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Beam me up ... for a prize!

Reed Saxon / AP
  LaserMotive's David Bashford, right,

  prepares a robotic climber for its

  ascent on Wednesday.

Just days after $1.65 million was won in a NASA-backed rocket contest, it looks as if big money will be awarded in the $2 million Power Beaming Challenge as well.

Like the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the Power Beaming Challenge is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges, a program aimed at encouraging new technologies that could be adopted by the space agency for future exploration. This particular competition could eventually lay the groundwork for future space elevators - but power-beaming technology is likely to be put to work even if those space elevators are never built.

Teams entered in the challenge have been working on robotic transport systems that can be remotely powered by laser beams to climb up a long steel cable. The contest, part of the Space Elevator Games managed by the Spaceward Foundation, started up in 2005 and has been getting progressively harder every year.

This year, the teams have to get their laser-powered robots to zoom up to a height of 1 kilometer  (0.6 mile) on a cable that's attached to a helicopter hovering above NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California's Mojave Desert.

To win the big money, it's not enough just to get up to the top: To qualify for a $900,000 prize, the robot has to maintain an average speed of at least 2 meters (6.6 feet) per second. That's about as fast as Batman would rise on his super-strong bat rope in the movies, the Spaceward Foundation's Ben Shelef told me back in August. To qualify for an additional $1.1 million, the robot would have to go even faster: 5 meters (16.4 feet) per second.

Today LaserMotive, one of the three teams competing for the cash, sent its robot up the track in just a little more than four minutes, at an average speed of 3.72 meters per second. That's fast enough to qualify for the $900,000. Now it's up to the other teams - the Kansas City Space Pirates and the University of Saskatchewan's USST team - to see if they can claim a share of the prize as well.

The formula for determining how much money goes to whom under which circumstances is rather complicated - and rather than troubling you with the math, I'll just point you to the competition handbook.

Spaceward via Ustream
LaserMotive's climber rises to vie for a prize.

The Spaceward Foundation came up with the power-beaming contest - plus another competition that encourages the development of super-strong tether materials - in order to encourage technologies that would be needed to build a space elevator to Earth orbit. If such a system could be created, it would revolutionize access to outer space. But NASA says power-beaming technology would be of use long before such elevators are built.

If the technology is perfected, it could be used to keep remote-controlled rovers moving on the moon or Mars, even in situations where sunlight isn't available. Power-beaming also happens to be a key technology for transmitting solar power from space. In the shorter term, better laser control systems could have military applications as well.

The best way to stay on top of the ups and downs is to watch streaming video offered via Here are other ways to track the power-beamers: 

Update for 7:50 p.m. ET Nov. 5: LaserMotive improved their time by about 13 seconds during another series of runs on Thursday. Their best performance resulted in an estimated climbing speed just shy of 4 meters per second. The two other teams weren't able to make the required climb today, but the competition continues on Friday.

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