In a few days a team of Japanese researchers will try to make a scientific dream more than 120 years old a reality; connecting Earth to space with an elevator. Still in its infancy, such a concept could only come to life in real conditions by 2050 at best.
French singer Calogero dreamed about it in his famous song ‘En Apesanteur,’ or ‘Weightlessness,’ and this is what Japanese researchers could one day make a reality; boarding a lift to space. As absurd as it may seem, the project could not be more serious. On September 11th, a team from the Faculty of Engineering at Shizuoka University, a coastal city on the Pacific coast of the Japanese archipelago, plans to launch a prototype of a space lift.
The device that these daring Japanese scientists intend to put into orbit consists of two small cubic satellites of about four inches on each side. Between them, a 32-foot steel cable will be stretched, connecting two points of space with a cable car. This crate is a small motorised box two and a half inches long and one inch wide and deep, which would travel in one direction, then in the other, along the cable.
The first in the world
‘It's going to be the first experiment in the world to test lift movement in space,’ says one of the spokespersons for the Asian university enthusiastically to AFP. A world first that will be conducted with the help of a Japanese H-IIB launcher and, if it ends up being a success, will make this 120 year-old dream a reality.
This dream was conceived for the first time in 1895 by the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky after his visit to the Eiffel Tower. But to bring this concept out of the realm of science-fiction books, which have been popular for decades now, the challenges are daunting. The first of them are material constraints.
Capable of resisting against their own weight, they must at the same time be very light. The feather weight will also have to handle the traction of the space elevator’s cable, the centrifugal force generated by the rotation of its mechanisms, as well as the lunar, solar and terrestrial gravitational power. The Earth’s atmosphere also represents a serious threat to the device which will be subject to strong winds at that high of an altitude.
A little patience…
If the experiment panned for a few days time is conclusive, despite all the technical difficulties that could jeopardise its success, then it will be necessary to wait until the 2050s as best to be able to take a seat on a real space lift.
In collaboration with the Japanese manufacturer Obayashi Corp., researchers from Shizuoka University intend, in thirty years time, to place a space station in geostationary orbit, nearly 23,000 miles above our heads. This machine would be directly connected by a carbon nano-tube cable to a floating port 1300 feet in diameter anchored in the Pacific Ocean.
The only problem is that the current technology for manufacturing nano-carbon tubes could not produce the quantities needed to manufacture the huge connecting cable. Another problem, noted by the engineer Keith Henson, are that the considerable forces that the carbon fibres would have to undergo would irremediably make them unwind, just like the nylon mesh on an cheap pair of tights…
The Japanese research team however remains optimistic about the future of the project it has set out to achieve. ‘In theory, a space lift is definitely possible. Space travel could become something very popular in the future,’ said Yoji Ishikawa, an engineer at Shizuoka University. In the meantime, all we can do is hope, and perhaps even sing that Calogero tune!