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Space elevator team wins $900,000 from NASA

A Seattle-based team has won $900,000 in this year's Space Elevator Games, a NASA-sponsored contest to build machines powered by laser beams that can climb a cable in the sky.
Image: LaserMotive climber
LaserMotive's David Bashford, right, prepares a laser-powered robotic climber for a run on Wednesday. The LaserMotive team won a $900,000 prize in the NASA-backed Power Beaming Challenge.Reed Saxon / AP
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A Seattle-based team has won $900,000 in this year's Space Elevator Games, a NASA-sponsored contest to build machines powered by laser beams that can climb a cable in the sky.

The homemade cable-climber built by the LaserMotive team climbed a 3,000-foot (900-meter) tether suspended by a helicopter at a speed of 8 mph (3.7 meters per second or 13 kilometers per hour) during a Wednesday attempt.

LaserMotive's robot climber managed to get all the way up the cable four times in two days, with a best time of about 3 minutes and 48 seconds (translating to a speed of 3.9 meters per second).

The feat was the best performance yet for a miniature space elevator prototype and qualified LaserMotive to win the lower-level prize of NASA's $2 million Power Beaming Challenge this week at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert. The contest requires competitors to beam power from a remote source to propel their vehicles up a quarter-inch-thick steel cable dangling from a helicopter.

The 2009 Space Elevator Games are the first in which prize money has been awarded. This year's event was "a very successful competition," said Andy Petro, director of NASA's Centennial Challenges program. "Power beaming is truly a 21st-century technology."

Despite LaserMotive's success, it is still a long way away from what would be needed to carry humans to Earth orbit, as proponents envision.

Space elevators were first popularized in the 1970s by the science fiction novels of Arthur C. Clarke, as a means to reach space without using a rocket. Instead, a ship could climb along a fixed structure, like a beam or cable, suspended in space from a permanent geostationary satellite 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) above Earth. The sticking points are the need for a super-strong yet light material for the tether, and a good way to anchor the other end securely. Not to mention the vehicle to climb it.

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That's where the Space Elevator Games come in. Teams were required to use beamed power to send their robot up the cable at an average speed of at least 4.5 mph (2 meters per second or 7.2 kilometers per hour) in order to qualify for a portion of the $2 million prize purse. The competition is sponsored by the Spaceward Foundation and NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which is aimed to spur development in space exploration.

An attempt by the Kansas City Space Pirates on Wednesday fell short of the speed requirement and got stuck partway up the cable during a Friday climb attempt. A climber built by the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team was unable to compete during the three-day contest because of a series of technical glitches, NASA officials said.

Had LaserMotive's entry managed to climb the entire length of the cable in under 3 minutes, at an average speed of 5 meters per second, it would have won the entire $2 million prize. As it stands, $1.1 million in prize money remains available for future competitions, contest organizers said.