Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lift could take passengers straight into space

By Jon Swaine

Japanese scientists are attempting to build a lift that will take passengers 62,000 miles into space.

The project could see the realisation of a vision that has inspired science fiction writers for generations.

A Nasa image of how a 'space elevator' might look
A Nasa image of how a 'space elevator' might look

The lift's carriages, which will themselves require new feats of engineering, would move up and down 22,000 mile-long cables.

Those cables would need to be stronger and lighter than any material ever woven.

They would be anchored to the ground and disappear into the sky, eventually reaching a satellite docking station orbiting above the Earth.

Scientists hope that as well as carrying human passengers, the carriages could also haul huge, solar-powered generators that could power homes and businesses back on Earth. It could also remove barrels of nuclear waste, dumping them into space.

"Just like travelling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space," Shuichi Ono, chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association, told The Times.

Japan's promise to spend £5 billion on the project has sparked swift reaction from other quarters: several competing space lift projects are now believed to be under way, with Nasa among those involved.

An international conference is to be held in Japan in November, aiming to draw up a detailed timetable for the machine's production.

One of the biggest challenges is expected to be producing a fabric for the lift's cables. It must be extremely light while also resilient enough to resist the various matter that it will be struck by in space. It is expected that an answer will be found in carbon nanotubes - microscopic particles woven into fibres.

Professor Yoshio Aoki, a director of Japan's Space Elevator Association and a professor of precision machinery engineering at Nihon University, said the cables would need to be 180 times stronger than steel. It would also need to four times stronger than the strongest carbon nanotube fibre ever produced, he added.

On the question of how the lift's carriages will be powered, Prof Aoki said: "We are thinking of using the technology employed in our bullet trains.

"Carbon nanotubes are good conductors of electricity, so we are thinking of having a second cable to provide power all along the route."

It is thought the concept of the lift was first envisioned by the great sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, in his 1979 book The Fountains of Paradise.

Original here

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