way down to earth. New technologies in nanotechnology are making the development of a light-weight but strong tether possible. Once the tether reached the platform, it would be attached.

Specially designed vehicles would shuttle up and down the 100,000 km (62,000 mile) tether from earth to space. The trip would take about a week and the vehicle could be powered by a laser beam sent from earth. There are a few technological hurdles but the experts working on the research are confident that the difficulties could be overcome.

The best way to realize the benefits of a space elevator are to consider the conventional method of reaching space. Rocket launching is expense and inefficient for at least three major reasons: 1) rocket fuel is dangerous and expensive 2) the rockets themselves are generally not reusable 3) if the free-flying spacecraft are intended to return to earth, they must be equipped with heat sheids to withstand the immense heat generated by re-entry.

A space elevator bypasses all of the inefficiencies of traditional space travel: single-use rockets and expensive rocket-fuel are not required. Furthermore, re-entry into earth's atmosphere is done at relatively slow speeds so heat shields are not required. These benefits are expected to drop the cost of going to space from the current $15,000 per kg ($6,800 per pound) to as low as $50 per kg ($23 per pound).

The elevator could be used to release satellites into space. People could also ride up to experience weightlessness. Space vehicles destined for more distant locations, could also ride up the elevator and take off from the station at the top; this would drastically reduce the cost for long-range space travel. Once the first elevator was established it could be used to deploy the satellites required for further elevators. Perhaps it is this technology that could bring space travel into the mainstream.

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Discussion Comments
By anon934717 — On Feb 21, 2014

Space anchors don't exist. If one pulls on an object in orbit, it comes down.

By anon266061 — On May 04, 2012

Stupid idea, will not work. Perpetual motion does not exist. Assuming that an object would ever reach the space platform, its energy status would be the same as if it had to be sent up by rocket energy, and the energy needed to get it up there is almost the same. Any force applied to an aircraft in geostationary orbit will get it out of the orbit. Sending an object up an elevator implies a force applied on the "rope", thus putting the upper end of the rope and anything attached to it out of orbit.

The mass necessary to allow neglect of the effect of traction on the rope is so enormous that the energy to get that mass in orbit will not pay for the goods that are supposed to be transported.

The only theoretical possibility for that system to work, would be to use a mass that is already in orbit, like the moon, with the problem that it is not geostationary.

By GiraffeEars — On Jun 05, 2011

@anon2713- I would agree with you about the challenges of designing a base strong enough to hold an Earth space elevator, but I think there is promise in the idea for other planets. If NASA placed a space elevator on Mars (theoretical assumption), there would be much less gravitational force. This would mean a much shorter cable and a much more manageable base design.

This is purely science fiction at this point, but a space elevator on a planet like Mars would be possible with current technology and enough money. This could be a good way to ferry payloads to the surface to create a Mars station or support a mineral extraction operation. Who knows, maybe a hundred years in the future, humans will be taking commercial flights to mars, docking at a space station and taking a space elevator to the planet's surface.

By irontoenail — On Jun 05, 2011

I've heard that gravity and the technology to overcome it is the main problem right now and they are very close to fixing this problem.

They have had the ability to make a space elevator on the moon or even mars for several decades, but those places have a much lower gravity. And unfortunately, the space race is over for now, so there isn't all that much money going into the programs.

Maybe now that some people are starting to see the tourism value in space, the development of an elevator will become likely. Until then, we just have to wait.

By pleonasm — On Jun 05, 2011

I have always been so excited about the idea of a space elevator. They've been talking about them for well over a hundred years now, and the idea has made its way into a lot of science fiction.

It's just a matter of developing the technology until we can do it. Then, even if big things can't be shuttled up, smaller things can and then be assembled in orbit.

If there was a space elevator, there would be no need for shuttles to ever land on Earth at all, because anything they needed to return here, including perhaps people, could make the trip via the elevator. Spare parts could go up the other way, as could things like mined minerals from mars or the moon.

It would make everything so much cheaper and easier, space would become a viable place for research, or even tourism. I hope this happens one day. I'm going to be so disappointed if it never does.

By anon84002 — On May 13, 2010

Thank you. This article is very helpful for my school project.

By anon2713 — On Jul 22, 2007

So, we are talking about millions of Newton meter torque at the base? Sounds like a problem to me.

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