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Elevator Games aim high

The million-dollar Space Elevator Games, scheduled for Oct. 19-21 in Utah, is due to hit new heights this year, in more ways than one. Last year, the total purse was $400,000 - and one of the teams came oh-so-close to winning a prize. This year, NASA's Centennial Challenge program has more than doubled the money being offered ... more teams are getting more serious about chasing those bigger prizes ... the speed and height requirements have been doubled as well ... and a kid-friendly competition has been added to the games.

The Space Elevator Games' marquee event is the Beam Power Challenge, in which clattering contraptions covered with photoelectric cells compete to climb up a long ribbon. The idea is that this technology will be required if anyone ever were to build a real space elevator to send robotic climbers up tens of thousands of miles, to orbital heights. But beam-power systems could have other, less ambitious applications as well - for example, laser-powered spaceships or rovers - and that's why NASA is putting up the $500,000 prize money.

The same goes for the second NASA-backed event: the Tether Challenge. This competition rewards folks who come up with stronger ribbon materials - perhaps carbon nanotube fabrics that could be used in those future space elevators, or in the next generation of lightweight composites.

This is the third year for the Space Elevator Games - which were conducted in California in 2005, and in conjunction with the X Prize Cup in New Mexico last year. In each of last year's challenges, one team stood out from the crowd but didn't end up in the winner's circle. For the robo-climbers, it was the University of Saskatchewan for the robo-climbers; for the tethers, the standout was Astroaraneae.

This year, the two favorites will be back, joined by 20 other registered teams.

Some of the teams already are deeply into testing their rigs, said Ben Shelef, chief executive officer of the California-based Spaceward Foundation, which is managing the games on NASA's behalf. "From what we've seen of the teams so far, we're looking forward to an exciting race to the finish this year," Shelef said in a news release issued Wednesday.

Ted Semon, a spokesman for Spaceward as well as the proprietor of the Space Elevator Blog, said this year's competitions at the Davis County Event Center outside Salt Lake City could mark a major milestone for the games.

"We've got a pretty good shot at awarding some money this year," Semon told me today.

It will take much more than last year's best effort to win the prize, however: The beam-powered climbers must rise an average of 2 meters per second for 50 seconds, compared with last year's 1-meter-per-second requirement. The test tethers will have to take at least 50 percent more stress than a "house tether" that represents the state of the art.

If there's one winner in a competition, the successful team gets the full $500,000 for that particular contest. But if multiple teams make the final cut, the performances will be ranked, and the purse will be divvied up among up to three teams.

NASA's Centennial Challenges program paid its first prize money earlier this year, in the $200,000 Astronaut Glove Challenge, and program manager Ken Davidian said he's looking forward to awarding another check.

"I am excited and impressed with the evolution and level of technical maturity demonstrated by the teams in both the Tether and Beam Power Challenges," he said in the news release. "Over the past 24 months, individual teams started from scratch, have grown continually, have coalesced into communities and are on the verge of accomplishing substantial achievements worthy of a Centennial Challenges prize."

Spaceward Foundation
The "Light Racers" contest is a drag race

for beam-powered model cars.

But wait ... there's more: This year Spaceward is adding a "Light Racers" contest that will be within the price range of kids as well as grown-ups. Competitors will have to build remote-control cars that get their power via a spotlight and photoelectric cells. The cars that set the best times on a 100-foot drag-racing course could earn prizes of up to $500.

Spaceward hopes that schools will take on the "Light Racers" challenge for classroom projects. "We are thrilled to have added an educational component where kids can take part in the competition," Spaceward's president, Meekk Shelef, said in the news release. "Reaching out to the scientists and engineers of the future is the most important thing we do."

Will all this tinkering really lead to a real space elevator? Even if it doesn't, NASA says the innovations that result will push the frontiers of earthly technology and space exploration. But Bradley Edwards, one of the pioneers of the space elevator concept and a Spaceward adviser, says the games are definitely on the right track:

"The Space Elevator Games, with their emphasis on strong tethers and power beaming, represent the road to building the space elevator," he said in the news release. "We hope their cumulative effort on the engineering community will enable further effort in this direction."