With the flick of a switch, a searchlight beam illuminated a photovoltaic array, and a prototype space elevator called Snow Star One lifted off the ground. As the humble assemblage of solar cells, metal braces and off-the-shelf rollers rose slowly from the launch pad and up a long blue tether, a small crowd of spectators let out a boisterous cheer.

The contraption, designed by University of British Columbia undergrads Steve Jones and Damir Hot, didn’t get very far — it managed to wriggle its way just 15 feet up the 200-foot-long tether before stalling out. But as the first competitor in the inaugural Space Elevator Games, even that modest performance was enough to cause a quite stir in the still-embryonic space elevator community.

The games, sponsored by the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation, were held over the weekend at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Teams competed in one of two events: a light-beam-powered robot climbing competition and a tether-strength contest.

According to many engineers, within a couple of decades it will be both possible and cost-effective to construct a fixed line from the Earth’s equator to a satellite 60,000 miles out in space. The tether would likely be made of carbon nanotubes, a still-experimental material with the potential to be 300 times stronger than steel. According to current imaginings, elevator cars weighing up to 20 tons would go up and down, powered by high-intensity earthbound lasers aimed at photovoltaic cells on their undersides.

But with both nanotubes and beam power still a long way off, NASA has decided to try to speed things up by offering prizes to innovators who reach key development milestones in the next few years.

On the beam-power side, the challenge at the games was to use a 10,000-watt light source to send a robot 50 meters up the ribbon in under 50 seconds. For the tether competition, the goal was to construct a 2-gram tether that would be tougher than a 3-gram band made from a high-strength material called Zylon. The best-performing robot and tether, had they beaten those figures, would have earned their owners $50,000 each.

At the climbing competition, however, it wasn’t just Jones and Hot that had trouble making it all the way to the top. A contingent of engineering students from the University of Saskatchewan did manage to send their climber 40 feet in the air. But none of the five other teams was able to corral enough power from the searchlight even to get off the launch gantry.

Despite the lackluster performance, however, most participants were upbeat about the proceedings. Hot, for one, was ecstatic. “It’s the first beam-powered climber ever,” he said. “So we’re very proud. In fact, we’re beaming.”

By Mike Nowak

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