Image: Climber competition
Elevator2010.org
One of the marquee events in a proposed space elevator competition would be a climber race, shown in this artist's conception. The mechanical climbers would be required to lift a payload up a 60-meter cable, with power provided by an intense light beam shining on photoelectric cells.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/27/2004 10:37:05 PM ET 2004-08-28T02:37:05

Enthusiasts on Friday unveiled an effort to establish an annual competition for space-elevator technologies, taking a page from the playbook for other high-tech contests such as the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Many of the details surrounding the "Elevator:2010" challenge — including financing — still have to be fleshed out, however.

The project, spearheaded by the California-based Spaceward Foundation, would focus on innovations in fields that could open the way for payloads to be lifted into space by light-powered platforms. Such platforms, also known as climbers, would move up and down superstrong ribbons rising as high as 62,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) above Earth's surface.

From fiction to fact
The space elevator concept goes back to vintage science fiction — with emphasis on the "fiction." But in the past couple of years, researchers at institutions such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center have been looking into ways to turn the idea into reality.

If space elevators could actually be built, the cost of sending payloads into space could be reduced from $10,000 or more per pound (455 grams) to $100 or less — opening up a revolutionary route to the final frontier. Like the X Prize for private spaceflight, Elevator:2010 is aimed at jump-starting the revolution.

"We firmly believe that the set of technologies that underlie the infinite promise of the space elevator can be demonstrated, or proven infeasible, within a five-year time frame," the Web site for the competition declares. "And hence our name. Elevator:2010. We promise to get an answer for you by then."

In order to work, the elevator's ribbons would have to be made of materials stronger than any that exist today; carbon nanotube composites are the current favorites. Conventional rockets would launch components of the elevator, which would be anchored to an Earth station to form a bridge to outer space.

Most of the current schemes call for the climbers to be powered by sunlight and/or intense artificial light focused onto photoelectric cells. The climbers would ride on the ribbons like rail cars.

Enlisting student teams
Elevator:2010 seeks to encourage technology development through annual contests that start small: One contest would pit climber prototypes against each other in races up a roughly 200-foot (60-meter) ribbon. A second contest would focus on developing better materials for the ribbons, and a third would encourage construction of power-beaming systems.

The first competition is tentatively scheduled for next June or July in the San Francisco Bay area, said Ben Shelef, a member of the Elevator:2010 team. That time frame would give student teams at universities enough time to build light-powered climbers — just as teams of engineering students build solar-powered vehicles during the school year for the American Solar Challenge.

"We've gotten feedback from the universities, so we know it's feasible," Shelef said. "It's the same thing as the solar cars, but on steroids."

The fastest-moving climber would earn its team a $50,000 prize, with a $20,000 second prize and a $10,000 third prize. The strongest ribbon would win a $10,000 first prize, and the best power-beaming system could win $10,000.

Details of the ribbon and power-beaming competitions have yet to be fleshed out, and the financial foundation of the entire challenge depends on sponsorships yet to be announced. The Silicon Valley mechanical design company where Shelef works, Gizmonics Inc., is listed as an initial sponsor.

"We are working with several large organizations on collaborating with the competition, but since we want to allow universities to consider this ahead of the academic school year, we have decided to announce the competition now, and will be releasing details soon about our partners," Shelef wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

Shelef said an even grander challenge, on the scale of the Ansari X Prize, would be announced in the months ahead.

"We want to surpass the X Prize," Shelef said, referring to that competition's $10 million purse.

"Ben's doing a lot of good work on the competition, and I think it will be fantastic," Bradley C. Edwards, a leading researcher in the space elevator movement, said in an e-mail interview. "There are lots of challenges to doing it, but it will be worth the effort."

Edwards recently left his post as research director at the Institute for Scientific Research, and said he now serves as president of two companies developing materials and technology for space elevators. He said "we are hoping to have the event alongside the next space elevator conference — a good combination."

Is it good business?
Michael Laine, president of the LiftPort Group, a Seattle-area company that is working to commercialize space elevator technologies, was similarly supportive: He said the contest was a "terrific" idea — even though he wasn't sure how much LiftPort would be involved in the competition.

"What they're proposing is going to be technically challenging, but just like the solar cars, it can only do good things. It can only help move things forward," he said. "But how much am I going to put into the competition? I don't know yet. I haven't balanced that out. The robot that we have built is very different from what it will take to win the competition."

For example, Laine said LiftPort's "Mighty Mouse 2" climber robot is battery-powered rather than beam-powered, and measures roughly 5 feet by 5 inches by 5 inches. (1.5 meters by 12.7 centimeters square).

"The robot that they're looking for in their competition is going to be much bigger than my robot. ... At some point I'm going to have to balance what's commercially viable for my company versus my really strong desire to win," Laine said.

Despite his ambivalence, Laine said his business would benefit from anything that raised public awareness about space elevators and reduced what others might call the "giggle factor." In a similar vein, Laine said he was preparing to announce a collaboration with researchers at a well-known engineering institution.

"For so long, this was a science-fiction concept," Laine said, "and now that people are seeing that serious people are doing research on this, they'll start to think, 'Oh, maybe we should get involved, too.'"

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