Final frontier just an elevator ride away, entrepreneurs say
Welcome aboard the space elevator folks. Our first stop will be the Bigelow Hotel where some of you will depart for a vacation among the stars; we will then continue on to Geosynchronous Way where the rest of you will transfer to an L5 shuttlecraft. The trip takes 7 days, so sit back and enjoy the breathtaking scenes from your luxury suite.
This scenario is fiction of course, but according to visionaries, the space elevator, a proposed new radical means of transportation from Earth to space could be operational by the 2020s.
Here’s how this bold concept will work: a special rocket-launched satellite would drop a paper-thin ribbon 30” wide made from incredibly strong carbon nanotubes, to a platform in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. The ribbon will extend 62,000 miles high, and, powered by laser-generated electricity, will lift 20-ton loads of people and freight into space at 120 mph. Two startups, Michael Laine’s Liftport Group, and Brad Edwards’ Sedco both believe they can turn this audacious idea into reality by as early as the 2020s at costs ranging from $10-to-20 billion.
The main forces behind this bold technology include (1), industry recognition of the huge market potential for a cheaper way of getting people and materials into space and (2), expected advances in carbon nanotube production, the critical material needed to construct the ribbon.
Proponents predict the space elevator will lower costs of hauling stuff into space from $10,000 per-pound to $100; and eventually to $10. “As soon as we can build it, we should build it,” claims Los Alamos researcher and space expert Bryan Laubsher. Just as the transcontinental railroad opened the West in 1869, “I feel the space elevator is going to be such a paradigm shift in space access,” he said.
Many companies are positioning themselves to grab a share of what is expected to be the financial bonanza of the 21st century. Nanotech giant Arrowhead Research recently acquired Carbon Nanotech (renamed Unidym). Given its immense portfolio of carbon nanotubes-related intellectual property, a space ride may be in Unidym’s future.
Others that could play a supporting role in space elevator development include Nanomix with their carbon nanotubes-based sensors, and D-Wave, which seeks to construct the first quantum computer – a device that theoretically could run the many complex calculations needed to make the space elevator safe.
And bigger companies like General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and BASF could join the space elevator bandwagon. GE has created what it considers the ideal carbon nanotube, HP is commercializing nanotech-based products, and BASF is investing $221 million into nanotech because it expects to reap $60 billion in revenues from the science by 2011.
Economical access to space may also provide synergy to other projects. Entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Robert Bigelow dream of getting private citizens into space for vacations and jobs, which could spark a multi-billion dollar space tourism industry and launch what many predict, will be the most lucrative commerce effort in history – asteroid mining – with revenues expected in the quadrillions.
Forward-thinkers believe development of the space elevator is crucial for the future of space exploration. Let’s get ready to experience this awe-inspiring “magical future.”